Big Plan on Campus

As Its 250th Birthday Approaches, Columbia University Hits Its Stride

There's a fopped-out statue of Thomas Jefferson on the steps to Columbia's journalism school that just about sums up the university's history, albeit unintentionally. It's both slightly admonishing in its implied demand for moral rectitude and suggestive of the school's Revolutionary War-era roots. It's also an intentional reminder that the 250-year-old university and the country grew up together, and that to those who care to think about it, they may have a symbiotic responsibility to each other.

Moreover, it suggests that Jefferson played a role in Columbia's development. But as history professor Robert McCaughey points out in his forthcoming Stand, Columbia, a thorough, top-down history of the school, not only is there no evidence that Jefferson ever set foot on the campus of what was then known as King's College, but there is cause to claim that, "at a fairly high level of political abstraction, Jefferson could be said to have become during his lifetime . . . a nemesis of Columbia." He didn't like "the ungracious cities of New York and Philadelphia." He believed government and learning were best conducted away from cities, and brokered the deal that moved the capital to a swamp off the Potomac. Most tellingly, King's College was Loyalist throughout the war and Jefferson, well, wasn't.

So the statue, for all its we-were-down-with-the-revolution pretense (bequeathed by publisher and J-school founder Joseph Pulitzer, it was erected in 1914), is the perfect symbol for Columbia's admirably high goals and stumbling efforts to achieve them. The school has preached a long sermon to its graduates about the value of civic duty and its role in helping to foster American democracy, but it hasn't always lived up to its lofty ideals.

Jefferson slept here—not. A statue from Joseph Pulitzer.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Jefferson slept here—not. A statue from Joseph Pulitzer.

It has helped bring prosperity to New York City, and has benefited from that prosperity, while remaining, to varying degrees during its history, inaccessible to many city residents. To a similarly varying degree, the university has also at times been at odds with its students and faculty, surrounding communities, the city, and even the young country it bet against and suddenly found itself in the middle of. Columbia hasn't always chosen sides well.

But there are signs that the university is learning from its mistakes, and that it is growing into the sizable shoes it fashioned for itself almost a quarter of a millennium ago. Partly as a result of the student-led uprisings of 1968 and partly as a result of two and a half centuries of practice, Columbia is becoming a place more at peace with itself and its neighbors, more willing not only to discuss its projects with the surrounding community, but to allow the community a voice in the planning processes. Recent efforts to make a mammoth push into Harlem by buying up a 17-acre swath above 125th Street have proceeded with uncharacteristic smoothness, although Columbia has yet to discuss the full extent of its multibillion-dollar, decades-long expansion plans.

George Goodwill, the chairman of Community Board 9, which represents the Morningside Heights area around the campus, says that he's always found an open door to the administration's offices whenever area residents have voiced concerns about one of Columbia's many local business relationships and development plans. "This board has an excellent working relationship with Columbia," he says. And when aspects of recent building projects have run into neighborhood resistance, the university has worked hard to fashion compromises that have satisfied both its own needs and those of the concerned parties, as in the case of the recent controversy over the construction of a 20-story apartment building/grade school for faculty children to be built on 110th Street. Columbia, along with Community Board 7, came to an agreement late last year to limit the height of the new building to 12 floors, and to have a percentage of the school's slots open to area residents, though disagreements remain about the school's proposed admissions policies.

"The overwhelming concern was that the building would put gentrification pressures on nearby residents," says Emily Lloyd, Columbia's executive vice president for government and community affairs. "So we went to the law school, and through them established a tenants' rights legal center." The center will provide legal assistance to locals whose landlords might try to price them out of their homes. "Our feeling was that if we could help people stay in their apartments, that might push back against the forces of gentrification."

Put simply, after 250 years, Columbia's relationship with the city seems to be maturing.

With an October pub date coinciding with the beginning of the year-long 250th anniversary celebration, McCaughey's book is the official history of the most urban of the Ivy League universities. Established by royal charter on October 31, 1754, King's College, as McCaughey explains, fought to be included among the country's most prestigious schools. Elitism is a reliable path to a certain kind of excellence, but it has its dangers—such as engendering resentment. Courting the powerful and influential is a necessary component to any university's plan to achieve and maintain preeminence, and few court as successfully as Columbia ($360 million in alumni gifts last year).

That impulse (survivalist at its core, and central to Columbia's success in the long run) first came into conflict with the college's environs when it chose to wear a red coat during the Revolution. Siding with power, however beneficial for a university's endowment and influence, tends to piss off the underdog, so when the war and the British occupation of New York City ended in 1783, the future of the Loyalist college came into doubt. But the new national capital needed a college, if not its name, and in 1784 the state legislature renamed it Columbia in an obvious effort to paint over its royal roots. It's fitting that the university's very name is an awkward attempt to fit in. For a college that originally sided against democracy, it's no surprise that Columbia's admittance polices were, for most of its history, extremely exclusionary. But even then, its efforts at diversification looked positively progressive when compared to those of its competitors.

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