SIPA Magazine

New Institute in Town

By SIPA Magazine Editorial Staff
Posted Oct 03 2023
IGP Faculty Leadership
Members of IGP faculty leadership gathered on campus in July. Photo By Shahar Azran

The former secretary of state, senator, and first lady was troubled by the escalating partisan rancor that hindered politics in the United States and abroad. She saw challenges that spanned borders— the rising tide of climate change, backsliding on women’s rights, the harm caused by online disinformation— but were not being addressed.

Clinton was eager to tackle these and related issues head-on. But she couldn’t do it alone.

It was 2022, and Clinton was periodically in touch with her old friend Lee Bollinger, who was then still Columbia’s president. When Bollinger led the University of Michigan, he had invited Clinton to deliver the commencement address; at Columbia, he’d spent years trying to recruit her as a professor. In the fall, Bollinger hosted Clinton at the President’s House to meet a handful of deans from across the University. Her last meeting of the day was with Columbia SIPA’s new dean, Keren Yarhi-Milo.

“It was like in a movie,” Clinton recalls. “The door flew open, and this young, energetic bundle of excitement walks in and begins in her rapid-fire delivery to tell me why I need to be at SIPA.”

Following their brief chat, Clinton says, “I turned to Lee, who’s been a friend of mine for many, many years, and I said, ‘Wow, that was really something.’ And he was looking at me with one of those patented Lee Bollinger half-smiles.”

The two women clicked right away. “There’s that movie line,” Clinton says, “ ‘You had me at hello.’ ”

It was Yarhi-Milo’s bold vision for SIPA that won over the former secretary of state. After she had become dean in July 2022, Yarhi-Milosought to reorient the School and elevate its scholarship to make it more impactful and policy-relevant. With input from faculty, alumni, and her peers, she identified a set of five global policy challenges to focus on: geo- political stability, democratic resilience, cli- mate and sustainable development, inclusive prosperity and macroeconomic performance, and technology and innovation.

But the School still needed a framework — a more formal structure — for addressing these challenges. How could she make her new vision for SIPA a reality?

It was the fateful meeting with Clinton that sparked the idea for the Institute of Global Politics (IGP).

“In my pitch to her, I said, ‘We have this big idea for an institute that will translate SIPA’s and Columbia’s cutting-edge research into real-world policy solutions,’ ” says Yarhi-Milo. “ ‘And if we build this with you, it will be bigger, better, and we can get there faster.’ ”

And things moved fast. Clinton was formally welcomed to the faculty in January 2023 — the School’s highest-profile hire in a generation, if not ever. The next few months saw a flurry of activity to build the Institute essentially from scratch.

What would become IGP didn’t even have a name yet, much less a logo or office space, but the vision was taking shape. By late spring, the School had hired a small team — Christina Shelby was recruited from Bollinger’s office to serve as executive director — and started to consider programming, publications, avenues to engage students, and more. In May, renovations began on the 15th floor of the International Affairs Building (IAB) to provide new offices and a long-overdue makeover for SIPA’s signature event space.

Ivy League, but Not Ivory Tower 

Organizations that strive to guide and shape policy are hardly in short supply — not in Washington, in New York, or even on Ivy League campuses. So why IGP, and why now?

The answer, as Yarhi-Milo points out, is that the Institute is not just another think tank or Davos-like forum for world leaders to gather and deliver stump speeches. Instead, Yarhi-Milo aspires for IGP to think bolder and more globally: Her vision is for IGP to become a hub for leading scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to generate new ideas and find innovative solutions to the five policy challenges.

“Our campus will be home to conversations and debates that will shape how we live tomorrow and are not happening anywhere else,” she says. “When I became dean, I knew we already had scholars producing brilliant re- search, but there was a real need to engage more with the policy community, to break down silos, to provide nonpartisan solutions backed up by research that only a university like Columbia could provide.”

“We have incredible talent putting out tremendous research but no platform to translate it into impact,” she adds by way of emphasis.

As such, the Institute is an explicit manifestation of a concept Bollinger devel- oped as president, what he called the University’s Fourth Purpose: to direct scholarship beyond the classroom and toward tackling global challenges and advancing humanity.

A case in point: When President Emmanuel Macron of France wanted to launch his Etats généraux de l’information (Estates General of Information), a general assembly to address the challenges demo- cratic societies face with the spread of information, he recruited SIPA researcher Camille François MIA ’13. In close collaboration with one of IGP's Carnegie Distinguished Fellow, the Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, she is heading up an innovation lab at IGP as part of the program.

Such partnerships are key to the Institute’s success and impact, says Yarhi-Milo.

IGP has also won praise from President Minouche Shafik, Bollinger’s successor. “SIPA’s vision for the Institute is bold and impressive,” says Shafik. “It expresses, perfectly, the University’s deep commitment to world-class scholarship that serves the public good.”

The excitement around IGP quickly has spread to several current and former University trustees, including Jonathan Lavine ’88CC and Victor Mendelson ’89CC. Their friendship began more than 35 years ago, in a political science course taught by Ester Fuchs (then at Barnard and now the longtime director of SIPA’s Urban and Social Policy concentration). Today, while the two remain close friends, they are often politically opposed — but, in a testament to IGP’s spirit of civil discourse, both were early backers of the Institute.

“Our university is a global powerhouse, but we still need a platform to connect powerful leaders with brilliant academic minds to collaborate on research unaffected by partisan agendas,” says Lavine. “Only Columbia, only New York City, has that kind of convening power.”

Mendelson adds, “The IGP will model civil discourse’s power and underscore the role of universities to shape the legislative process with big, evidence-based ideas based on their merits, not their politics.”

IGP’s commitment to nonpartisanship and bringing in all voices goes beyond hosting speakers across the political spectrum, ac- cording to Yarhi-Milo. It also means bridging the divide between the Global South and the rest of the world through its programming and editorial products and by providing a forum for underrepresented voices.

“One thing I want IGP to focus on,” says Yarhi-Milo, “is the importance of thinking about foreign policy in a global way, and not through a US-centric lens.”

Helping to bring the world to SIPA, so to speak, are IGP’s Inaugural Carnegie Distinguished Fellows — high-profile leaders who are looking to give back to students, engage with faculty on pol- icy reports, and share their expertise and experience with the University community. The Institute’s inaugural cohort of distinguished fellows from around the globe includes a Nobel laureate, a former head of state, and a former CEO of a major technology company, to name just a few.

“The other institutes you have out there are mainly about just domestic politics in the United States faculty,” says Yarhi-Milo. “We are thinking not just about fancy events and being a talk shop but bringing the fellows to truly engage with our community, to truly engage with our students and faculty. We want a very different level of engagement, conversation, and connection.”

IGP faculty advisory board members Joseph E. Stiglitz, Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo, Jacob J. Lew, and Michael A. Nutter. Photo By Shahar Azran

IGP faculty advisory board members Joseph E. Stiglitz, Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo, Jacob J. Lew, and Michael A. Nutter. Photo By Shahar Azran

IGP’s faculty advisory board, chaired by Clinton, is also a reflection of the Institute’s commitment to inter- disciplinary and diverse perspectives. The board is charged with setting IGP’s research and policy agenda, as well as engaging with Columbia students, faculty, and its Global Centers.

Also notably, IGP’s leadership is predominantly women — which not only is core to the Institute’s identity, brand, and outlook on the world but also makes it unique in the traditionally male-dominated field of international affairs. Indeed, IGP will also launch a University-wide women’s initiative in March 2024 to come up with solutions for some of the major policy issues affecting women and girls around the world. 

These values will also be reflected in IGP’s editorial products, the centerpiece of which will be its flagship publications. The reports will be written by faculty, in collaboration with IGP fellows, with an eye to providing actionable, evidence-based recommendations for deci- sion-makers in both Washington and capitals abroad. SIPA’s Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist and University Professor, and Argentina’s former minister of economy, Martín Guzmán, a SIPA lecturer, intend to work on a series of projects related to sovereign debt and the global economy. Also in the works are publications on food insecurity and approaches to combating disinformation.

Like the faculty and fellows, students will contribute to the culture of the new Institute — as participants in policy roundtables and skills workshops, research assistants to fellows, and mentees. IGP has already rolled out its Student Scholars program, through which select SIPA, law, and undergraduate students — chosen through a competitive application — will gain direct access to IGP fellows and professional training.

“I think students are particularly anxious to be part of the solution, not just to wring their hands about the problems,” says Clinton. “We’re going to make sure that students have a chance to hear from decision-makers, to see people in action who have been at the forefront of what’s gone on in our country and our world and the private sector, the public sector, the not-for-profit sector.”

Imagine participating in a hands-on research project on the effects of artificial intelligence on democracy for Maria Ressa or taking part in a roundtable discussion with the prominent Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha on the rollback of LGBTQ+ rights across Africa and parts of the United States.

“For students to get hands-on training from this caliber of global leaders is unprecedented in the annals of higher education,” says Michael A. Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia and SIPA’s David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice in Urban and Public Affairs, who also sits on IGP’s faculty advisory board. “This program will give students from all backgrounds not only the necessary tools to think critically about global problems but also the mentorship to shape their professional careers long after they leave Columbia.”

A final constituency of the Institute is the wider public. “We want to make these topics interesting and engage a broad audience— on campus and off, in New York City and around the globe,” says Yarhi-Milo. “IGP will not be a closed-door space,” she adds, noting that events will be live streamed and accessible around the world.

Among planned events are Spotlight Interviews, a series of intimate conversations with boldfaced names from the public and private sectors to reflect on their careers. Last spring, the inaugural Spotlight Interview featured House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who candidly discussed a wide range of issues, including the backsliding of democracy and the role of deep fakes in undermining public trust. 

IGP will also make a point to bring together speakers with oppos- ing viewpoints, offering students a model for respectful and constructive discussion among those who don’t necessarily agree. An early installment in the series, to be known as Across the Aisle, is slated to convene Jacob J. Lew (who is widely known as Jack) and Mick Mulvaney — each a former White House chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget director — for a discussion of policy and process tempered by shared respect for the institutions of governance.

Back at their initial meeting in Bollinger’s library, Clinton and Yarhi-Milo discussed their shared enthusi- asm for modeling civil discourse as a way to combat polarization and the crowding out of uncomfortable ideas in the public sphere. The need for greater dialogue has become one of the central pillars behind IGP. “Thanks partly to social media, we’ve created these echo chambers and we see that students and even faculty engage in self-censorship,” says Yarhi-Milo. “The result is that the space to engage in the policy sphere is getting narrower and narrower— and that leads to groupthink.” 

As somebody who has spent her whole career in public life, Clinton knows firsthand the importance of truthful information to shape smart policy.

“If you start from a position that you have a monopoly on the truth, however you define that, or you live in a post-truth world, facts and evidence don’t matter,” she observes. “If it’s only your opinion or your ideology that you are motivated by, you can’t reach agreement in a democracy.”

IGP is one small step toward strengthening these and other bedrocks of democracy — and one large step for SIPA and Columbia.