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

April 7, 2004
The University and the City: Columbia and New York From the Civil War to the Progressive Era

Kenneth T. Jackson, Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences

"In 1754, when this institution began, there was no such place as the United States. George Washington was an unknown young man from somewhere in Virginia. Washington, D.C. was an uninhabited—some would say uninhabitable—swamp. . . . St. Paul's Chapel-down in Lower Manhattan . . . had not been built yet. There was no such thing as a grid system in New York City, no such thing as a police force, no public water system, no public transit."

". . . [I]t seems to me that for large periods of its history, Columbia did not keep pace with New York City. . . ."

". . . [O]ver the decades and in some way over the centuries, Columbia has more often tried to distance itself from the City of New York than trying to embrace it. It's called Columbia University in the City of New York, . . . but as Tom Bender said, it's not really of the city, it was very much in the city. . . Columbia really wished it were in Hanover, New Hampshire, or if not in Hanover than maybe in Princeton or Ithaca, or perhaps even Cambridge or New Haven."

"New York has always been open, not easy, not kind, not considerate, not always polite, but offering you a chance. People in New York—like the Dutch in the 1620s—don't frankly give a damn about your religious beliefs, just can they work with you? . . . [But] [w]hat about Columbia? . . . [W]hy couldn't Columbia have been different from Dartmouth and Princeton and Yale and Harvard? Could Columbia have been what its location allowed it to be, Columbia University in the City of New York? In other words, Columbia may have at least for a while missed an opportunity by not embracing the city in its diversity. . . ."
April 13, 2004
Columbia at Midcentury: The Intellectual Capital of the Nation?

Alan Brinkley, University provost and the Allan Nevins Professor of History

"Columbia's distinction [in the mid-twentieth century] . . . came from the energy and the imagination and the brilliance of its faculty and students, and its success in attracting not only great scholars but also major public intellectuals."

"The American liberal tradition, built around the values of competitive capitalism and individual self-interest, might not be the most uplifting and ennobling of traditions, but it was a rational tradition which protected the United States from being buffeted too much by the irrational passions that seemed at times to sweep through parts of the nation and the world."

"The Beats openly challenged the conventional values of middle-class American society: material success, social values, political habits. . . . They embraced instead an alternative set of values that emphasized at various times rootlessness, antimaterialism, sometimes drugs, antagonism to technology and organization, a dark, numbing despair about the nature of modern society."

"As America moved from the seemingly consensual and conservative culture of the 1950s into the years of great turbulence that followed, one can see at Columbia some of the clearest and most sophisticated presentations of the intellectual stances that came into such stark conflict in those years. On the one hand the elegant, sophisticated, and highly cosmopolitan version of a liberal America in which rational discourse and sober, intelligent inquiry could create a stable, progressive democracy. On the other hand the harder, sometimes coarser view of a society in which democracy and authenticity depended on a shattering of its existing structures of authority, a rejection of rationality as the central value of the modern world, and its replacement with a celebration of personal freedom, instinct, and even passion. . . ."
April 20, 2004
Beyond the Knickerbockers: Inclusive Columbia

Rosalind Rosenberg, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History, Barnard College

"[F. A. P. Barnard's solution to the problem of declining enrollments in the 1860s] was provocative: Columbia should become a different kind of school, a university. . . . Columbia should cease its pointless efforts to hold onto its diminishing Knickerbocker clientele and seek to attract a wider constituency. . . . Barnard called on Columbia in 1880 to welcome all 'seekers after knowledge, of whatever age, sex, race, or previous condition.'"

"New York was first and foremost a city of immigrants. . . . [And] New York was a city of black refugees from the Jim Crow South. By 1920 their numbers had grown so large that they began to displace white immigrants around Columbia. Gradually these newcomers, too, began to knock at Columbia's gates. . . . [And] New York was a city of women. . . . There were more women in New York than any other American city."

"In wishing to contain women on Columbia's periphery [at Barnard and Teachers College], the Trustees encouraged greater inclusiveness in the long run."

"As early as the academic year in 1901 [Teachers College's first dean, James Earl] Russell had traveled throughout the South, visiting black colleges and encouraging students to come to Teachers College."

"At a time when the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in America and National Socialism was on the rise in Germany, [anthropology chair Franz] Boas and his students, half of them women, recruited mostly from Barnard by Gladys Richard, mounted a determined battle against racism and sexism."
April 27, 2004
Columbia '68: A Chapter in the History of Student Power

Robert McCaughey, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History, Barnard College

"The place of Columbia '68 in the national history, it seems to me, is quite clear, and is likely to remain quite prominent."

"[The] April 23 demonstrations led to—and the noun is yours to choose—a sit-in, an occupation, or a liberation of Hamilton Hall. [In] the next two days, four more buildings were occupied."

"There in those buildings, there were discussions of issues, debating of options, instruction in resisting police, who were seen as not far from coming. In Fayerweather Hall a somewhat lighter touch: two students got married, several students got high."

". . . '68, as I see it, . . . will best fit into Columbia's tercentenary history not as a chapter about governance or presidential leadership or university structure or its finances or about its neighborhood relations—though it figures into all of these—but I think it belongs in the evolving, changing, and at least in this period of history, improving history of student power at Columbia . . ."

"So students are now at the table. They acquire an investment in Columbia's survival, in its revival, in its subsequent prospering. . . . Their power is recognized by the actions of the next four presidents in their dealings with the undergraduate estate."

"Columbia's a very different place than it was in 1968. It's financially stronger, it's better administered, its faculty reputation is comprehensively on the rise from the sciences to the professional schools, and it is in an active dialogue with its neighbors about mutually important matters. "
Executive Summary
Précis of the Proceedings
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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