Over two decades ago, a novel idea was born—to bring Modern Tibetan Studies to Columbia University. With the support of Chinese historian Madeline Zelin, this innovation was to mark the first time modern Tibet became the focus of an academic program and eventually the first time an East Asian Studies department hired a Tibetan Studies scholar. Now we step back to survey the achievements of this program with an eye to a future of further building on the strengths of this unique contribution to the study of modern Asia.
Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies program started twenty years ago this fall, when the Weatherhead East Asian Institute hired Robbie Barnett as an associate research scholar to teach about and host talks on contemporary Tibet. Over time, a host of language teachers and librarians, as well as undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students, as well as postdoctoral fellows would all be added to the program. This has made Columbia not only the first center for modern Tibetan studies, but also the most robust program in Tibetan studies in North America, with scholars in religion, history, literature, anthropology, film, and culture.
The Modern Tibetan Studies (MTS) program has seven major components which represent the achievements of the past twenty years: language teaching, librarianship, graduate training on modern Tibet, the graduate student group Khorlo, a very active events program, a strong record of publication about Tibet, and collaborative relationships with domestic and international partners. While the MTS program has built up strengths in all these areas over the last two decades, now is also a time of exciting change for the program. In particular, we are seeing greater synergy between all the aspects of the program and a renewed vigor brought by engaging with younger scholars with fresh ideas and energy. With its team of multidisciplinary scholars, the future of the Modern Tibetan Studies program is focused on supporting innovative minds and serves as a vehicle for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty to bring new ideas to the fore.