By New World standards, 250 years is a long period of time. Very few American institutions can claim such longevity, and certainly only a handful in New York, city of constant rebirth and renewal.
At 250, Columbia University is the oldest college in New York, and the fifth oldest in the nation. Columbia has been a part of the life of the city for longer than just about anything but the ground beneath the streets and Trinity Church.
A birthday is a natural milestone, an opportunity to put things in perspective. In 1754, when eight students took their seats in the vestry of Trinity Church and listened to the first King's College lecture by then-college president Samuel Johnson, Ben Franklin's experiments with electricity had taken place just two years earlier. Mozart would not be born for two years more. The Iliad could have been on the reading list, but not Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, or Marx's Das Kapital. Central Park was still 100 years in the future.
But Columbia's 250th anniversary is not merely an occasion to mark the passage of time, not simply a moment to catalog what has come and gone. Few organisms—and in a very real sense a university is a living, breathing, and evolving life form—reach new heights after such a long existence. Columbia's reach has far surpassed anything its founders could have imagined, as those associated with it have made—and continue to make—lasting contributions to the shape of our modern world.
Columbians shaped the desegregation of American schools, pioneered the treatment of disease, provided new ways of thinking about economics and finance, invented FM radio and pioneered the X-ray, disproved theories of racial superiority, plumbed the ocean depths, and explored the properties of the gene and the atom. They have produced remarkable works of fiction and journalism, poetry and lyrics, music, and movies. The intellectual leaders of Columbia—from Samuel Johnson to Margaret Mead, Lionel Trilling to Eric Kandel—have helped the people of their times think about and address the major questions of the day.
The pairing of scholarly inquiry and action is an essential part of the Columbia identity. The University has always been defined by its commitment to engage the world it studies. There could be no better characteristic for a university situated in a city of such global reach. New York's business acumen, internationalism, cultural and artistic diversity, and unparalleled ambition come to life in Columbia's students and professors, on and off campus. To be at Columbia means to be in an urban environment, to test one's mettle, to participate in something complex and grand.
The histories of New York City and Columbia are closely intertwined. Columbia people past and present have shaped the city. People such as DeWitt Clinton, who graduated at the top of his Columbia College class in 1786, created Manhattan's mammoth street grid as mayor, and built the Erie Canal as governor, spurring the city to new heights as the commercial capital of the country. Today, Columbians are still helping to drive the city forward: Columbia graduate Joel Klein is the New York City schools chancellor, Professor Thomas Frieden of the Mailman School of Public Health serves as commissioner of the Department of Health, and Professor Ester Fuchs, director of the Columbia Center for Urban Policy, is a special adviser for governance and strategic planning for the Bloomberg administration.
In New York City and beyond, the story of Columbia 250 is, above all, the story of its people.
It is the story of Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant child with a head for numbers who came to New York in his teens, fought in the Revolutionary War, wrote masterfully about the nature of government in The Federalist Papers, and, as the country's first secretary of the treasury, laid the foundations of the American economic system. And it is the story of Alan Greenspan, who did postgraduate studies here and today shapes the country's economic policy as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
It is the story of a physics department filled with brilliant researchers who pioneered their discipline with groundbreaking discoveries in the 1940s and 1950s, and played key roles in the Manhattan Project. And Thomas Hunt Morgan, the biologist whose trailblazing work on the drosophila fruit fly led to the discovery of the gene.
It is the story of the legendary Iron Horse, also known as Columbia Lou, Lou Gehrig, whose athletic feats, humility, and courage inspired generations of admirers. And Sid Luckman, the Columbia running back who went on to pioneer the "T" offense in professional football.
It is the story of John Dewey, arguably America's greatest philosopher, who was responsible for changing the way educators think about education, offering them a vision of learning as an engaging experience, rather than an act of rote memorization. And Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, who shaped the field of mass communications research and established sociology as a bona fide discipline.
It is the story of John Jay, who was the nation's first chief justice—as well as a governor, diplomat, and statesman. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the nation's second female Supreme Court justice and the "Thurgood Marshall of women's rights."
It is the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who as president reshaped the role of American government; Bhimrao Ambedkar, the father of India's constitution, and Pixley Seme, a founder of the African National Congress—individuals who led their nations through momentous periods of upheaval and change.
It is the story of Margaret Mead, one of America's most influential anthropologists, a woman who redefined the developed world's view of so-called primitive cultures and the power of cultural norms. And Franz Boas, Mead's professor, who attacked theories of racial superiority at a time when social Darwinists advanced theories of ethnic and racial hierarchies.
And it is the story of today's students, scholars, and researchers in neuroscience, public health, the arts, law, and business—names yet unrecognized, but which will influence the future of modern society as their forebears from Columbia have already done.
In the weeks and months ahead, this Web site will tell this story in many different ways. It will feature articles about elements of Columbia's history that warrant reflection on this remarkable occasion. It will highlight a host of activities, both academic and celebratory in nature, taking place during the course of the year. It will put the spotlight on the ways in which Columbia University today is a vibrant intellectual and social community shaping the course of history.