A Call to Alumni
Bob Berne ’60 and Roar-ee the Lion sing "Roar Lion Roar" during the Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
On November 16, Robert Berne ’60, ’62
Business, received the Alexander Hamilton Medal for distinguished service
and accomplishment at a black-tie dinner in Low Library Rotunda. The award
is the highest honor Columbia College bestows. Berne, a longtime real estate
developer, served 13 years on the College Board of Visitors, is a past
president of the College Alumni Association and a past chairman of the
Columbia College Fund. In accepting the Hamilton Medal, Berne recalled
wearing the lion’s suit in his student days and says he proudly remains
a cheerleader for Columbia 50 years later.
Some things we learned at Columbia have been reinforced by experience - some are no longer true. As freshmen, we learned Columbia’s marching song: “When you’re marching for Columbia you had better march like men.”
I don’t suppose they sing that any longer - unless they changed the words to “you had better march like a mensch.”
Of course, another line, “When you’re marching for Columbia your four years won’t seem long,” was an understatement. At age 18, four years as an undergraduate did seem long. Looking back, 50 years seems very short.
During freshman week, there were presentations from all the clubs, sports and activities. One of my high school classmates suggested that we try out for the cheerleaders.
I’m proud to say I’m still a cheerleader for Columbia. In fact, my children’s first nursery rhyme was “Roar, Lion, Roar.”
I rooted for Columbia long before I enrolled. My father was Class of ’22. When I first visited Morningside Heights, 116th Street was still a through street. In those days, there was a table at Homecoming for the 49ers - those alumni who attended the college when it was on 49th Street and Madison Avenue.
Even if I didn’t have an awareness of the history of Columbia, the list of Hamilton Medal recipients highlights the long history here on Morningside Heights. Sixty years of these dinners, almost half of which Steffi and I have attended, remind us of how many ways the College can be celebrated.
But rather than talk about the past, I prefer talking about Columbia’s potential.
We recently had a dinner honoring the many accomplishments during Austin Quigley’s 10 years as dean of the College. We celebrated the huge increase in applications and the emergence of Columbia among the most selective colleges in the country.
I personally believe that one of Austin’s most important accomplishments has been encouraging greater alumni involvement. The creation of an outstanding Office of Alumni Affairs and Development will pay dividends long into the future.
As president of the Alumni Association, I often was asked whether Lee Bollinger was doing a good job. My father would have answered that question with one of his own.
Compared to what?
In a university with a 250-year history, the leadership should be judged by how they affect the quality and security of the institution. In only a few years, Lee has undertaken a desperately needed expansion of both the physical and financial capacities of the University.
Though the College is only a small part of the University, I like to think that College alumni on the Board of Trustees make a difference. Their number and influence have increased in recognition of the importance of the College and its alumni within the University. If we need more proof, just look at the goals set for financial aid and undergraduate education in the Columbia Campaign.
If the trustees are the corporate directors, the faculty and deans are the soul of the University. It is hard to say that they are not the University.
The students also have a claim. The Ivy League is a college athletic conference whose prestige reflects on the entire University. From a financial perspective, with tuition covering only about half the cost of their education, the students shouldn’t claim ownership, but rather are beneficiaries.
If the College is governed by trustees, managed and directed by the deans and faculty, and intended for the benefit of its students, what is the role of alumni?
We are the connection between the generations of undergraduates. We demonstrate the continuing value of a Columbia education.
In a world where there are many competing needs, why should alumni keep Columbia high on their list of priorities?
In part, we have an obligation. If we benefited from our time at Columbia, we should help to assure its future.
Achieving the goal of fully endowed financial aid is not just about making Columbia available to the best and brightest, but will shape its future. An undergraduate financial aid endowment will release the entire tuition for faculty support and other College investments.
With the best and most diverse student body, with an exceptional faculty teaching the Core Curriculum in the world’s capital city, Columbia has everything.
While the College may not belong to the alumni, we are its institutional memory, its conscience. If we continue to be connected, Columbia will be able to carry out its mission and continue to be the great institution we care so much about.