From the Sonoran to the South Loop
A conversation with the new President of Columbia College Chicago, Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim.
The tenth President of Columbia College Chicago may have officially taken office on July 1, 2013, but Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim’s connection to the South Loop really began when he was just a little boy.
In the early 1960s, a Shell sign with the petroleum company’s seashell logo was mounted atop the building at 624 S. Michigan Ave. The sign was gigantic, rectangular, and visible for miles with its crisp red lettering and brilliant yellow lights illuminating the Chicago skyline. Those lights and colors fascinated a young Kwang-Wu, who grew up and lived in Hyde Park with his parents.
“I would be inconsolable until I saw that Shell sign,” he says. “I would not go to sleep. There were many times when my parents would have to drive me from Hyde Park on Lake Shore Drive just so I could see the sign.”
Times have changed. The Shell sign is long gone. The college has since purchased 624 S. Michigan Ave., along with more than a dozen other buildings, and transformed the South Loop into an urban campus. And after leaving Chicago to embark on a journey that included earning a BA in philosophy from Yale University, a doctorate in musical arts from Johns Hopkins University, as well as having served in leadership positions across the country and throughout academe, Dr. Kim has returned to the city to lead Columbia College Chicago into the next chapter of its history.
A few days after Dr. Kim began his presidency, we sat down with him to talk about his decision to come to Columbia College Chicago, his thoughts on the value and importance of the liberal arts and sciences at the college, music, college affordability, what he’s looking for in hiring the next Provost, and what he makes of the overwhelming support surrounding his selection.
Brent White: You mentioned at one of the open fora on campus last February that Columbia’s liberal arts and sciences emphasis significantly contributed to your desire to apply for the position as President. Why?
Dr. Kim: The idea of educating people for a specific profession is a very obsolete model. It assumes that the world is fairly static, and that you can bring young people in and four or five years later they will have whatever they need to succeed in a career as if that career hasn’t changed. Today’s college graduate will have five to eight different careers … not different jobs, different careers.
So, the question then is how is an undergraduate education helping to prepare students for careers that they are not even imagining at the time? You’re not doing that by giving them specific skills. You’re doing that by giving them proficiencies and capacity, and that can only be done through a broader way of educating students, which is not so much about content, but more about learning how to learn—learning how to transfer knowledge.
And that’s what the liberal arts are about, because nobody thinks that with a BA in any of the liberal arts you’re an expert. You have just acquired a set of approaches to learning, which I think is an advantage throughout one’s lifetime. That piece at Columbia College Chicago is critically important, because otherwise we’re not really doing what we say we’re doing, which is trying to find a way to guarantee that the education we provide students is going to be helpful to them over the course of their lifetimes.
White: So, you wouldn’t have considered the position if the college didn’t have a liberal arts and sciences emphasis?
Dr. Kim: No. I’ve been the president of a conservatory of music before, and while it has its appeal because the level is extremely high and there’s a commonality of purpose that makes certain kinds of conversations much easier, the outcome is limited.
White: There is an important balance for Columbia students between the immersion in the liberal arts and sciences and the immersion in one’s creative practice. Having earned a BA in philosophy and a doctorate in musical arts, how has your own education and experience in the liberal arts contributed to your creative life?
Dr. Kim: I don’t think the relationship is one of contributing to my creative life—it’s one of expanding my creative life. I think I’m a perfect example of the idea that one is not defined by what one does, specifically in any area of creative endeavor, but that one uses the knowledge that one acquires through the acquisition of that creative endeavor in a broad variety of settings. I didn’t go to school to be a president, but much of what I learned as a musician is applicable to what I’m expected to be able to do now.
White: It used to be that society looked to artists, especially in times of turmoil, as public intellectuals—to comment on the issues of the day, and not just create beautiful things. Do you think it’s still necessary for today’s artists and creative thinkers to be public intellectuals?
Dr. Kim: I don’t think everyone has to have that goal in mind; that’s too much pressure. I think there are plenty of people who simply say, “I just want to do what I want to do.” You have to make space for that.
However, there are different ways of making an impact on the world. I think standing on one’s own as a significant public intellectual whose creative practice is really a direct commentary on some aspect of human experience is powerful. But I’m a great believer that those quiet doers who just focus on something and develop a skill also make an impact in a different way. So, I think it’s a broad continuum.
I actually don’t think there has been any lessening of the sense of the creative individual as someone who occupies a unique position, in terms of a relationship to society and an ability to observe, comment, and influence. I think that still exists.
White: How ought Columbia prepare our students to be public intellectuals?
Dr. Kim: That’s where the liberal arts piece is important. You can’t be a public intellectual if your mind is not open.
White: There are many things that make Columbia great, including—and especially—our faculty members. How do we continue to attract and retain the best instructors?
Dr. Kim: My observation, which I don’t know if it’s a completely correct one, is that the tenure process and mechanisms associated with faculty evaluation at that level are very new here and a little loose, based on what I’m seeing. When I heard that it’s only been several years since as a part of that process there were required external letters of evaluation, I was shocked to hear that, because that’s a fundamental piece of the tenure process. Clearly, there is some room there to get a little bit more up to speed so that we are more in the mainstream, because that’s important for faculty members who are looking at an institution. They want to make sure that those pieces of how they are going to be measured make sense.
I actually think that—again, without knowing too much about it—but my sense is that graduate education at this institution is in disarray. I don’t know what the optimal balance is between undergraduate and graduate students. If we didn’t have graduate education I wouldn’t be saying this. But since we do, at least in certain key disciplinary areas, having a straight line through from bachelors all the way to a terminal degree is very important, in terms of attracting top faculty, as well as reputationally for the college. I don’t think anyone can deny that an important piece of an institution’s reputation, if it has graduate study, is the quality of those programs.
White: Let me pin you down a bit on that one. Are you saying that you want to place more emphasis on graduate studies?
Dr. Kim: Not more emphasis. I want to know why it’s been shrinking. I want to know why we don’t have any professional master’s degrees. I want to know why we have no graduate-level executive education. If there is a fear that graduate education is not cost-effective, which is a very common fear, that’s the way you counterbalance it with the revenue streams at that level. I want to know which graduate programs make sense for us, and which don’t. So, we need to do an assessment. But my off-the-cuff assessment is that the balance is wrong—that it is too small versus too big.
White: I want to switch topics a bit. What are you most passionate about?
Dr. Kim: Students—what they are learning, how we know what they are learning, and ultimately what learning means over the duration of their lifetimes. For me, everything—whether we are talking about faculty or structure—always has to come back to this question: What is the benefit to students?
White: Outside of your life as an administrator and educator what are you most passionate about?
Dr. Kim: [Long pause.] You know, you’re probably expecting me to say music. I hesitate about music only because music is what I know. Music is what makes the most sense to me. When I’m engaged directly with music, either at the piano, in a concert hall, or listening to music, I’m in a place of complete clarity and truth. In that space, you don’t really want to talk to me because I don’t need to talk to you. All the answers are there.
But, at the same time, to say I’m most passionate about that, I’m not sure if that’s true. It’s an interesting question. I don’t know what I’m most passionate about. I’m excited about everything. Maybe at this stage of my life what I’m most passionate about is figuring out the link between what students learn and what their lives become. I hope that doesn’t sound hokey, but that’s really what I’m thinking about all the time.
White: How have your passions evolved throughout your life?
Dr. Kim: It’s interesting, the word “passion” is triggering this sort of questioning response from me, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I sort of live in a state of enthusiasm all the time. Maybe I’m not thinking that way. But I can tell you about one major change.
In my 20s, and younger, I was a silent person. Now I’m much older, but there was a period of time when people who hadn’t seen me since that time in my life saw me much later and didn’t recognize me. I was just known for not talking. I was the person in a group who was standing in the corner by myself. So, something happened that trigged this sort of garrulous person. I have some ideas about what those things were. Some of it may have been professional necessity, but I don’t think that’s what it was.
Here is the ultimate cliché, which is still true: I think a turning point in my life was a trip to India. I was in my early 30s. I was invited by a colleague of mine to perform the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, which was a semi-professional orchestra. There were two things that were shocking to me about that two-and-a-half week experience. The first was the extraordinary dedication of this group of musicians, some of whom were not even trained musicians. I had never seen a situation where music actually meant someone’s life to them. That was stunning to me.
The second thing was this: I had traveled in what used to be the third world as a child. In the 1960s, South Korea was poorer than North Korea. So, as a kid I was in places where there were no paved roads, no sewer system, and no electricity. I experienced that firsthand, but I had never seen anything like what I saw when I was in India.
White: Returning to the topic of music, I heard you say the other day that music is a distraction to you unless it is something that you’re entirely focused on when it’s playing. In those moments when you’re zeroed in on a piece of music, what are you thinking about?
Dr. Kim: Whatever the music is telling me. This I want to make clear: My preferred interaction with another human being is just like this, one on one. I like to give full attention to what someone is saying to me, what I’m reading, and how I’m responding. It’s exactly the same relationship with music. Even though I’ve learned to be good at it, cocktail parties are just, ugh—something I have to do, but having superficial conversations with a lot of people who I don’t really know…
White: Well, I have bad news for you, Mr. President. I suspect you’re going to have to do many of those in the future.
Dr. Kim: Oh, I know! So, I have gotten to be good at it. It’s just not my preferred mode of communication. The other thing that I’m really comfortable with is that if I’m essentially placed in the role of performer in front of a group, then a different side of me kicks in. With music, it’s very similar. It’s a not technical kind of listening. It’s just—everything goes away. It just is true.
The other thing, which can sometimes get me into trouble, I guess, is that there is no gray area when I’m listening to music. For me, and perhaps this is my innate arrogance coming to the surface, but when I’m listening to someone, let’s say in an audition, I know immediately where that person is, in terms of true connection to what I think is true. When I was the president of a conservatory, sometimes I think it was difficult for the faculty, because as much as I respected their opinions, it didn’t really matter to me. If I heard a potential student and you said, “Oh, Kwang-Wu, this person is extraordinary,” and I heard them and thought the student wasn’t, I would have to find a way to not dismiss you but still think, “No.”
White: Would you consider that a fault of yours?
Dr. Kim: No, I think it’s a strength. Because—I don’t walk around thinking I know everything, but you have to know something with great confidence in order to transfer that sense of confidence to decision-making. Otherwise, you’re always a little bit hesitant. And especially in the role of president of an institution, you have to find that balance. You want to not cross the line into arrogance or egotism, but at the same time, people need to feel that the president of the institution makes decisions with confidence and surety. Otherwise, everyone starts to shake.
White: One of the greatest responsibilities of a college president is exhibiting strong leadership. Who are some historical or modern-day leaders you admire most?
Dr. Kim: As I was leaving El Paso to take on the presidency of the Longy School of Music, I thought to myself that I needed to talk to someone who I really respected to get some tips about leadership. I went to see Jim Phillips, who was the chairman of the board of a bank. I didn’t really know him that well. El Paso at the time was about eighty-five percent Hispanic, and Jim Philips, as we say in El Paso, is Anglo. And yet I observed him for eight years, and it didn’t matter what circle he was in: He was respected, loved, and people praised him for his leadership and engagement with the community.
I went to see him and his advice to me, which was really disappointing at the time, was two things. He said, “I try to start every day calling five people I don’t really need to talk to.” And the other thing he said was, “If anyone ever tells you that the leader of an institution or an organization has to always remain at a great distance from everyone else in the institution, don’t believe it. If people don’t have any relationship with you, they won’t follow you anywhere.”
White: You’re known for being a student-centric administrator. As Dean and Director of the ASU Herberger Institute, you tried to set time aside every week to interact with students. Do you have plans to do this at Columbia?
Dr. Kim: Oh, yes. Here are the current things I’m thinking about: The problem with trying to set up one-on-one conversations with students is that we have ten-thousand students. I think I would, however, like to set up on a regular basis some limited office hours reserved for students. We would have to set up some parameters in terms of time limitations, but that is one piece. I’m already working with Mark Kelly to think about how I can be at student-based events, sometimes as a participant and sometimes as an observer. I’m also going to want to honor what I know about myself.
Mark is amazing with students. His energy and love of students, and his understanding of the student experience, was very compelling to me as I was thinking about Columbia. And Mark is happy in that kind of informal space with students, and that’s not where I’m good. I’m much better at something that’s a little more structured—it doesn’t have to be overly formal, just where the parameters are a bit clearer. I'm not the person who's going to show up at an event wearing a Columbia t-shirt. It's just not who I am, and students sense immediately when someone is trying too hard and stepping outside of an authentic space. I know that for a fact. I saw this a lot at my previous institution. So, Mark and I have agreed that we represent a continuum, which we will occupy together.
White: I’ve heard you say that the student college relationship is, in a way, contractual—that it is our responsibility to ensure that as a result of their educational experience, students are better equipped to succeed in the world once they graduate. If that is our end of contract, what are the obligations of our students to uphold their end of the contract?
Dr. Kim: That is a really good question. First, though, maybe we should revise the word “contract.” That suggests a sort of transaction and I wouldn’t want to reduce this to a transaction. I’m thinking of it more as a series of mutual obligations. So, yes, I think our obligation is to ensure that the education we have created and are continuing to revise, modify, and adjust is some sort of a guarantee that the students who receive that education will succeed in the world. I suppose the obligation on the part of students is to enter into that experience with an attitude of openness, with a sort of attitude of trust.
So, here’s what would be in my mind a violation of this mutual obligation: If a student comes to this institution and is really only focused on wanting a guarantee that if he or she takes a certain sequence of courses there will be a specific job. I don’t consider that a full meeting of parities. We have an obligation to try and help students find those jobs, but if we reduce this enterprise to only that effort, that would make me really unhappy. It’s a piece of it, just not the whole thing.
White: This next question is from an Honors student who wrote to us on the Honors Program Facebook page. Her name is Eve Studnicka, and she is an incoming freshman studying Film and Video. She asks: "What opportunities will you introduce for students to connect with working professionals in their chosen disciplines?"
Dr. Kim: One of the moments that was really impressive to me when I was here for Manifest and Commencement weekend was Industry Night for Photography students. I used it as an opportunity to try to talk to as many students as possible to get a sense of why it was important to them. A number of the students said for them that evening was the central point of their study. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about that.
I want to make sure that we do two things simultaneously: That we increase the opportunities for students to be directly connected to their industries and professions, while we also broaden the conversation about what it is they are actually getting ready to do.
I have a partial solution to this. Here’s what you do: You take this incoming freshman and you give her everything she needs to be a wild success in her chosen career, which partly includes making sure that she has professional mentors, some of whom should come from alumni. You do all of those things, and more, and you make sure you have a robust placement service—all the things that a college like this must have, some of which need some strengthening. At the same time, you make sure that part of her education is a series of conversations. One of them needs to be, “I’ve seen your work. It’s fantastic. Talk to me today about not what you do—what you know.”
This next part would be groundbreaking. The whole conversation nationally is everybody agrees that there must be a way in which skills can be transferred from one domain to another. If we could pull out the idea that students know how towork with people who are radically different from them, which is a proficiency, and then get this student [Eve] over the period of her undergraduate education to become fluent in all these capacities, partially through direct interaction, then she’s going out into the world hopefully prepared to succeed in the career of her choice. But if that for whatever reason becomes less interesting to her, she has a way to begin thinking about how she can transfer her skills to another area she’s interested in.
I realize that’s not clearly articulated, because it’s just something I’m thinking about. But if we can get to the point where this is a defined characteristic of an education at this institution, and an outcome, we move into a very distinctive niche, because nobody is doing it.
White: You kind of did that with the BA program in Digital Culture that you helped develop at ASU.
Dr. Kim: Yes, that is exactly right, because that is not a degree for a specific profession.
White: Do you see us at Columbia implementing curricula like that?
Dr. Kim: I’d love to explore it.
White: How can we do that?
Dr. Kim: The first thing that has to happen is that we have to be successful in our Provost search. It’s a tall order, because it has to be someone with a couple of important characteristics. He or she has to be expert in an area that gives that person credibility with the faculty. It has to be someone who speaks the language of creative practice from a position of real knowledge. Forgive me, but it cannot be the way people, let’s say, in one of the—it can’t be a philosopher, to use my background, who talks about the arts. That won’t fly. That narrows the field automatically.
And it has to be someone who has a lot of experience working with academic systems. It has to be someone with a propensity of leadership, because this person will be my number two in charge of the college. That is a huge change but it must happen. That’s a non-negotiable. And it has to be someone who brings to the table some interesting record of experimentation with curriculum. If I can find that person, I can be in dialogue with my Provost who can lead the conversation with the faculty, because it can’t be me. I can bring to the table some examples, such as my thinking, and I can certainly talk about what I am dreaming about, in terms of desired outcomes.
I’m convinced that one of the necessary developments for this college to really advance is to be able to get to the point where we can put out in front of the world a series of learning outcomes that we feel we can guarantee, and that we also believe point the direction to what is necessary in the twenty-first century. This is how this institution is going to be a great institution, and completely bypass the ridiculous conversation of being an elite institution. It’s not about being elite. Greatness is about content and outcome, not about the limited number of students who you determine are good enough to be in your institution. I’m all about being great, but we are not jumping in the elite race because the winners have already crossed the finish line.
White: The interest rates on Federal Stafford student loans doubled on July 1 from 3.4 percent to 6.8, after Congress was unable to extend a 2007 law that had previously cut borrowing rates. It’s estimated that 7.4 million students across the country will be affected. Your thoughts?
Dr. Kim: First of all, the general thinking is that something will happen. It may not come back down all the way, but that it will come back down somewhat, because this is not going to be palpable to the population. It’s extremely frustrating. The question you’re really framing is the big question about the affordability of higher education in this country, which is a huge challenge. I’m going to give you a couple different vignettes, and then come to current my answer.
It’s interesting to me that no one can answer why higher education has become so expensive, even though to me it seems fairly obvious. At least one of the reasons why education has become so expensive is duplication. So, think about it. We have so many institutions all doing the same thing, competing with one another, and because of that need to draw in students in a competitive marketplace, more and more cost equals extraneous pieces. It’s a funny thing because we are in a race with ourselves. We are making things more expensive. We argue that, well, you have to have those things otherwise students won’t come, but then there’s the other piece of the question: Which students aren’t coming to you? All of these schools that are getting more and more expensive only want a very specific kind of student—they only want the top “X” percent. That’s in denial of the reality of our country and our population. So, that’s kind of KWK’s totally flippant overview of higher education in the United States.
We are a different kind of school. The fact of the commitment to access is at the heart of why I’m here. Here’s the honest truth: If Columbia College Chicago said that we want to become the most selective institution of our kind in the country, I wouldn’t have come here because I would have said that, with a few exceptions, in terms of programs, we aren’t even close in a lot of areas, and I won’t want to do that work. Forget it. I don’t believe in that work.
So, here we are trying to be accessible, and there is a big conversation about cost and affordability. I applaud the fact that this school only very recently has gotten involved in raising money for scholarships, and we have to continue down that path. I am very aware that affordability is a giant challenge for all institutions. There’s a certain amount that we’re going to have to do to continue to look at ourselves and ask if there are efficiencies that we can produce that would save money. But as the whole world understands, you can’t cut your way toward where you need to be because then you start to eliminate the reason why you exist.
White: Can you fundraise your way to where you need to be?
Dr. Kim: No. This college could do a lot more fundraising and that can help. In other words, fundraising needs to become a more permanent revenue source.
There is no one solution. It’s going to have to be a commitment to constant, honest self-evaluation, in terms of efficiencies, without cutting into the bone where you are actually cutting into the academic enterprise. If we lose the ability to invest in what we do, then what’s the whole point? We’ve got to beef up our fundraising structure and expertise. I will be hiring a new VP for Advancement, and that’s a big opportunity for the college to go to the next level. We have to look at new revenue streams that are related to the academic enterprise—professional master’s degrees, executive education. These are moneymakers for an institution.
I know we went through the Prioritization Process, but I feel that the outcomes are indecisive. We have to look at the range of what we offer and ask, “Is this the right range? Are we offering more than what we actually should in the sense of what makes sense?” I have no preconceived ideas, but we do have to ask those questions. There may have to be some changes that way. We have to look at areas in which there are other delivery mechanisms that might be more cost effective for the school.
White: But is affordability a priority?
Dr. Kim: Yes, because this is a school that has access at the core of its Mission. You can’t be accessible if you are not addressing affordability. But my point is that affordability is more than tuition level—much more than that. It’s a whole host of things. To me, it has to be driven by the Mission, and nothing in my mind is going to touch the piece of the Mission that’s about this struggle of excellence and access. Most institutions forget this.
I love that about this place. That takes a certain kind of courage, and maybe there’s a little naivete in there, too, which is fine, but there’s an idealism. Again, if this is truly about the future, how can we even think about it if we are not willing to enter into that pure space of idealism once in a while?
White: There is no doubt that mentors help make us who we are. What is the best piece of advice a mentor has given you?
Dr. Kim: The person would have been Leon Fleisher, my primary piano teacher for many, many years. He said to me, “You have a distinct tendency to take the more difficult path.” We were talking about choice of repertoire. I always had a repertoire to avoid music that was too immediately flashy for an audience. He said, “You just have to understand that the commitment toward taking a more difficult path means it’s going to take you a lot longer to get where you’re trying to go. I would encourage you to stick to it with the understanding that you will ultimately see far greater rewards."
Related to that, when what we used to call Red China first allowed students to come to the United States around 1980, some of the first Chinese music students to come to the US came to the Peabody Conservatory where I was. One of them was a flutist, and I will never forget him. He was quite a bit older than one would have expected, because his entire education had been thwarted by the period of the Cultural Revolution.
He was a very unusual man. He had apparently grown up with a blind fortuneteller and was an orphan. He had acquired the skill—and I don’t know if any of this is true, but we all believed it—to read people’s faces. It was really scary. He was telling people things that there was just no way he could have known. He said that different pieces of your life were imprinted on your face. I would hide every time I saw him, until one day he said to me, “I need to talk to you."
He said, “You are a very ambitious person and you want a lot from your life. I have to tell you how your life is going to be. Your life is going to look like this.” [Uses his hand to suggest a slow-moving upward trajectory.] I hold in my mind that there is some confluence between this idea of the more difficult path that takes longer, and what this man, who may or may not have been able to read faces, said to me.
White: Ever since the fora on campus in February and the announcement of your selection shortly after, the support you’ve received has been palpable. Does this level of validation and support surprise you?
Dr. Kim: I wouldn’t want to say it surprises me, because I think that would discount the institution. It’s an amazing feeling. There’s something about the energy at this college—and the last time I experienced this was in my life in El Paso—where I feel completely allowed to be authentic. So, I’m not holding back at all.
Photography by Andrew A. Nelles (BA '08).