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Columbia College Today September 2004
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250: Columbia College, 1754-2004

The Recentering of the College

The College has had 14 deans, from John Howard Van Amringe (left, Class of 1860), who served from 1896-1910, to Austin Quigley, who has served since 1995.


In the 1990s, under the leadership of President George Rupp, the College and SEAS were strengthened and undergraduate education’s importance was again brought to the forefront of the University. With Austin Quigley as Dean of the College since 1995, the College has reaffirmed its place as one of the premier undergraduate institutions in the world. Applications for admission have soared to record levels, rising by more than 90 percent in Quigley’s tenure, and the College’s selectivity rate has dropped to an all-time low of 11 percent. Columbia College has become not only a school of choice but a school of first choice for many of the best and brightest students.

In this excerpt from his book, Stand, Columbia (Columbia University Press, 2003, $39.95), Robert McCaughey, Anne Whitney Olin Professor of History at Barnard, discusses the changes that have taken place at the College in the past 15 or so years, including the diversity of the student body, changes to the campus and the importance of all faculty interacting with undergradutes.

By Robert McCaughey

One factor that contributed to the different trajectories of the recent relationships of Barnard College and Teachers College with Columbia University stems from their different missions. Whereas Teachers College is a comprehensive graduate and professional school of education, Barnard’s mission is to provide its women undergraduates with a residentially based liberal arts education. And, as it turned out, it was undergraduate education that became one of the university’s major concerns in the 1990s. In 1996, looking back on the first years of his presidency, [former University President George] Rupp reminded the trustees: “The main emphasis at Columbia was to enhance undergraduate education, placing the College and SEAS at the center of the University.”

Perhaps it took an outsider who studied at Princeton, taught at Harvard and resided over Rice to bring to Low Library the conviction that no American university can achieve greatness if it is seen to neglect its undergraduates. Evidence that Columbia University had done this since the 1890s was undeniable, to the ongoing consternation of generations of College alumni. The College was not only the smallest undergraduate unit among the Ivies, but it was also the most administratively and financially beholden to its own university. The lament of the College’s first dean, John Howard Van Amringe (Class of 1860), that the College, with respect to the rest of the university, “was as in a shadow,” could be heard from each of his successors into the 1980s.

In June 1941, Lawrence Condon ’21 brought these decades-long sentiments to public notice in his Survey of the Relationship of Columbia College to Columbia University, ostensibly presented to the university as his class’s 20th-anniversary gift. “Funds and assets originally intended for the purposes of Columbia College,” the Survey contended, “have been employed ... [to build] a huge, many-sided University.” As for Columbia College, Condon went on, “It seems fair to say that its best interests have not been served but have in fact been subordinated.” [President Nicholas Murray] Butler (Class of 1882) used his annual report in the fall of 1941 to rebut the charges, asserting that “it is the power of Columbia University which has brought into being the Columbia College of today.” The bombing of Pearl Harbor produced a truce of sorts between Butler and his disgruntled College alumni but no resolution.

Gone are the days when it was a point of pride among some senior faculty that they had no contact with undergraduates.

As indicated earlier, Butler’s four successors ([Dwight D.] Eisenhower, [Grayson] Kirk, [Andrew W.] Cordier, and [William] McGill) did little to assure alumni that Columbia College occupied all their waking thoughts. Under [Michael] Sovern, a [1953] graduate of the College, relations between the College alumni and Low Library warmed significantly, although grumblings could still be heard that the University was only interested in the College for its wealthy graduates. The firing of the popular dean Robert Pollack in 1988 was seen by some College alumni as an example of Low Library’s getting up to its old tricks.

That same year, Provost [Jonathan] Cole — another graduate of the College (1964) — first articulated the policy with respect to the College of “enlargement and enhancement,” only to have the policy decried by the College faculty, administrators in Hamilton Hall and College alumni as yet another attempt by the university to make the recently application-rich College pay for a larger share of the university’s operations. Even some trustees regarded Cole’s expressions of fealty to the College with undisguised suspicion. In the event, the budgetary difficulties of Sovern’s last years made it difficult to deliver on the “enhancement” aspect of the stated strategy, even as the “enlargement” part was widely felt to be proceeding all too well.

So, too, Rupp’s first pronouncements on the College, perhaps most spectacularly his comment that if everything at Columbia worked as well as “The College Core,” the university would be in fine shape, elicited from the College Believers little more than suspended disbelief. This began to change, however, when he called for the demolition of the functionally and aesthetically challenged Ferris Booth Hall, since the mid-1950s the locus of Columbia College extracurricular life, and set out to build in its place a more than $65 million state-of-the-art student center. Doubting Thomases were also converted by a visit to Butler Library, where the $12 million renovations of the gloomy space previously occupied by the Library Service School transformed it into an elegant, inviting and digitally sophisticated undergraduate library for the twenty-first century.

At Columbia, more than on less highly congested campuses, space within the existing campus footprint is the coin of the realm. This remained as true in the 1990s as it had been in the 1950s, when College alumni calling for an undergraduate gym were consigned to the rocky cliff of off-campus Morningside Park and told to come up with the money first. In the 1990s, the needs of the College were met with substantial allocations of on-campus property and, in the instances of the student center and the library, before naming gifts of $25 million from Alfred Lerner ’55 and $10 million from the Milstein family were in hand. The $12 million upgrading of the Dodge Fitness Center in 1995–96 is another instance of a capital improvement aimed primarily at undergraduates. Two other new buildings just outside the campus footprint, the dormitory on 114th and Broadway and the Kraft Family Center for Jewish Student Life [named for Robert K. Kraft ’63], also directly addressed the needs of hundreds of Columbia and Barnard undergraduates.

For all these recently added amenities, the Columbia campus today runs little risk of being confused with its Ivy counterparts, much less a pricey spa. As befits its urban setting, it is congested and noisy. Faculty learn to teach through sirens, jackhammers and planes approaching LaGuardia much as clergy preach through wailing babies. Newly arrived students — and not a few new faculty — note the emphasis placed on the adjectival component of the tough love they sometimes encounter from library and custodial staff. Nor are those experiencing initiatory disorientation always assured understanding from on high. “If you want more structure,” President Rupp informed a Columbia Spectator reporter voicing these concerns, “go to Amherst or Princeton.” Warm and fuzzy it is not.

During the Rupp presidency, Columbia College expanded enrollments by 25 percent, from 3,200 students in 1993 to 4,000 in 2002. More than 80 percent of the entering class in 2002 came from outside New York State, with Californians constituting the second largest state contingent. It may still not be nationally representative, but the College’s student body has of late acquired a distinctly bicoastal character.

Even as Columbia College expanded, the social sciences and humanities departments continued the now two-decade process of downsizing their graduate programs. They did so by becoming more selective and in the early 1990s more generous, offering full fellowships for nearly all the students they admitted to their Ph.D. programs. Largely gone are the days of self-financed Ph.D. students who, because of multiple part-time teaching jobs or night shifts driving cabs, required 10-plus years to complete their dissertations.

The shrinking of graduate programs has made more arts and sciences faculty available to teach undergraduates, both within the traditional Core and in upper-level undergraduate courses. Full-time faculty in the humanities and social sciences are now expected to teach at least one undergraduate course per year, with the norm expected to rise to two. Gone are the days when it was a point of pride among some senior faculty that they had no contact with undergraduates. Departments that slight their undergraduate responsibilities now do so at their budgetary and reputational peril.

Rupp identified the College as the most underleveraged part of the University and then proceeded to leverage it to the hilt.

Columbia College in the 1990s became increasingly selective, with its apply-to-admit rate dropping from 30 percent in 1993 to 15 percent for the entering class in 2002. That year, among the nation’s 2,000 four-year colleges, only two (Harvard and Princeton) turned away a higher proportion of applicants.

Yet no other highly selective private college admitted a more socially diverse class than Columbia College, where 50 percent of the entering class is made up of women, and self- identified minorities account for a third of the class. White Protestant native-born men, who, a century ago, made up 80 percent of an entering Columbia College class, now account for less than 20 percent. “Legacies” are more numerous than they were 20 years ago but still constitute a smaller portion of entering classes than they do at any of the other Ivies. Together with the School of Engineering and Applied Science, General Studies, and Barnard College, whose student bodies are all at least as socially diverse as that at Columbia College, the undergraduate divisions of Columbia University have become a much fairer approximation of the social diversity of the city whose name they bear, where 60 percent of these inhabitants are self-identified minorities and 40 percent are foreign-born.

Jacques Barzun
Alfred Lerner Hall, the student center that opened in 1999, has more than twice the space of its predecessor, Ferris Booth Hall.

While the College still looks to the Arts and Sciences faculty to staff most College courses, in other ways it has increased its autonomy within the university. One vehicle for doing so has been the College Board of Visitors, started by Dean Peter Pouncey in the 1970s and revived by Dean Robert Pollack, which includes several of the university’s major benefactors, including prospective and past trustees. The Visitors speak for the interests of the College or, as in the case of the 1997 standoff between Dean of Columbia College Austin Quigley and Vice President of Arts and Sciences David Cohen, for its dean. More often, the board serves as an effective fund-raising enterprise. Between 1990 and 1995 only four of the 21 endowed professorships (19 percent) created in the arts and sciences came from College donors; between 1995 and 2001, College donors, most of them actively solicited by Quigley, accounted for 26 of the 46 new professorships (57 percent).

As more College alumni come from classes post-1968 and many from the 1990s, when the needs of the College became more effectively attended to, the alumni can be expected to play a larger role in the university’s affairs. In 1993, Rupp identified the College as the most underleveraged part of the university and then proceeded to leverage it to the hilt. His successor, Lee C. Bollinger (’71L), comes to a Columbia where the rate of alumni giving, 31 percent in 2001 (up from 18 percent in 1993) is still substantially less than at either of his last places of employment — Michigan, where he presided for seven years, and Dartmouth, where he earlier served as provost. He might well conclude that alumni involvement and alumni giving are areas at today’s Columbia that hold out the best prospect of rapid turnaround.

To be sure, Columbia faces difficult challenges at the outset of the Bollinger presidency. The long-term impact on New York’s fortunes of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, remains unknown. So is that of an uncertain economy and a stock market that between 2000 and March 2003 had lost one-third of its value.

There are internal challenges as well, some of which the new president identified at his installation on October 3, 2002. These include the need to secure room to effect the necessary expansion of several programs that are constrained by the lack of space on Morningside or Washington Heights to accommodate them. [Editor’s note: This was written before plans for the Manhattanville expansion were announced.] Another involves the need to rethink the mission of some of Columbia’s most distinguished professional schools, such as the Journalism School, where the search for a new dean was halted in August 2002 to allow such rethinking to proceed. The appointment as dean of Nicolas Lemann, an historian and staff writer for the New Yorker, in March 2003, bespeaks the school’s new orientation. There is also the challenge of continuing to compete for the world’s best scholars without further reducing the teaching expected from them. The list is lengthy, and it contains only the known challenges. But, for all that, a retrospectively informed perspective allows the view that Columbia’s 19th president entered on his duties at a singular moment in the university’s history, one marked by great recent achievement and still greater promise.

From Stand, Columbia by Robert McCaughey © 2003 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.




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