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.
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.
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.
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2003