Although the election is behind us, we still battle a virus and a troubled economy, in the context of a nation that’s divided in more ways than one. On occasion, I turn to comedy — specifically the Saturday morning cartoon variety of my youth — to put a spring back into my step. Bugs Bunny had the uncanny ability to prevail despite any obstacle. I think of his animated brilliance: As a plank beneath him is severed, he stands suspended in midair and declares, “I know this defies the law of gravity but, you see, I never studied law!”
When I’m not being nostalgic about 1970s cartoons, I turn to my community for support; I enjoy keeping up with friends and fellow alumni in our now socially distant world. I am in awe of Columbia College alumni — bright, articulate, passionate and accomplished people who strive to make a difference in the world. Their leadership spans every conceivable field: sports, science, law, literature, theater, technology, medicine, media, business, religion, academia, the arts and many others.
As many of us seek new ways to connect, I encourage you to engage further with the College. Attend an online AlumniTALK about equity, humanity and social justice. Join the Odyssey Mentoring Program. Interview applicants through the Alumni Representative Committee. Wherever you live, Morningside Heights has never been as accessible as it is now in the virtual world.
Many of you know one of Dean James J. Valentini’s favorite refrains — that we are “the greatest college in the greatest university in the greatest city in the world.” I want to spend a moment reflecting on New York City. And make no mistake; since 1754, Columbia (and by extension its alumni) has been inextricably tied to this great metropolis. The global matrix has been hard hit by the pandemic and recession. Numerous articles highlight ways in which life in the city has become more difficult. Many of its traditional strengths, like density and reliance on public transit, have morphed into vulnerabilities.
To put my mind at ease, I look back to history. New York City has experienced a sustained and inexorable upward trajectory, albeit not on a straight line. The qualities that brought NYC success — grit, hard work, creativity and ambition — will certainly help it again to withstand the current challenges. The metropolis still attracts the best and brightest from all over the globe. Just like Columbia, NYC has one of the most diverse populations in the country. I believe it will confront its problems, reinvent where necessary and undergo a renaissance that will lift it to even greater heights. Some would say this process has already begun.
The College reflects the indomitable spirit of the city, as exemplified by many of its professors. I can’t forget Jim Shenton ’49, GSAS’54’s passion for history. And what about Ken Jackson? He still squires undergrads around NYC at night (although his famous bike tour is now by bus)! Andrew Dolkart has written definitive historical accounts of architecture throughout NYC, and regularly shares his knowledge outside the classroom on walking tours. We lived and studied in the masterpiece of McKim, Mead & White. As students, some of us had the same commute that Walt Whitman had for so many years, between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Of course, our connection is not limited to architecture, urban planning and history. We have myriad other connections — to writers and thinkers, for example, not to mention the worlds of arts and finance — all of which thrive in NYC.
New Yorkers are hardy folk, and in these tough times we dig deep to take care of ourselves and one another. The same can be said of the College’s remarkable alumni, even if their tenure in the city was limited to four years — or a few more, if they, like I, stayed on for graduate school. The great essayist E.B. White was also a quintessential New Yorker, though we must forgive the fact that he attended college in Ithaca. As he noted in his famous 1949 love letter to New York, “the city makes up for its hazards and deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin: the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.” Perhaps that is why, no matter how far you travel from the city post-college, you may still find yourself boasting that you are a New Yorker.