Big Plan on Campus

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

Limited for most of its history to Protestant men of means, Columbia admitted women and Jews in small numbers during the late 19th century, at rates better than or similar to other Ivy League institutions, McCaughey argues.

But the strain of exclusivity was beginning to wear down the ascendant university. Alumni dollars did not pour in, and state aid had dried up. In 1883, The Nation publisher E.L. Godkin blamed Columbia for its troubles, and encouraged it to "endeavor to increase in every way possible the number of points at which it can come into contact with the life . . . of the city," writes McCaughey.

So it's not as though the trustees weren't warned of the dangers of embracing elitism. By the mid '60s, the tradition of making kissy-faces with the establishment while not paying heed to the university's immediate environment, all while adhering to some of the same admissions policies that had kept minorities out (though to a decreased extent), was dangerous behavior for a university to engage in.

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

When the Vietnam War started escalating in 1965, Columbia College (the general undergrad school) had only just begun recruiting black students. There was no representative student council, and though McCaughey takes pains to show that Columbia's political agitators held opinions that were significantly in the minority of the student body, and at times dismisses the coming eruptions as "student misbehavior," he does a good job of showing how the administration's actions helped to create the crisis that would rock the school to its core.

Hunger for space by the ever expanding university also took its toll. By 1965, writes McCaughey, "at least three neighborhood organizations had been organized to check what they saw as Columbia's attempted takeover of Morningside Heights and nearby Manhattanville." Plans to construct a gymnasium in Morningside Park lit the fire. When construction was due to begin in February 1968, students and community residents, who saw the gym's orientation toward Columbia and inaccessibility from the bottom of the cliff (the Harlem side) bordering the park as "prima facie evidence of institutional racism," cemented their opposition, and the administration redoubled its resolve to go ahead with the building. It didn't help matters that Columbia was also doing secret defense research that war opponents saw as directly benefiting the war effort.

So in April 1968, a mix of student protesters gathered on the campus's central path, College Walk, and proceeded, after a march cut short by a police presence, to occupy Hamilton Hall. The unrest reverberated across campus, and soon enough six other buildings were similarly occupied. They stayed that way for over a week before President Grayson Kirk finally ordered police to clear them, which they did with force, one by one, arresting a total of 712 people—524 of them Columbia students. By that point, the university had screeched to a near standstill for almost two weeks, and the cleanup would extend far beyond whatever overturned chairs and bloodied floors (the NYPD was very LAPD that day) greeted administrators the morning after.

The impact of the unrest, with its dramatic broadcast imagery that grabbed national attention, resulted in a decades-long soul search. Some changes came immediately, such as the board of trustees' altering its procedures to allow for a more diverse membership. Others came more slowly, like the university's 1982 agreement to merge with the all-female Barnard College. Others have yet to be made: "We have to be more transparent," admits Lloyd, who attributes some of the friction associated with Columbia's current frenzy of development to fears resulting from inadequate communication with the surrounding communities.

But Columbia is trying. In addition to the recent wrangling over the construction of the faculty housing building on 110th Street, there was the relatively successful response by administrators to demands by students in the 1980s to divest the school of its apartheid-era South African holdings. The school has clearly displayed an increased adroitness in responding to potential crisis situations.

Ultimately, it's that sort of adaptability which has allowed an institution as big and powerful as Columbia to find something like equilibrium with the surrounding communities. When the 250th anniversary pomp gets pumping in October, there will be much to celebrate and much to learn from. In addition to the flurry of symposia, the parties for politicians and the powerful, and a heaping pile of sepia-toned nostalgia, the festivities will feature a Ric Burns documentary about the university.

And as President Bollinger helms the festivities, there will be ample opportunity for him to take notes as he embarks on expansion plans whose likes haven't been seen in decades. Perhaps the biggest lesson he can take away from the celebration is that those wrought-iron gates that ring the campus, however impressive they are, can bring as much consternation as they do safety.

Bollinger may not be able to resolve all the contradictions of the Jefferson statue's presence on campus, but he has a chance to prove its model wrong: A city, properly related to, can be a perfect place for a college—allowing for a short period of adjustment.

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