Spotlight on James J. Valentini

Spotlight on James J. Valentini

James J. Valentini, Dean of Columbia College and VP for Undergraduate Education

James J. Valentini 
Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education since: 2011
Faculty member since: 1990
Department: Chemistry
Education: BS, University of Pittsburgh; MS, University of Chicago; PhD, University of California, Berkeley
Hobbies: Collects Columbia memorabilia thanks to alumni gifts to the College; rebuilds 170-year-old home in New Jersey
Fun Fact: Failed driver’s license exam twice

By Allison Scola

"When I was growing up,” recalled James J. Valentini, Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education, “If someone said, ‘One day, you’ll be dean of an Ivy League school,’ I would have asked, ‘What’s an Ivy League school?’”
 
Born and raised in the Appalachian town of Lafferty, Ohio, which the 2010 census reported as having a population of 304, it was more probable that Valentini would have headed to a coal mine than to college as a young man. His father, a radio operator for the Ohio Department of Transportation, did not graduate from high school. His mother, a homemaker, did, but her education terminated there. It was their examples of hard work that inspired Valentini to excel as a student. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh, he went on to earn a master’s at the University of Chicago and a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley.
 
Valentini conducted postdoctoral work at Harvard University, was a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a professor at University of California, Irvine before relocating to New York in 1990 to join the faculty of Columbia’s Department of Chemistry, where he focused his research on chemical reaction dynamics and the spectroscopy of molecular transients.
 

Valentini explains that his own story, with its modest start, is his source for relating to the diversity of students at Columbia, which is evidenced by the fact that since his time as a professor, Valentini has been a champion of GS and its students.

 
Throughout his tenure at Columbia, Valentini served not only on various committees, but also as chair of the chemistry department and as the department’s director of undergraduate studies. His upbeat tone of voice as he talks about teaching and interacting with students illustrates his passion for pedagogy. Moreover, when he discusses his current position as dean of Columbia College, he demonstrates an excitement about leading the College at a time when it is flourishing and the University, in his words, “is at a moment of particular prominence, recognition, and excellence.”
 
“We are preparing students for a world that neither we nor they can imagine,” he says. “Having students from throughout the globe, with every kind of perspective, background, interest, and expectation—and having four different undergraduate schools—enables that, since everyone interacts with everyone else. They learn as much from one another as they do from their instructors, and this is important for enhancing their lives.”
 
Valentini explains that his own story, with its modest start, is his source for relating to the diversity of students at Columbia, which is evidenced by the fact that, since his time as a professor, Valentini has been a champion of GS and its students. “There are a lot of trajectories and a lot of paths,” he explains. “We admit individuals to Columbia College and General Studies. We do not admit transcripts, GPAs, SAT scores. We don’t admit people because of a particular aspect of them. We admit them because of their total identity.”
 
“Our graduates need to be prepared to interact with any kind of person any place in the world at any time,” Valentini explains. “We have a set of expectations and outcomes that we are aiming to achieve for every Columbia undergraduate. We want to expand the range of opportunities for all of our students, and the diversity of the classroom makes that possible. The academic integration is a reason to come to Columbia.”
 
Valentini is a strong supporter of the Presidential Global Fellowships, a grant that enables rising sophomores from Columbia College, Engineering, and GS to engage in a summer study-abroad project, and the combined Committee on Instruction (COI), the body of faculty and academic administrators that sets the curriculum for undergraduates in Columbia College and the School of General Studies. He explains: “The opportunities for collaboration among schools are greater now than ever, and that’s one of the things [that], as dean, I pursue.”