LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Thanks for the Hamilton Hall centennial edition [September/October]. Such good memories:
I was 17 and eager to learn when I met Dean [Herbert] Hawkes, and I got to know him! … The Hamilton Quad surrounded by Hartley, Livingston and Jay, and tennis courts on the west flank — yes, tennis courts. … December 1941 and World War II — our freshman dreams on hold. … The U.S. Navy V-12 Program; billeted at Livingston Hall, sixth floor. … On Sunday nights, we young sailors were entertained by a couple on the fourth floor across Amsterdam Avenue; they played violin and piano in the buff, stark naked to our adolescent joy. And on weekends, they played tennis at the Hamilton tennis courts with a large audience (they weren’t any good, but we satisfied our voyeurism). Oh, yes — they dressed for tennis.
Stan Kogut ’46
Marina del Rey, Calif.
The article, “Hamilton 100” by Shira Boss-Bicak ’93, ’97J, ’98 SIPA stimulated my memories of the building where I spent so much time from 1936–40. However, my fondest recollections are of some art treasures in Hamilton that Ms. Boss-Bicak did not mention.
I refer to those wonderful etchings of ancient Rome by Giovanni Piranesi (1720–78) that hug on the walls of Hamilton’s stairwells. Every time I went from floor to floor in Hamilton, the creations of the great etcher, engraver and architect aroused my imagination and made me wish I owned at least a couple of them.
I spoke of my admiration for Piranesi to Richard Birnberg ’41. So on a trip to Italy in the 1940s, Dick bought two Piranesis in excellent condition and to my delight gave them to me on his return. They are “Veduta interna dell’atrio del Portico di Ottavia” and “Spacato Interna della Basilica di S. Paolo fuori delle mura.”
I had them framed and hung them in the Manhattan apartment that my late wife and I then had. After we moved to my present house in Palisades, Rockland County, more than 50 years ago, they adorned the walls of our living room. There, my son and daughter saw them every day from their childhood.
Now 88, I recently decided that each child should have one of the etchings to admire in his/her own home while I am still around. So after getting them appraised, I passed Birnberg’s gifts on to them.
There may well be other College alumni with similar recollections of those masterpieces in Hamilton’s stairwells.
Albon P. Man ’40
How Doctors Think
Dr. Jerome Groopman ’72, ’76 P&S’ excellent essay, “Flesh-and-Blood Decision-Making” (July/August), highlights a perennial irony: Life is understood backward, but must be lived forward.
Since life is understood backward, classroom lectures overflow with the benefits of hindsight. Thus we peruse case studies that presuppose omniscience, armed with theories presuming omnipotence. But life is lived forward, with all the imperfections that implies. To face a crisis in real time involves limited powers and a shadowy grasp of the facts.
Given such constraints, what else can we do but deploy “heuristics,” which can flexibly adapt as further facts come to light?
While Groopman’s essay focuses on the medical classroom’s inability to impart real-time medical judgment, I wonder whether this might apply more generally — for starters, to ethics, government and business. Even the riverboat pilot, as Mark Twain observed, needs more than mere memory: “There are two higher qualities which [the pilot] must also have. [The pilot] must have good and quick judgment and decision, and a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake (Life on the Mississippi, 1883).”
By illustrating the difference between classroom instruction and real-time decision-making, Groopman offers not just a portrait of medicine but a picture of the human condition.
Department of Philosophy
University of Hartford (Conn.)
Thank you for your cover photo from this year’s Class Day (July/August). In the center is Jennifer Oki [’07], whom I taught in high school in South Africa. I see from her shoulder decoration that she graduated magna cum laude. Brava!
Gregory Vanderheiden ’81
Glenhasel, Johannesburg, South Africa
The other day, I bumped into an old Columbia lion, Abraham Druss ’28, 101 and still going strong. He was originally a member of the Class of 1926 but took leave for two years.
When we shook hands, his powerful grip crushed my fingers. I noticed, however, that his fingers remained curled. He explained that it was a result of the interclass “cane spree,” which he won as a freshman. If they still had them on South Field, I am sure he could hold his own.
Irwin Grossman ’36
Who Owns Paree?
Thanks for publishing Dan Carlinsky ’65’s interesting tour of Columbia connections in Paris (July/August). I enjoyed it and wish I had had that on my visits there. I don’t remember that, in my day, 1932–36, we had that option of spending a term in Paris. Besides, I think most of us in those years could not have afforded it.
Sol Fisher ’36
Pleasant Hill, Calif.
Selectivity at our college is at an all-time low of 8.9 percent (July/August), among the lowest in the country. However, another school in New York City has an even lower rate: Stuyvesant H.S. at 3.0 percent! One of several public high schools in the city that require entrance exams for admission, it too, has a selective student body (four Nobel Laureates are alumni).
Columbia could probably fill its incoming classes with the capable graduates of schools like Stuyvesant. However, it has been my understanding that the College wisely casts a wider geographical net. There are talented youngsters in Seattle, San Antonio or small towns, and in Manila, Mumbai or Montreal, who can bring with them their different perspectives, much to the benefit of the entire class.
I know there have been articles on our selection methods (a devilishly difficult process), but should we have an update? Now that Columbia has the lowest rate in the Ivy League, a review of the process would be of great interest.
Desmond J. Nunan Sr. ’50
Ocean City, N.J.
[Editor’s note: Admissions is one of the topics we plan to examine in our series, “Columbia College: Moving Forward,” which was launched in September/October and will continue during the next two years.]
An American First
Six full pages on Jim McGreevey ’78’s new life plus a front cover photo blurb (July/August) is an extravagant waste. His sexual orientation is his own business. What is the public’s business is his behavior as governor of New Jersey and his behavior toward his wife, both of which speak to integrity and character. He accomplished nothing as governor, and he betrayed his constituents and his wife. He even tarnished the good name of Columbia College by making his three semesters there the final three, which entitled him to a Columbia degree.
McGreevey even manipulated his own histrionic resignation, post-dating it like a bad check so that the voters could not elect his successor, who was instead appointed by the New Jersey Democratic Party machine. Since his departure from office, McGreevey’s public actions have consisted of vigorous self-promotion, criticizing his wife for not being supportive enough of his personal choices — as if her rights were inconsequential — and securing a part-time job teaching ethics in a New Jersey state university, thereby enhancing his government pension.
The only positive quality of this article is that it was followed immediately by “Flesh-and-Blood Decision-Making,” the [excerpt from the] riveting essay/memoir by Dr. Jerome Groopman ’72, ’76 P&S. I might have missed it without the ode to McGreevey.
Charles K. Sergis ’55
Residents of New Jersey have, in recent years, become resigned to being the targets of bad jokes about the state by their non-resident friends and a large number of TV comedians. However, the lengthy “joke” by Dan Fastenberg ’05 in the July/August CCT would not be used by either Jay Leno or David Letterman, two of New Jersey’s most vocal negative but amusing commentators.
James McGreevey ’78 was a mediocre mayor and an incompetent governor. He did not serve the citizens of New Jersey well. In his political life, he surrounded himself with a gaggle of corrupt associates. McGreevey’s accomplishments during his political life are, at best, modest. Nothing he has done since resigning suggests that his future will be any different. However, his ability to take credit for the accomplishments of others was, and continues to be, outstanding.
Attilio Bisio ’52
At a time when the sacralization and celebration of suicide bombing threaten the very fabric of civilization, Columbia has seen fit to name Gayatri Spivak, one of its most ardent apologists, a University Professor (May/June). In June 2002, for example, speaking at Leeds University, this celebrated tribune of “international feminism” declared: “Suicide bombing — and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs — is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others … Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning … You die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are, there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing … It is a response … to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.”
This is a stunning example of what another University Professor, Lionel Trilling [’25] used to call the language of nonthought, employed to blur the distinction between suicide and murder, to obliterate the victims — “no designated killees” here! — metaphysically as well as physically.
In Spivak’s prose, the opaque pseudojargon of literary postmodernism becomes an accessory to murder. One wonders just what role this particular aspect of what [President] Lee C. Bollinger calls her “great intellect” played in earning Spivak Columbia’s highest faculty rank.
Edward Alexander ’57
University Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak responds:
I am not an “apologist for suicide bombing.” Alexander is quoting a citation in The New Republic. In the longer speech I was attempting, in Dr. King’s words, the “necessary task … to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies … We must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions.”
Some years later I wrote:
I am a pacifist, I cannot and do not condone violence, practiced by the state or otherwise. I therefore also believe that violence cannot be brought to an end by ruthless extermination. I believe that we must be able to imagine our opponent as a human being, and to understand the significance of his or her action. It is in this belief — not to endorse suicide bombing but to be on the way to its end, however remote — that I have tried to imagine what message it might contain. Of course this does not mean each suicide bomber has these specific thoughts in mind! … Things are out of control and whole generations have been affected. Mine may therefore be seen as the counsel of despair, but certainly not as an endorsement of violence. It is convenient for the laws of war to distinguish between civilians and soldiers. It is just that there be law, but law is not justice. With justice in mind, the ethical axiom is that no human life can be designated for death by positive law.
I was very pleased to find among Stephen Joel Trachtenberg ’59’s reminiscences of his Columbia College days (July/August) some well-deserved recognition given to the late Bernard W. Wishy ’48, ’58 GSAS, who was a junior member of the history faculty during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Trachtenberg recalls that Wishy, his Contemporary Civilization instructor, had been for him an inspirational figure, deeply devoted to the College and the education of its undergraduates.
I, too, remember Professor Wishy as having been a truly outstanding teacher. His thought-provoking lectures on American history were consistently interesting, informative and urbane. The seminar he conducted on the intellectual origins of the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was stimulating, challenging and extremely well-structured. Both his survey and seminar remain for me models of how such courses ought to be taught.
During those years, Wishy and James Shenton ’49 offered parallel sections of the basic, two-semester American history survey. I enrolled in Wishy’s class. An upperclassman friend chose to enroll in Shenton’s section one semester and Wishy’s the other, in order to compare the two highly regarded young professors. His verdict: Shenton’s presentation was somewhat more entertaining, but Wishy’s contained more substance. Professor Shenton was then well on his way to a much-acclaimed career within the Columbia community; Wishy was subsequently denied tenure and soon after left the College unceremoniously.
Thank you, Dr. Trachtenberg, for recalling, for those of us old enough to remember, Bernard Wishy’s positive contribution to our undergraduate education.
Edward Kosberg ’63
In the paean to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg ’59 (July/August), there is no mention of his acrimonious relationship with the adjunct faculty at The George Washington University during his tenure as president. This is a significant omission given that a majority of GWU’s professors are adjuncts.
Even though, as the article itself noted, GWU’s tuition is “among the highest in the nation,” the average salary paid to adjunct professors in 2006 was a miserly $3,500 per course. In addition, adjunct salaries were frozen in 2000. Other indignities included having to pay for parking in GWU lots (while the administration was exempt) or to use university athletics facilities. The first effort to organize a union among adjunct professors was met with a nasty witch hunt that resulted in mass firings. The second effort led to an election in 2004 in which a majority of adjunct faculty voted to have the SEIU be their bargaining agent. GWU’s administration then engaged in a costly and ultimately fruitless legal battle to challenge the election results. Perhaps not coincidentally, the announcement in late 2006 that GWU would finally sit down to negotiate with the adjunct faculty union coincided with that of Trachtenberg stepping down as the university’s president.
Thomas Andrew O’Keefe ’82
P.S.: I was an adjunct professor at GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs from 1999–2005.
President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg ’59 responds:
If Mr. O’Keefe means to suggest that during my 38 years as a university dean, vice president, president and president again I sometimes was less than absolutely perfect, I think he is probably right. Undoubtedly, during my tenure as an academic administrator, I sometimes erred. I like to think I was right more often than not and added value at all three of the universities I served, which is perhaps why I was asked to remain in office for as along as I was.
As to the balance of his comments, they were mostly either overheated, unthinking or just plain wrong. For example, everybody at GW pays for parking — all faculty, all administrators. And, naturally, everybody complains. The notion that a 21st-century university administration would respond to an effort by adjunct faculty to unionize with mass firings shows a lamentable ignorance of the National Labor Relations Act. No contemporary institution could do it or even think to do it. It would be an illegal, unfair labor practice and self-defeating. I will not reply to Mr. O’Keefe’s comments about “the indignity of having to pay to use university athletics facilities” and other such matters. All of mankind should have such problems. His text sadly refutes itself.
P.S.: For the record, the degree I earned at Harvard was an M.P.A. I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa by Epsilon Chapter of Massachusetts.
The recent visit by the president of Iran was not the first time that Iranian government officials have been on the Columbia campus.
On December 19, 1949, a president’s dinner was held by the then-University president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at Faculty House for his imperial majesty, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shahanshah of Iran.
I was a member of a small singing group at the College, the Blue Notes, who sang several songs at the affair — “Goodbye Old Paint,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and a third number I don’t recall. Then, as a surprise for the shah, we sang the Iranian national anthem, which we had memorized phonetically (I still remember the opening lines).
It was an interesting evening and the kind of experience that Columbia students have on our cosmopolitan campus.
Desmond J. Nunan Sr. ’50
Ocean City, N.J.