What Brings Us Together

Dear Colleagues:

The holiday break will soon be upon us, and I am determined to finish this letter before the end of the term. It has been challenging to find the words to fit this complicated moment. Even as we take pride in seeing the profound impact of our care and our discoveries on patients near and far, and have every reason to feel encouraged by what the future holds for the medical center, recent months have also brought a series of difficult trials. This past weekend I spent some time thinking about what brings us together even when it sometimes feels like the world is determined to tear us apart. What came to mind was a recent conversation with an old friend who reminded me of a meeting we attended together where several dozen doctors and scientists were asked what they would have done if they hadn’t become a doctor or a scientist. I remember expecting many to say they would have been lawyers or bankers, maybe a few musicians. Instead, almost two-thirds said they would have been teachers.

There is a saving grace that comes from the love of learning. A dedication to scientific discovery and to teaching future leaders in medicine and health care defines the CUIMC community as much as anything. As President Shafik explained at a recent panel discussion on Gaza and Israel hosted by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, the question is not, “What side are you on?” The question is, “What can we learn from one another?” Over and over, I find myself astonished and inspired by your collective determination to pursue new knowledge so that we can do even more to cure disease and save lives.

Just after Thanksgiving, we held the first external advisory board meeting for the Vagelos Institute for Biomedical Research Education. The meeting focused on the graduate programs, building on reports from the “current state” and “future state” committees that met over the last six months. The Vagelos Institute meeting brought together the members of both committees, directors of graduate studies, basic science chairs and research leadership, and an outstanding group of external advisors to discuss and debate how to fulfill our educational mission. The future state committee, ably led by Hashim Al-Hashimi from Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, and Danielle Matsushima from the Office for Research, met some 18 times over the summer, including a town hall that I heard rave reviews about from several students. I could not be more grateful to everyone involved, both for the impact the work will have on our graduate programs and for reminding us of the importance of pursuing goals as large as our collective talents. I have every confidence that the Vagelos Institute will succeed in training future leaders who extend the boundaries of what biomedical science can do for humanity.

To observe this process was to be reminded of why we are all here. This is a place of learning and intellectual discovery, a place of critical thinking and rigorous analysis, and, yes, a place of biomedical breakthroughs that transform lives. Nowhere are these qualities and laudable ambitions more evident than in our remarkable students. The students and trainees who we are lucky enough to have at the medical center are ever vigilant in setting our standards high. They are deeply committed to our fundamental mission of treating disease, reducing suffering, and caring for everyone, and they are passionate about rejecting hate in all its manifestations.

In recent weeks, I have been able to spend time with many of our campus’s student leaders. I have heard their worries about the frightening pervasiveness of antisemitism in society and the need to feel safe and secure where they study and work. The October 7 Hamas terrorist attack and the hostages remaining in captivity weigh very heavily on many in our community. And I have heard personal stories from other student leaders about the heartrending situation in Gaza where the civilian death toll continues to climb and military strikes go on. We have struggled together to imagine the distress experienced by health care workers trying to care for tens of thousands in need without functioning hospitals. Throughout these conversations, I have been deeply impressed by the thoughtfulness of our students and the respect they have for the mission of this institution. I want to commend them for embracing rules of conduct, considering guidance to avoid hurtful language, creating effective and inclusive processes for decision-making, and forgiving us when we make mistakes. They have done all of this while continuing their commitment to their own learning, even as we entered into the stress of exams and the end of term.

It bears repeating that on this campus, we will not tolerate hate directed at Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims, antisemitism, discrimination, or bigotry in any form. It is antithetical to who we are and at odds with the basic shared obligation to treat one another with dignity, respect, and compassion. That much is rightfully expected of all of us and without exception.

This week, you received a message from President Shafik and Provost Dennis Mitchell that plainly stated, “[w]e want everyone at Columbia to feel safe, seen, welcome, and heard,” and went on to describe a series of new university initiatives for achieving that goal. During this period of upheaval across higher education and our larger society, Columbia’s leadership is making every possible effort to ensure we are living by our values, supporting our people, and fulfilling the university’s mission. They have called on us “to move ahead, with courage and conviction, to build a community where all of us can learn, work, and thrive.” Each one of us needs to contribute to this effort. There is no question that Columbia will be stronger as a result.

I hope each of you are finding time to rest, to celebrate the holidays you observe, and to enjoy your friends and family as the calendar turns to 2024. There is so much from this past year to celebrate, and so much for us build on in the year ahead. I am deeply grateful to be able to do this important work with each of you.

Happy holidays and best wishes for the new year.

All my best,

Katrina Armstrong, MD
Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences