Admissions Blog

Candid Conversations: Inside the Situation Room

By Reena Mensingh '24
Posted Dec 07 2023

You’ve likely heard that Secretary Hillary Clinton is teaching a course at Columbia, and I’m incredibly excited to call myself her student. But, what’s this course really about? How does the SIPA community feel? Hopefully, this blog can provide some insights.

Like any diligent student, I’ll start with a quick breakdown of the course syllabus.

One primary objective of the course involves a deep-dive into analyzing the extent to which decision-making among leaders matters in geopolitics, and the relationship between leaders, their advisors, and public opinion on influencing decisions during times of crises.

The course includes a weekly lecture with instructors Secretary Clinton and Dean Yaren-Milo and a discussion section with a teaching instructor. Students submit 1-page analyses of the readings to their teaching instructor each week. Additionally, students will be assigned to groups within their discussion section in a semester-long effort to analyze a foreign policy case. Groups apply the lessons and skills from the course to generate a post-mortem of their foreign policy decision.

In this blog, I’ll share some of my own thoughts as a student in the class, as well as conversations with SIPA students both enrolled and not in the course, and end with an interview with the instructor in my discussion section, Lincoln Mitchell.

As someone who strives to set new global standards for cooperation and policy implementation, what led me to apply for the course is Secretary Clinton’s remarkable track record of breaking through systemic gender barriers so many times. I don’t envy her for being the only woman seated with the most powerful men in the world, especially across the last few decades. To me, that sounds terrifying and it takes a certain level of bravery for Secretary Clinton to have done that for most of her career. Thankfully, we don’t all need to experience something to learn from it, and I’m very grateful for her perspective of that time. Truly, anyone with this magnitude of experience is a person to stop and listen to. Clearly, some students in the course share this opinion. At the end of each lecture, students race to the center aisle to ask questions, and probe, as much as possible, into the instructors’ perspectives or for anecdotes on topics of interest.

Another one of my main objectives is to delve into the psychological biases that Secretary Clinton and other leaders may hold, as these biases can either bolster or hinder global cooperation. Dean Yarhi-Milo's expertise in crisis decision-making complements my background in neuroscience. I've been eagerly looking forward to applying psychological principles to better grasp policy development and enhance feedback loops with civilians, all in an effort to fine-tune policy implementation strategies for more collaboration and less polarity.

One MPA student shared that she’s learning a lot. For her, this course is “more than just publicity. They [Dean Yeren-Milo and Secretary Clinton] complement each other really well and it’s so useful to consider these underlying factors with policy and development practices on the ground.” One SIPA student who was not able to register revealed he would happily “pay an additional $1,500” to attend.

I sat down with Lincoln Mitchell, the instructor in my discussion section, to hear some of his thoughts from the faculty side.

Thank you so much for sitting down with me, Lincoln. Your background spans practical and academic settings. Can you share a pivotal experience that you bring to discussion-based teaching in this course?

Having been on the ground at key moments in several polities and several countries. I don’t understand IR to be just about war, and I think that’s a very valuable perspective to have. I’ve also been involved in the more quotidian aspects of foreign policy. If you were the Secretary of State, for example, then you’re managing those and running those. And they’re very important, but they’re not in the newspaper all the time. A lot of students here in this program will work in those fields and run economic development programs, democracy programs, civil society development programs. So my experience being on the ground, evaluating, and running programs in many countries is another kind of practitioner perspective that I bring.

The SIPA community and the media have had very strong and mixed reactions to Secretary Clinton’s presence on campus. Have you previously been part of a teaching team for a course surrounded by so much controversy? Does this detract from the learning environment?

The short answer to that question is no. The long answer is that in the fall of 1994 I was a graduate student here and I had worked in 1993 on a campaign for David Dinkins, who was the former mayor of New York at the time. He lost to Rudy Guiliani, and I’d really like to say that I’m just sad Dinkins died before he could see what happened to Guilianni. Anyways, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Dinkins, along with some sense that he wasn’t a good mayor, or that he had failed as a mayor, and so for many, the question was ‘what was he doing at Columbia?’

Regarding your second question: If you are a SIPA student, you can learn a lot from Hillary Clinton. If you don’t agree with that, you’re not being serious. You don’t have to agree with every decision she’s made or with everything she did; I would assume most students don’t. And I would not say the same thing for every Cabinet Member or every Secretary of State. Some are better at communicating, some took their jobs more seriously with regards to preparation and intellectual background than other people. Senators are not always serious people, but even with other Cabinet Members you could bring them in, but what would they say after the first 20 minutes? In that capacity, there is no doubt that the nature of international relations is such that you are going to have professors, not just former Secretaries of State, who have been involved in international politics in ways that some people are not going to be happy with. So that’s a policy decision that Columbia is going to make. I’m involved in so many events in this building, where there has been political conflict between people in the room, where I think ‘this is okay.’

As a member of the teaching team for a high-profile course, what aspects do you find or do you anticipate will be most invigorating and what challenges do you encounter?

The most invigorating by far is time with the students, that’s the best part of the class. This is a very nerdy thing to say, but I really enjoy doing these readings and thinking about them in new ways and bringing that to the students so hopefully they benefit from it. I think the syllabus is well-thought out because there’s no 30-page research paper. But there’s 12 short papers, as reading responses. If you add it up, that’s roughly 6,000 words total, which is almost an undergraduate research paper. But that means that every week I’m grading 100 500-word papers, that’s a lot. And I enjoy reading many of them, because students have good insights. Part of the joy of teaching at SIPA, whether it’s this class or another class is that the students are from all over the world, but also have just really different backgrounds: some students studied anthropology as an undergraduate, someone has worked in the field in their country for 2 years before coming here… so on the one hand, it’s very interesting but it gets to be a lot of work. I don’t anticipate any other major challenges.

Yes, that makes sense! And from your perspective, how will this course impact SIPA students and the wider SIPA community?

We’re only a week or two in but just based on the syllabus, and I said this in class the other day, I hope that one person becomes Secretary of State, another becomes Foreign Minister of Canada, right, but you’re not all going to do that. It’s very unlikely mathematically. I hope that some of you become senators, or Members of Parliament, and many of you will. But the path that leads you there is that you start as an advisor. And getting Principals to make policy the way you want them to is massively important. I believe at SIPA we teach a battery of skills to students that if you think about it in a bigger picture, add up to helping to do that. One thing I say to the students is there’s two important ways to write in the policy world: write concisely and write persuasively, aside from detailed policy reports. This class, I think, pushes that skill to a deeper level, while also wrestling with real IR-related questions and issues in cases.

Just one quick example, in the first lecture during the Q&A a question asked something about data, and I thought Secretary Clinton gave a fantastic answer. Essentially she said, you need data; but you can’t give too much, make your points. When Hillary Clinton was in the Senate, where she served for 8 years in this state, she was one of the smarter members of the Senate. Not all of these people are as smart as Hillary Clinton, so the challenge for the students is that you need to figure out, when you’re working for a Principal, how are you going to give them what they can use? She explained how she uses data, which is great, but that’s one person, I hope the class helps you get at that question: How are decisions made? Let’s really push that and probe that, and marry the academic side of that to someone who says “let me tell you the other side of that, from being in the room.” I think that will be really valuable for students

One of the major themes of the course relates to the concept of leadership versus the surrounding environment, and how we relate to our leaders. So, what you’re saying is that statistically, hopefully there are going to be some of us who are “The Leader” but a lot of us are going to be the advisors.

And many of you will be both! I mean Hillary Clinton, who spent the first part of the 21st Century serving the US Senate, being Secretary of State, and being a Presidential Candidate, and almost president, did not start out her life as Secretary of State or US Senate. So those skills are hugely important.

What, in your view, are the most valuable lessons or insights that students can expect to gain from participating in this course and in the discussions?

There’s a lot there, we talked about the substantive part. You know, I am essentially the age of many SIPA student’s parents and in my generation, when I went to college there were Asian-American immigrants, Mexican-American immigrants, and there were second and third generation Americans some who descended from immigrants and some descended from the slave people, and occasionally someone who grew up in another country, but very rarely. So I had an undergraduate degree in politics without ever really having a conversation with someone from another country. I think being in these settings is hugely valuable. And discussing American policy is hugely valuable in that way. I hope that comes out both for the Americans and others. In one of my sections, a student was talking about India's decision to not take a side in the Ukraine war, explaining that this was, in her view, India acting in India’s interests. We’ve all read that, but to hear someone explain that, and just lay it out, someone who really knows what they’re talking about, that pushes everybody. For people who are coming from other countries to hear, what I think are generally, smart, thoughtful Americans explaining American foreign policy, which is both caricatured in a both positive and negative way to the world. This is very nuanced stuff here, and you’ll get that from any SIPA class, but I think this class pushes it because of the structure of it, and because it’s being taught by the former Secretary of State