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An Interview with President Kim

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Photography by: Jacob Boll (BA ’12)

Kwang-Wu Kim has more than 30 years of experience in performance, teaching, and administration. He was most recently dean and director of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and professor of music at Arizona State University. In addition to his presidential role, Kim serves as a faculty member in the college’s Music Department. He succeeds Warrick L. Carter, PhD, who served as college president for 13 years and retired in June.

Kim had an early connection to Columbia College, but he didn’t know it back then. As a boy, fascinated by the Shell Oil sign that sat atop the 624 S. Michigan Ave. building, Kim begged his parents to drive by regularly so he could marvel at its vibrant red and yellow design. Now, many years later, although the sign is long gone, Kim delights in the cosmic fact that he now oversees the work in that building—but more on that later. DEMO editor-in-chief Kristi Turnbaugh interviewed Kim in July.

DEMO: You’re a native Chicagoan, born and raised in Hyde Park. What was it like growing up there?

KWANG-WU KIM: I grew up very much affiliated with the University of Chicago because my parents had both been graduate students there. I thought the campus of the university was sort of our playground growing up. I went to public school and then the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. I always thought of Hyde Park as a special area, but it was always because of the sense of the university.

DEMO: What was your family life like?

KIM: My father was in business and my mother, by the end of her career, was the assistant superintendent for the Chicago Public School System. I have a sister, Karen, who is three years younger.

As is typical of probably almost all Korean families, the highest priority was placed on education. My parents were in that very first wave of the immigrants from Korea, so they came to this country not because of economic opportunities, but because of educational opportunities.

I was a pretty quiet kid. I spent a lot of my time reading—I think my obsession with books started early. I was a very studious child, sort of a perfect student. Had to be the best. That was kind of an unspoken expectation.

DEMO: What were your interests while growing up?

KIM: I was very interested in music and theater. I had a lot of interest in the performing arts direction, but I felt a certain amount of conflict because that didn’t fit the picture of a first child born in this country who’s a top student. I had some music lessons as a kid with a sort of little old lady piano teacher, but that was not something I pursued. I learned a lot on my own, actually, because it was not something my family was interested in seeing me get too serious about.

I did a lot of drama in high school. I also danced semiprofessionally in high school—Eastern European folk dance. I was very drawn to the stage and to performing arts, but in my mind, it was just always something I did on the side. I was heading towards medical school or law school.

DEMO: When did you get serious about studying music and pursuing arts as a career?

KIM: I entered college [at Yale University] as pre-med, and I realized in my first semester I didn’t want to do that anymore. It was interesting: I was the top science and math student in my [high school] graduating class, and then I got to college and it was as if that part of my brain just evaporated. Suddenly, all the things that were so easy to me didn’t make sense to me anymore, and my undergraduate career was really one of exploration. I tried lots of different major pathways: pre-med … German studies … anthropology … history. I tried to do a double major with music and philosophy, but the music department wasn’t as supportive as philosophy. I ended up as a philosophy major.

I took a year off between my second and third years, because I was realizing what I was most drawn to was music, but I also felt the most conflicted about it. So, I lived for a year in Korea, and getting really far away helped me to just realize that you get one chance to try something you really care about. I came back from that year determined that I was going to pursue something in music.

DEMO: You went to graduate school for music at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University on a full scholarship and became an accomplished pianist. At what point did you think you wanted to teach and go up the ranks?

KIM: I was very active in my mid to late twenties. I was doing competitions and concerts. I started realizing, as I was approaching 30, that I wasn’t really going to break through at the right level that would make it really compelling to me. I also found the daily reality of being a concert pianist boring—too much repetition.

In the meantime, I started getting involved in some organizing of concert series, and I realized I really liked that. And that’s the difference: When you’re a performer, unless you’re at the very, very top of the profession, you’re always in the role of being told what to do. More than anything else, I realized in order for me to really contribute something, I had to be in charge of my own life.

It was at the age of 35, where after a long period of a lot of self-doubt, I had this very interesting moment in my life. And I got my first teaching job offer at a university, to be assistant professor of music at the University of Puget Sound. The same week, I got a call from the chairman of the board of El Paso Pro Musica, which was a small performing arts organization I had helped with setting up some concerts and done some performing. The chairman of the board said, what would it take for you to come to El Paso to take over this organization?

So I had to do this interesting weighing moment. I thought, if I go to the University of Puget Sound, I kind of know what to expect. This other choice is totally unknown, and the “ah-ha” moment for me was: You’re 35 years old, you’re kind of a late bloomer compared to a lot of your colleagues. How old are you, really? I thought, I’ve got to try it.

I moved to El Paso to be artistic and administrative director. Oh, it was really scary for a while. I thought I had thrown my life away. I really thought, and all my colleagues thought, I had completely lost my mind, but that was the beginning of this whole adventure that’s led to Columbia because it was all about having to be in charge, even though you don’t really know what’s going on.

The transition from El Paso Pro Musica to my presidency at the Longy School of Music [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] was a moment at which I realized the challenge of being on the performing arts side of the world. You’re dealing with really interesting people, but out of necessity there’s also kind of a repetitive element because you find a formula that works, that attracts an audience, then once you get to that point it’s kind of hard to change too many things.

The Longy School was a school very much in transition. Great place, great people— financially challenged. I inherited a capital campaign that had stopped right in the middle—I had to finish that. I thought I would be staying there for a while.

DEMO: But then you got recruited to Arizona State University in 2006.

KIM: There was something irresistible about this big university that was saying to the world, we are committed to really testing whether anything that a university does has to be done the way it’s done. That just felt so irresistible to me.

I moved to Arizona with all these big ideas… and then—boom—the recession hit, and it was a really scary four years. The next stage of progression was that I had to learn about every level of what’s going on in higher education from the inside out. I really have had my hands in admissions, enrollment planning, development, marketing, publicity—you name it, I’ve had to be directly involved.

The link between ASU and Columbia College Chicago is the idea of an institution determined to find a way to be both excellent and accessible at the same time. I love the fact that Columbia College has the nerve to say to the world, “We want to be a great institution, but we never said we want to be an elite institution.”

DEMO: Why did you want to become president of Columbia?

KIM: To be perfectly frank, I didn’t at first. When Columbia College first called me, I had already been thinking about a college presidency in general as a logical next step, but I thought maybe more in the direction of the traditional liberal arts. When Columbia called me, I was thinking, wait, Columbia College, isn’t that that little school in downtown? Because that’s what I remember from growing up in Chicago. So, the first thing was my being shocked, just stunned at how much the school had grown.

I had to do some soul searching. I thought, all right, where is this idea of you as president of a liberal arts college coming from? Is there anything that people who are successful have in common? They play to their strengths. What do I know the most about? What do I care the most about? What is my whole life built on? The role of the arts in the world and society.

Then I read the college’s mission statement and that really wowed me. The sentence about students authoring the culture of their times just really hit me. I’ve never read anything like that in a college’s mission statement—the obligation to give young creative people a sense of agency in the world. That drew me in.

Then I had the most amazing meeting with the search committee. That wasn’t my first search committee meeting, but it was the first time where it just clicked. I walked in the room and there was this real positive energy, and the questions were smart questions. It all happened in a very natural way, which was very, very exciting to me.

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DEMO: What are you most excited about tackling?

KIM: I think there is an opportunity to lead a wonderful institution much more explicitly into the 21st century. I think the state of graduate education at the college needs to be redefined. We need to be looking at a much deeper exploration of innovative learning and teaching technologies.

We could have a very sophisticated conversation about answering the question, “What are the unique learning outcomes to a Columbia education, and how do those outcomes position our students to succeed in the world in the 21st century?” Real world experience is very important to me. Community engagement and experiential learning is a critically important part of how students also get ready for living in the world as who they are.

I’d like to see where community engagement fits in the curriculum. I think we could be a much bigger player in terms of a partner to all kinds of organizations around the city. I really believe we could be a leader in terms of defining what education for young creatives looks like in the 21st century.

The other thing that’s really exciting to me is we’re in Chicago, one of the greatest cities in the world. Columbia is really a part of the fabric of Chicago, and I want to make sure that’s even more emphasized in what we do and how we talk about ourselves. We own the South Loop. That is incredible. That’s a huge opportunity.

DEMO: What ideas do you have for improving alumni engagement?

KIM: First, as the president, I need to get out—not just in Chicago, but broadly—and try to start meeting people and just engaging around what their experience was. They want to hear about where the school is, but they want to talk about what they remember. So, there’s that whole period of engagement, lots of listening. It’s important to find fun ways to bring alums back so that they can see firsthand what their school is becoming. I love the idea of our alums as this giant network of mentors for students. We want that expertise to start flowing back.

I wouldn’t want any alum to think that, as a new president, my intention is to start asking alums for money. We need money, no question of that, but the money flows because of alums having that good feeling about their institution and feeling like the education they received was valuable to them. For me, the first stage is lots and lots of engagement, recognizing that the alums have knowledge that we need.

DEMO: What would you like to accomplish in your first year?

KIM: I want to start right away getting involved with students. I want a very student-centered presidency. That’s really important. I want to meet the student government leaders, editorial staff of the Chronicle. I’m going to be at student orientations. I want to emphasize through my activity that I understand, ultimately, this is all about students. Otherwise, why are we here?

One outcome of this first year would be working with the school community to create a really comprehensive strategic plan that builds on the prioritization process, that builds on the work that’s been done, but a plan that’s specific enough that everybody feels we’ve got a common set of guideposts to help determine if we’re succeeding or not. Some key hires in this first year: We’re hiring a new provost. We’re hiring a new vice president for advancement. For any new president, those are two really important positions.

DEMO: You’re a proponent of needing to expand the creative role, the creative practice in society, and to rethink the way artists are educated. Is there anything else you would like to say about that, and how that would evolve here at Columbia?

KIM: This cannot be denied: There could never be too many creative practitioners in this world—never. There could never be too many people who have an emotional appreciation of this side of the human experience. In fact, if there were more, they could rise into positions of authority in the political world, in the economic world, and I think the world would actually be better.

I want us to be a source in the world for more people who are just really attuned to the emotional awareness of the human condition. And, if we’re sending lots and lots of people out into the world with that skill set, and that ability, and that proficiency, our grads are going to start changing the world even without it being their primary focus just because they bring a different awareness into the world. That’s really important to me.

I still maintain, as much as I can, my chops as a pianist, but it’s not what I’m doing professionally. And, yet, so much of who I am, what I know how to do, is the result of my training as a musician, my discipline, my focus on setting deadlines and goals, and then making sure they’re achieved. That’s all part of how I was taught—the ability to be out on stage alone with no help, that’s what a concert pianist does. So, I think a lot about this idea of transferring the skills.

“Something feels so powerfully right about being here and being able to support this institution.”

DEMO: What else would you like us to know about you?

KIM: It’s very important to me as the president of Columbia College Chicago to remain authentic. I’m at my best when I just really say what I think, and that’s my nature.

I can say honestly that since I lived in El Paso, I have not been in a place where I feel so at ease to be natural. Even in the interview process, and when I did those two open forums [with the college community in February], I felt completely open, and even now, speaking to trustees, I’m not feeling that desire to guard what I say. I’m just saying it. There’s something about the energy of this place that feels so encouraging to me, and I think that’s what I’m feeding on right now. I’m really hoping that’s what people will see, and I want to try to keep that because—at the risk of getting a little bit mystical— something feels so powerfully right about being here and being able to support this institution.

DEMO: Do you think it has anything to do with the Shell sign that used to be on top of the 624 S. Michigan building?

KIM: Well, let’s take that one step deeper. This is home for me, and I never thought I was coming home. I never thought that in my career I would move back to Chicago. So, there is something very powerful about this unexpected return to a city that I really love and know pretty well.