In response to interest from several students in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALAC) during the 1990s, Professor Madeleine Zelin, then director of Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute (WEAI), instigated the founding of the Modern Tibetan Studies (MTS) program. With the full support of WEAI, Modern Tibetan Studies was created in 1999 as an integrated program across several departments of Columbia University, in particular EALAC and the Department of Religion. MTS was founded with the intention of complementing those highly regarded classical Tibetan studies programs already established at Columbia and other major U.S. universities and designed to complement and contribute in particular to studies of contemporary China and Inner Asia.
Robert Barnet was invited to Columbia University as a Visiting Research Scholar in 1999. As a co-founder of Tibet Information Network in London, he brought significant expertise on contemporary Tibet. In 2000, he was assigned the role of Adjunct Research Scholar and in 2002 was appointed Program Coordinator of Modern Tibetan Studies. Barnett began teaching courses in EALAC on Understanding Modern Tibet in 2001, and MTS outreach and events programming accelerated dramatically thanks to his coordination. Also in 2000, Columbia University’s MTS program – in partnership with the University of Virginia – established the first Tibetan language teaching program for foreign students within Tibet. The Summer Language Program, based at Tibet University in Lhasa, ran from 2001 until 2006.
The Modern Tibetan Studies program was established and sustained for its first five years thanks to $750,000 of funding from the Trace Foundation, Frick Foundation, Ford Foundation, Title VI funds, several small private gifts, and generous grants from WEAI and the Austrian Scientific Research Fund. In 2004, the Henry Luce Foundation provided major funding for Tibetan Studies – specifically, modern Tibetan studies – at Columbia University, in response to a proposal by Professor Zelin and Professor Thurman, assisted by Dr Robert Barnett who had recently been awarded his PhD from Cambridge University. The Modern Tibetan Studies program became the only teaching program outside China dedicated to modern Tibet. The proposal being submitted in the name of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Center for Buddhist Studies, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, and the Department of Religion, in cooperation with the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Culture, the Department of Anthropology, and the Department of History, demonstrating the program’s deep commitment to the integrated study of Tibet. The Henry Luce Foundation’s generous donation endowed a new chair, the Leila Hadley Luce Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, awarded to Dr. Gray Tuttle in 2005. Located in EALAC, the Professorship was created as a central pillar of the Modern Tibetan Studies program, to advance Tibetan Studies at Columbia and in the United States by developing inter‑disciplinary scholarship and innovative teaching about modern Tibet, continuing the guiding principles of the Modern Tibetan Studies program.
In 2006, Columbia University Libraries launched its first open search for a full-time Tibetan Studies Librarian. The post was filled by Dr. Lauran Hartley in January 2007, and funded by a Starr Challenge Grant and later, by Luce Foundation support.
In 2014, Columbia University hired Sonam Tsering as full time coordinator of Tibetan language, responsible for teaching three years of modern Tibetan. Sonam completed a degree in social anthropology at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London, in 2005. Between 2009 and 2014, he taught Tibetan language at SOAS, the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, and the University of Michigan. Since Sonam came to Columbia University, enrollments have more than doubled, partly through his distance language teaching that reaches Cornell and Yale Universities.
In December 2017, Robert Barnett retired from Columbia University and in July 2019, Dr. Eveline Washul was appointed as Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University – bringing interdisciplinary skills from history and anthropology. Dr. Washul graduated from Columbia University in 2007 with a master’s degree in International Affairs and East Asian Studies, and graduated from Indiana University in 2018 with a PhD in Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies. Dr. Washul returned to Columbia as a Postdoctoral Research Scholar in WEAI in July 2018 and as an Adjunct Lecturer in EALAC. She teaches courses on the history, geography, anthropology and urbanization of Tibet as well as leading the events program of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program, including in news directions such as studying the impact of global climate change on the plateau.