Skip to content Skip to footer
Carol Becker on Creative Leadership, Public Intellectuals and the Arts in Higher Education
Dr. Carol Becker.

Carol Becker on Creative Leadership, Public Intellectuals and the Arts in Higher Education

Dr. Carol Becker.

With more than two decades of experience in academic leadership, Carol Becker demonstrates a clear commitment to a university that opens its doors and thinks creatively about its role in society. During a recent visit to the McMaster Centre for Scholarship in the Public Interest in Hamilton, Canada, Dr. Becker gave a talk on artists who identify as public intellectuals and intervene in multiple spheres to create participatory communities and public dialogue. In this interview, she explains how she also views administrators within institutions such as universities as public intellectuals who can help empower and mobilize future generations of young people to engage with the world. She calls upon these administrators as well as students to take risks and create new modes of communication, multigenerational networks, and models of leadership that move ideas out into society and translate theory into practice: “It is my project to build healthy, interesting structures – to make the next generation courageous and thoughtful about society and to make others trustful of them.” In the following interview, she shares examples of how she has engaged communities as a public intellectual and what has inspired her to press for institutional and social change on both a local and a global scale.

Alexandra Epp: I’m wondering if you would share your thoughts with us about the roles and responsibilities of large public cultural institutions in society. I’m thinking in particular of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the way in which you found a home and a place there that blended art education and artistic practice in its efforts to engage broader communities. How can large public institutions support communities?

Carol Becker: Public institutions and private ones support communities in many ways. I think that universities need to have public practices that are commensurate with their research agenda, so whatever that research is, it gets communicated to a larger community. Universities have the capacity to open many of their lectures to the public. They have the capacity to help community groups working on social issues. They have the resources that small not-for-profits do not have to study difficult social questions and generate data, and the university can lend its public intellectuals to all those challenges that a smaller city like Hamilton (Ontario) faces.

Of course, an issue that’s very dear to my heart is the involvement of artists in urban development. Universities could play a very big role in helping cities to start thinking about keeping their artists in the cities: How do you do that in the face of gentrification? Urban planning groups need to theorize about those things that could really help the city think about its future evolution. There are so many opportunities for the university to be useful, plus it’s so good for students to actually be involved in projects and not only theorize social issues, but actually try to improve people’s lives. Then, if they get involved with cities, they can also put those projects on their resumes – it’s fantastic in terms of students’ own development and for getting jobs when they leave.

AE: Do you have an example from your own experience of a large cultural institution really supporting the community, or maybe a way in which this was or wasn’t successful?

CB: Probably you have read about such projects in essays I have written about the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I was in Chicago, we worked very closely with the city. It was easy to do because the Art Institute – School and Museum – is the dominant cultural institution of Chicago. It was easy to be taken very seriously. In New York there are so many art schools and museums, that it would be hard to say, “This is the preeminent one, you should work with them.” In Chicago we were able to say to the mayor, “We really want to work with you,” and he was open to that.

Our students worked with high school students to develop roof gardens to grow their own produce – because we had faculty interested in that – and we had design faculty who knew how to construct roof-top gardens – which the city was already interested in. We helped redesign websites for the city that dealt with historic buildings. We helped the city to re-imagine itself, to problem-solve what to do with all the water towers around the city that were no longer in use, for example. We worked with the river project to help the city redesign the signage for the river. The river is a great asset to Chicago. Its history is the history of the city. But all the original signage for the river was just “Beware” or “Don’t Fall In” as opposed to giving the people who live in the city, and tourists, the historical context for the river. So we worked with city commissioners and they had a chance to work with artists and art students. Together we would brainstorm projects that might work for the city, and the commissioners could take or leave the ideas. But it was a great opportunity for students to think about the real life of moving through a city: What could work, what could work better, and how to propose these ideas.

We had direct access to Mayor Richard Daley’s office, because he was interested. I think mayors are key for urban development and if you have a progressive mayor, if you can talk to the mayor, then you can offer some suggestions. I think cities could begin to see universities as resources, if the university opens its doors. We wanted Richard Daley to feel like he was the “Art Mayor,” and that he could then go to other mayors in his progressive mayors group and say, “I’ve had this great relationship working with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Most cities or towns have art schools or universities; you could work with those people to do things. They would be free labor, but in exchange they get experience that they wouldn’t get otherwise.” So we were very good at doing that. Like I said, it’s harder in New York.

Grace Pollock: One phrase you mentioned – “if the university opens its doors” – sounds like there are some positive models out there. But in terms of some of your work, going back to the 1990s, you have talked about how you are concerned that the public sector no longer educates, that there has been a breakdown of public education, particularly arts education in public schools, which face challenges like underfunding and so on. I was just wondering if we could apply a similar critique to the university in terms of the underfunding of liberal arts – would it be fair to say that the emergence of depoliticized modes of professionalism and scholarship have narrowed the public reach of the university in recent years?

CB: You know, it’s hard for me to talk to that, partly because Columbia University is a very interesting place. It’s a university that really values public intellectuals. If you look at the New York Times Sunday Review, each week one or two or three professors from Columbia have written major critical pieces about the budget, the economy, the geopolitical landscape, or about myriad other social issues. Columbia really values that practice, it’s not just an academic institution. “Columbia University in the City of New York” – that’s the actual name of the university. But yes, I think all universities are feeling this crunch to demonstrate concrete results as opposed to the process of liberal arts education, but I’m not living that directly at Columbia. I don’t see that, because the value of the undergraduate education, of the core curriculum, is such a big deal at Columbia. I think I’d feel it more in a big state university, much more, like when I was a student at the University of California and I watched (and continue to watch) the drastic cuts to those budgets in the liberal arts, decimating these major universities, while the sciences were being increased because of their collaborations with business and their ability to bring big money and partnerships into the university. It’s all moving to privatization, and the sciences fit into that scenario a lot more than the humanities.

AE: In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail in 2009 you mentioned that many of your friends chose to pursue political action and activism with alternative institutions, but you chose to work with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because you wanted to work with an institution that had been around for many years and to change it from the inside. In this environment, what are some challenges you faced as a public intellectual and what freedoms were afforded to you?

CB: I’ve always had my foot in so many things that I have never just seen my role as “in the university,” or in the art school, or any one location or practice. I have always worked in multiple arenas. For instance, I have written for both The Brooklyn Rail and Art in America at the same time – these publications couldn’t be more different in terms of art and culture. Art in America is the big glossy art magazine; the Rail is a Brooklyn-based, newsprint publication from the ground up. (With great human resources, but little financial backing, Phong Bui, the editor, has really made that publication essential to New York life.)

I’ve never picked one world to live in or move in, so I don’t know what it would have been like if I had chosen to stay in the academy. That was never interesting to me. The art school context was always a platform from which I could do other things. Now, too, at Columbia we have so many connections to the city in general, to the art world, and to Harlem, our immediate neighbor. In New York we’re making the same kind of connections so the School of the Arts isn’t just at Columbia; it’s also part of the city. This is always my inclination.

We will have a new venue building in 2016 on 125th street and Broadway in Harlem. It will be one of two new buildings that will open the new Columbia campus in what is called Manhattanville. This really will challenge us to work even more closely with community groups. I welcome this challenge. My temperament is to be in all of those spheres, but I’ve very much treasured the stability of being in an educational institution. I’m basically an educator and I like knowing that I’m building something that will last. Other people have different temperaments. They really don’t like being in traditional institutions at all. They’re much freer and happier outside of established institutions, but I was always able to work inside and outside – it’s just my nature.

GP: That’s really interesting, the notion that public intellectuals perhaps always occupy multiple spheres – perhaps these movements are the conditions of possibility that produce the public intellectual?

CB: I guess if you weren’t moving between spheres of practice, you wouldn’t be a public intellectual would you? I mean you would be an intellectual, but to be a public intellectual you have to be able to operate in the public sphere in whatever way you can. That publicness could be reflected in where you publish, where you put information out, or where you speak. I do a lot of speaking and travelling and connecting of apparently disparate realities. I work now with the World Economic Forum, which nobody would expect. It’s the power base of heads of state and the business world. But every summer in July fifty young leaders – people who are being groomed to be leaders – come and study theater, voice, film, and performance training for a week at Columbia. We successfully have made this part of the pedagogy of becoming a world leader. We have made a course in how creativity works, part of their consciousness. It’s a very subversive program in many ways.

Many people say, “Why would you work with the World Economic Forum?” because they see it only as the seat of capitalism and such. But within the Forum are some very interesting people who have enormous influence and think in a truly global context. The young leaders we work with, for example, are positioned all over the world – with NGOs and social projects. To have these types of experiences is key to their training. They’re a very important group to educate about how important art can be in solving social problems. We’ll work with that group with the same enthusiasm that we’ll work with grassroots organizations in Harlem who’ve been there for a long time and have deep ties to the community. What’s important to me is to collaborate with people who are open to art as a vehicle for social change. That’s what I care about – individual projects can take multiple forms.

There are people out there who have a lot of great ideas and they are working on unexpected fronts. I’ve had an influence on the World Economic Forum – who could have imagined that? Now there is Global Agenda Council called “The Role of Arts in Society.” That’s new. And it’s because of the few and growing number of art advocates at the Forum who have impressed on people how important art can be for transmitting ideas. Art and artists have become much more central to their agenda in a good way. That’s from the last five years of several of us working closely with them, and pressuring them. Their doors opened. I just got an invitation yesterday to speak on a panel on Science and Art and Education in Davos. So I get to talk about things I’ve been articulating here and find ways to present them to different audiences.

GP: What about students? I mean we’ve been talking about the opportunities you’ve had, how doors have opened for you, being a professor and dean. What would you say to students about being public intellectuals?

CB: The same things I say to myself. We have theater students who work in inner-city high schools. They’re interested in getting out of just the “theater world” and taking Shakespeare all over the city, to everyone. Great. Now they’re working in many different locations, meeting people, making connections. Who knows where that will lead them? Students are very busy, and they can be very self-absorbed with their own work, but if part of what they want to do in their own life is be in the larger world, then they also need to make opportunities. And there are plenty out there to construct. They can volunteer with all kinds of groups or bring ideas into other groups, or join organizations in the cities they live in. They can begin to build new structures – build new galleries, new places for forums to occur, create a series or a publication online. You don’t even have to do it physically anymore. Make web sites that confront issues. This generation is so much savvier than I am about how to network in new ways.

I always love students who come to me and say, “I’m working with this group in the city around this issue, and we’d really love to involve Columbia.” I like when students say, “I know that I want to be involved in politics, and I am going to get involved in student government.” Because students can learn a great deal by running organizations on campus, any organization will help them to learn a lot about how systems work. Students need these skill bases. If you’re interested in moving ideas into society, you need to practice any way you can at any level you can. When I meet with student groups at Columbia, I see that the people running the student government are amazing. They’re so prepared and I reinforce that; I reward that. I’m impressed by them – so impressed by them. I think that everywhere students look, there’s a possibility to grow as leaders, if they take it. Just get involved in something, whatever the issue – in a big or small way. Get involved. That’s what I’d say and say to students.

AE: You’ve been talking about community engagement, public engagement – these require a lot of thoughtful strategies and skills, and patience and courage sometimes. Do you have a message for young people to inspire them to not give up but to work hard for a better world?

CB: Really what choice do any of us have than to work for a “better world,” as you say. How else can we live in this world but to work to improve it? I guess I simply don’t understand how else to function. What else would we do? And, why would we give up? There is no giving up. Wherever we are, in whatever way, we have to try to change inequity, to help each other not to suffer. It’s the human project and everyone can participate in it – no gesture is too small.

You want to be someone that people can trust, and you want to be someone that people can rely on. If you want to be a leader of any kind, that’s the bottom line. And you need to get your ego out of it. That’s the hardest thing for all of us, but it’s the most important thing. Basically, it’s the ideas we are trying to move forward, not ourselves that are important. We have to master a set of skills to help us communicate our ideas, whether it is through visual art, writing, theater, or public speaking. Do it well so that you are communicating what you’re hoping to communicate. And don’t let anybody tell you what to communicate. It’s up to all of us to figure out the world and to change it.

I think the next generation is fantastic – they’re looking at the whole global picture in its complexity, and they’re inheriting a very complicated world. They’re going to need every imaginable tool to solve the problems they are inheriting: From the environment to war, to immigration, to leadership and governance, to education. So we need another generation of leaders to take the world’s problems on fearlessly. All change and growth starts with a very small step and requires taking on each problem fearlessly and not backing down.

GP: I just have one last question, which relates to your recent work in which you express optimism about the spaces used by artists to foster participative communities, public dialogue, and democratic action. You have called these potentially transformative spaces “micro-utopias.” We were wondering if you could imagine the university as a space in the year 2030, and if you could possibly tell us what you envision the university will look like at that time.

CB: Are we even up to imagining what we would be teaching people twenty years from now? I’m not sure. I just know that the versatility and flexibility that people are going to need to solve the problems of the future demand a university with the same versatility and flexibility. The discipline-oriented education that most people are getting now will have to change. We need a firm base of knowledge in specific fields, there’s no doubt about it, but we have to take that knowledge and see it permeate a wide base of ideas and a spectrum of issues if it is going to work globally. We can’t stay so discipline-based that we do not expand ourselves out into the world, or universities will become obsolete.

All these barriers we create for each other are unnecessary. Our task is to solve the problems that we’re dealing with. No one discipline is going to do that. Urban problems – every discipline in the world needs to participate in solving those. Immigration, conceptualization of multiple societies – every discipline is needed on board. Issues of science and research: Is there one science that can solve the world’s problems? Scientists need to work together across these disciplines. They are aware of this and you see institutes forming across disciplines more and more. Humans always act as if Martians came and set up these structures and now we have to live with them. No one says, “You know what, humans created these structures that hold us back, and although we act subservient to them, we created them and we can change them.”

We have to stop blaming others for the limitations that we feel and start taking responsibility for changing those limitations. I’m tired of everyone complaining about what they cannot do. If we want to do something, make it happen. And I think this generation, the young generation, is very self-motivated in that way. They’re very much about, “Well, that way doesn’t work. I’ll go this way.” They have a lot of tools – technological tools, entrepreneurial tools, and conceptual tools, to do that. I just think the old guard of fear that’s kept everything bound is over. It has to be over, because it’s holding us all back.

I’m just hoping that by 2030 we will have learned to take responsibility for our actions, and the way they affect others. We will have come to recognize our stupidities and move forward with all the potential for knowledge and change available. And then students won’t hit a wall every time they try to combine important ideas across disciplines. My generation and the generations right next to mine have to open those doors and stop blaming preexistent structures for our own limitations. We created these structures and we can change them. So, hopefully, by 2030 we will have figured that out and will use this knowledge to achieve a just, equitable, and creative society within and outside the university.

Carol Becker is Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts in New York City and was formerly the Dean of Faculty and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1994-2007 where she was also professor of Liberal Arts. She has published a number of books including The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change; Zones of Contention: Art, Institutions, Gender and Anxiety; The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility (edited); Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art; and her most recent book Thinking in Place: Art, Action and Cultural Production.

This interview was made possible through support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.