The Powell School: Building Mission and Meaning

powellbanner by Vince Boudreau, Director, Colin Powell Center

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration of the Powell School this past May 2nd, I spent time asking certain questions of myself and virtually anyone else who would listen: What does it mean to become a school? What should it mean to teach and study at the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, and to reside near it in the adjacent neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights? How should campus life change in response to this new institution in our midst?

Even before moving into the details of merging the Colin Powell Center and Division of Social Sciences, I had some ideas about what it meant to become a school. A school would have a presence and identity more powerful and unified than separate departments and programs. A school would be an institution with specific and publicly discernible commitments and capacities. A school would have a mission—both on campus, and in the life of our city and nation. Children in the neighborhoods around City College and across the globe will be able to point to our campus and say, “The Powell School is there. That’s where I’m going to go.”

Those ideas were a good start, and we’ve spent the months since putting some flesh on those aspirational bones. Moreover, a few of our intentions have crystalized into courses of action.


The first is that the school will represent five core disciplines. We will graduate students with majors in Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and Political Science—but we will use our full range of intellectual resources to focus on problems that matter to our students and community. These include integrating immigrant communities into our society; making resources like education, housing and healthcare more equitable; and identifying the ways of contributing to the construction of a more just society.

To help us down this road, we established an entirely new set of institutions designed to integrate the work of many individuals and departments across the Powell School in ways we’ve never done before. In our curriculum planning, public events roster, and engaged scholarship and service-learning programs, we have begun to plan school-wide strategies and programs, and a close observer can already see some results.

Two new public events series represent the school’s initial efforts to develop thematically coherent events planning — a series of breakfast talks by scholars and public policy leaders, and an annual colloquium. The breakfast series began with a well-received discussion about the implications of the military coup in Egypt for the civil political arena, and subsequent breakfasts will cycle through topics that highlight the work of all the Powell School departments.  Our colloquium series this year is organized around the theme of forgiveness, with each department in turn examining a subject—debt forgiveness in economics, for instance, or the psychology of forgiveness—in advance of a closing program in the spring characterizing the interconnected elements of our thematic approach.

Another major area of cross-school collaboration is student success and advisement. Across the country, issues of how we can broaden access to higher education has given rise to a new concern: How do we ensure that as many students as possible prosper in college, and make the transition from the classroom to rewarding and productive careers?  In some ways, the student leadership and scholarship programming developed over the last decade at the Colin Powell Center centered on this very puzzle. We’re now in the process of taking the scholarship, leadership training, professional skills development, and service programs that we pioneered when we were a Center, and mainstreaming them across the Powell School. We hope to not just provide effective and exceptional support to our students, but to also become a major center for the development of best practices in higher education—and in particular, examining ways to overcome the social, economic, political and cognitive barriers to success in higher education.

And, this, in a nutshell, is what we’re doing across the length and breadth of the Powell School, We are taking the excellent resources and programs of the departments and programs of the social sciences and augmenting them with school-wide versions of some of the most successful activities we developed at the Powell Center.

We are in the midst of a transition—and it’s a time of great optimism and tremendous excitement. Being part of a school and building a school, after all, is the opportunity of a lifetime. I served as director of the Colin Powell Center for the past 12 years, and soon, when we’ve completed the process of integrating our activities into the Powell School, the last traces of the Center as a free-standing entity will disappear. And so I’ll admit to periodically thinking over that trajectory with some nostalgia. But not with regret.  We are—all of us—ready for this new challenge, and for the great project of becoming the Colin Powell School.