The Need for Manhattanville
By Brian C. Krisberg ’81
President, Columbia College Alumni Association
As I drove my 78-year-old mother to my 10-year-old son’s travel hockey game recently, she asked me what I planned to write about next in this column. I quickly threw out a couple of ideas, to which she responded with a simple shake of her head and said, “No, why don’t you tell them what you think about that expansion idea?”
Her suggestion seemed particularly timely given the late September announcement of an agreement between Columbia University and the Borough of Manhattan on a series of financial and other commitments from Columbia to benefit the West Harlem community as it relates to the planned Manhattanville campus. The press release from Manhattan’s borough president stated in its headlines:
Borough President Scott Stringer Announces Agreement with
Columbia University to Protect and Enhance West Harlem
Community as Part of Columbia Expansion Proposal
Historic Agreement Includes Significant Investment by
Columbia in Affordable Housing, Open Space, Sustainable
Development and Community Resources
A year ago, I had a conversation on a Saturday morning with a College alumnus as we watched our sons play soccer. He was highly skeptical of, and indeed somewhat opposed to, any effort by Columbia to expand into the surrounding community. I was truly surprised by how strongly this alum felt about expansion, given the complex issues involved and the challenges facing Columbia today.
One of the biggest issues on the Morningside Heights campus today is the competition among the University’s divisions for, and the allocation of, the scarce resource of space. When I speak with everyone from Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin to Professor (and John Jay Award winner) Eric Foner ’63 to Athletics Director M. Dianne Murphy, the topic invariably comes up. All one has to do is visit campus on a weekday afternoon when students are going from class to class and it becomes abundantly clear that the Morningside Heights campus is bursting at the seams. For example, the College has identified (and made clear to the University) that one of its most pressing priorities is the creation of an enlarged, modernized and centrally located Center for Career Education facility where our students and professional staff can meet with potential employers on campus.
The planned expansion is a smart and
necessary business decision.
We pick up the newspaper and read from time to time that Columbia’s peer schools are making public pronouncements about their expansion plans. It is worth noting that this reality is not limited to our competitors in the suburbs or rural areas but also includes the urban competition (such as Harvard, Yale and Penn). The media also is placing great focus on the endowment size of great research universities such as Columbia and its peer schools and the returns earned on these endowments. While Columbia’s endowment is nothing to sneeze at, on a per capita basis, it is — and for the foreseeable future will remain — at the lower end of the spectrum relative to our competitors. Given these realities, the bold expansion that would create a Manhattanville campus is imperative if Columbia is to retain its competitive position for all forms of intellectual capital, including students and faculty.
The Manhattanville initiative will include in its initial phase the movement of the Business School and the School of the Arts to buildings uptown. A number of corollary benefits can result from these moves. Foremost among them is the formal establishment of the main campus running from 114th Street to 120th Street as the focal point and home of the College and SEAS, and the Arts and Sciences generally. This will be especially valuable and important as the University considers any expansion plans for the size of the College from its current 4,200 students, given the soaring number of applications (more than 18,000 in 2006–07). In addition, adequate residence space for faculty is another shortage, that, while perhaps not addressed initially, can be alleviated through the possibilities opened uptown. Finally, the athletics department, which has not been the beneficiary of any capital projects in literally decades, may have the opportunity to address some of its long list of needs.
Columbia has become, in many ways, a corporate style enterprise. It maintains a “AAA” rating from the bond rating agencies and is one of New York City’s largest employers. Its actions and inactions are scrutinized by the press and pundits from all walks of life. It is run by talented professionals and officers with oversight from a devoted board of trustees. These individuals have a responsibility to run this great academic institution in the best interests of a wide variety of stakeholders, be they students, faculty, alumni, staff or parents. Viewed in this manner, the planned expansion of the campus is simply a smart, and necessary, business decision.
By now, you have probably figured out where I come out on Manhattanville. I am an unabashed supporter and think that the expansion cannot happen soon enough for our students. Certainly the University must be mindful of and responsive to the needs of the West Harlem community. Given the history of relations between Columbia and its neighbors, Columbia must go the extra yard in generously providing its resources and expertise so Manhattanville becomes a “win-win” for all involved. Only time will tell whether the agreement announced in late September is the first step in forging new and improved connections between Columbia and its neighbors and surrounding businesses. The Manhattanville campus, with its sense of new possibilities and horizons for our students and faculty, has the potential to energize and excite the College and University communities for many years to come.