March 2, 2015

Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, visited SIPA on February 25 to speak about her recently published book, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.

“The term resilience has become a phrase used around the world, and I really think she’s responsible,” said Dean Merit E. Janow in her opening remarks. She described Rodin, who is the first woman to lead the foundation and the first woman to have served as president of an Ivy League institution, as a “true pioneer.”

Rodin also received a SIPA Global Leadership Award last year.

In his introduction, Provost John Coatsworth said that while Columbia and SIPA are often privileged to welcome exceptional scholars, authors, educators, or philanthropic leaders, Rodin is someone who falls into each of those categories.

He credited Rodin with recalibrating the focus of the Rockefeller Foundation to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Alluding to Rodin’s new book, Coatsworth said she “challenges leaders to build more resilient cities, to bounce back after crises.”

Rodin, who received a PhD in psychology from Columbia, credited the University with whetting her appetite for interdisciplinary work and noted that adaptability “is very much an interdisciplinary concept.”

“Why [do] some nations seem to be able to thrive in the face of adversity when others have thrown in the ropes?” she asked.

In the 21st century, Rodin said, crisis has become normal. As such, she emphasized, there is a need “to shift the paradigm from recovery and rebound to a much earlier part of the cycle.”

According to Rodin, the cycle begins with risk and vulnerability assessment, then planning and readiness.

“Preparation [should not be] fundamentally predicated on the last disaster that occurred,” she said, but cities should plan for any crisis: “every disruption does not have to be a disaster.”

Under Rodin, the Rockefeller Foundation spearheaded the 100 Resilient Cities project, which aims to help cities become more resilient in the face of physical, social, and economic challenges.

Resilience is about building capacity, and oftentimes communities understand their problems and are eager to participate in the solutions, she said.

“We don’t come with what you should do, we come with a framework about how to diagnose,” said Rodin. “Then you’re determining what you should do.”

According to Rodin, more emphasis should be placed on teaching effective coping strategies. “I do think that coping strategies are mechanisms for safe failure rather than failing catastrophically,” she said.

Janow asked Rodin, who served as the University of Pennsylvania’s president from 1994 to 2004, about the role of universities.

“If we are going to expect our students to be civically engaged,” Rodin said, “we have to demonstrate what a civically engaged institution is like.”

Building resilience is not just about intellectual or financial resources, but also about obligation, she said.

“We really have an obligation, as well as an opportunity to build resilience,” said Rodin. “Because we have a moral and civic obligation to partner with our neighbors to create more inclusive prosperity which is really a part of building resilience.”

— Tamara El Waylly MIA ’15