Our Past Engaged: Four Turning Points in Columbia's Recent History

Executive Summary

As part of Columbia University's 250th anniversary celebration, Columbia and Barnard professsors gave talks during the April 2004 symposium "Our Past Engaged: Four Turning Points in Columbia's History." Each speaker examined a specific period in the University's history in the context of a particular theme, while other scholars and members of the community were on hand to respond and ask questions.

On April 7, Alan Brinkley, provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History, introduced the first speaker, Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences. In Jackson's talk, entitled "The University and the City: Columbia and New York from the Civil War to the Progressive Era," he argued that for the most part, during this period, Columbia was in the city, but not of the city. Not only did Columbia fail to match the rapid advancement of New York, but Columbia failed to capitalize on one of the major strengths of New York—diversity.

The respondents were Evan Cornog, associate dean, School of Journalism, Columbia University (GSAS 1996) and Michael Wallace, professor of history, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY (Columbia College 1964, GSAS 1973). Cornog questioned whether a closer relationship between town and gown might not be antithetical to the concerns of academia, while Wallace noted that there were "larger transformations underway, of which both metropolitan and university developments were but a subset."

"Columbia at Midcentury: The Intellectual Capital of the Nation?" was the question posed by Alan Brinkley, keynote speaker in the second event of the symposium. In the mid-twentieth century, there was much working against Columbia, such as a weak presidency and a meager endowment. Despite these drawbacks, Columbia flourished as the home of a variety of intellectual movements as well as countercultural impulses. Brinkley paid homage to the ongoing legacy of Richard Hofstader, as well as one of his fiercest critics, C. Wright Mills, and placed the Beats within an historical and intellectual context.

Fritz Stern, University professor emeritus, provost emeritus (Columbia College 1946, GSAS 1953), and Casey Blake, professor of history and director of American Studies, responded to Brinkley. Stern noted that Columbia at midcentury was "intergenerational" as well as interdisciplinary, and highlighted the role of the faculty as "scholar-citizens." Blake concurred with Brinkley about Columbia's noteworthy history of welcoming both the "Cold War-era liberal, modernist intelligentsia" as well as its "challengers," but stressed that much of the most important intellectual work of the time was being done far from Columbia—on the conservative side in Chicago and on the New Left in Madison, Berkeley and Ann Arbor.

Third in the series was Rosalind Rosenberg's "Beyond the Knickerbockers: Inclusive Columbia." Focusing on the period of the 1920s, Rosenberg addressed the internal and external factors leading Columbia towards increasing diversification. On the internal side was the institutional structure of Columbia, namely its affiliations with Barnard and Teachers College, and on the external side was the diversity of New York—with women, blacks, Jews and other non-Knickerbockers seeking to take advantage of the educational opportunities that Columbia offered.

Responding to Rosenberg were Gillian Lindt, professor of religion emerita, Columbia University (GSAS 1965) and Monica Miller, assistant professor of English, Barnard College. Miller used the examples of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to examine look at how "some of the Negroes invading, at least at that time, both wanted access to Columbia and Barnard networks as well as the opportunity to create their own networks." Lindt cast a critical eye on Columbia's claims of diversity, raising the question of how one interprets "diversity," and noting that some iconic figures, such as Margaret Mead, had very tenuous relationships to the university. (Mead was never more than an adjunct professor.)

The final session was Robert McCaughey's "Columbia '68: A Chapter in the History of Student Power." Perhaps appropriately, in front of the stage was a peaceful demonstration by striking graduate students. Eric Foner introduced McCaughey, whose recently published Stand, Columbia is the "first single-volume interpretive history of Columbia University in a hundred years", addressed the import of '68 in the history of Columbia. According to McCaughey, in addition to the racial dimension of the events and the institutional response to them, undergraduate students played a critical role and the impact of their actions, both in the demonstrations and in the recovery of Columbia, continues to be felt to this day.

There were three respondents to McCaughey: Lewis Cole, professor of film, School of the Arts, Columbia University (Columbia College 1968), William Theodore de Bary, John Mitchell Mason Professor Emeritus, Provost Emeritus (Columbia College 1941, GSAS 1953) and Jacqueline Russo (Columbia College 2004). Both Cole and de Bary used their personal experiences of '68 to examine some of the larger issues at hand. Cole noted that his actions were not only prompted by the volatile times, but also by the education that he received at Columbia, "[F]or me, pursuing the strike was not about destroying Columbia. It was about having the University respond." Branded a "liberal fascist" by some students at the time, de Bary was a faculty member actively involved in (failed) negotiations to end the occupation peacefully, and one who argued fiercely for "civil discourse." During the long period of upheaval leading up to '68 he noted that "it was not just child's play dealing with the threats to civility and the due educational processes of the University." De Bary stressed the struggle of the faculty members to continue educating their students, and the importance of those efforts. Russo, who had not been born in 1968, addressed the issue of current student life and relations between students and administrators of the university.

The question-and-answer periods for all the talks were lively—with a combination of personal reflections on the subjects at hand to more theoretical or historical engagements with the material presented. As many noted over the course of the month, Columbia has not always taken its history seriously, and for many, this was a welcome opportunity to do so.
Video Archive
View video highlights of the symposium and a transcript of the proceedings.
Quotations from the keynote speakers.
Keynote Speaker Bios
Image Gallery
Women at Columbia
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Columbia College Life Student Timeline
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Columbia University and the City of New York
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Columbia and Higher Learning in America
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Stand, Columbia
The first single-volume interpretive history of the University in 100 years.
Write Columbia's History
Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.
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