Op-Ed - Amsterdam News
Lee C. Bollinger President, Columbia University

Building on Columbia's Relationship with Harlem

Columbia University has been in New York City since our founding in 1754 and northern Manhattan in Morningside Heights since 1897. We have been part of the fabric of New York and our surrounding neighborhoods for 250 years. We have shared life with our neighbors, benefiting in countless ways from the extraordinary resilience and creativity that has defined life in this corner of the world.

Historically, Columbia has had numerous links with Harlem, its residents and culture. Many of Harlem's greatest cultural figures were "Columbians ahead of their time," (as we like to say in this anniversary year). The "Poet Laureate of Harlem," Langston Hughes, attended Columbia in 1921 and, among other things, went on to chronicle black life in America through the modern civil rights era. One of the most widely-read authors of the Harlem Renaissance was Zora Neale Hurston, the first African-American student at Barnard College. Columbia Law School graduate Paul Robeson won national fame as a singer, actor and activist promoting racial and social equality. The groundbreaking research done by Kenneth Bancroft Clark (Columbia PhD, 1940) and Mamie-Phipps-Clark (Columbia PhD, 1943) on self-esteem in African American children was used in the landmark case of Brown versus Board of Education. Columbia graduate, M. Moran Weston II, was the rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, a founder of the Carver Federal Savings Bank, and the first African American trustee at Columbia University.

Of course, our ties to Harlem and our surrounding community exist not just through our alumni but also through current students, faculty, neighbors, and many partnerships between us. A modern university cannot be detached from its neighbors. Indeed, the very health of an institution like a university depends upon continuing to develop a relationship of reciprocity.

Columbia has been building relationships in Harlem for more than 50 years. Columbia students, faculty, officers and employees have established partnerships with schools, churches and community-based organizations offering a wide range of activities, including academic enrichment programs, tutoring and mentoring, literacy & adult education classes, job readiness training, arts & culture programs, medical and dental services, pro bono legal advice and representation, as well as consulting services for local entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Columbia has actively pursued and established numerous relationships with local businesses and was the first university in New York City to establish specific goals for hiring women, minorities, and local businesses on major construction projects. We also take enormous pride in our longstanding affiliation with Harlem Hospital, a critical part of our community that must remain strong. Some of our projects there, such as the injury prevention program, have become models for hospitals nationwide. In addition, through Columbia Community Service, Inc., the Columbia community has made numerous grants to local agencies which help the homeless, low income families, senior citizens, school children, and those suffering from AIDS and other health problems.

Columbia, too, has benefited enormously from our relationship with the vibrant community of Harlem. Living next to one of the great historic and cultural centers in New York - for music, dance, theater and art - has been a tremendous asset for our students and faculty. Harlem has been home to some of the seminal writers and intellectuals of the 20th century. Collaborations with cultural, spiritual and political leaders of the Harlem community have enriched both the academic and cultural experience of the Columbia community.

Now, Columbia needs to focus on the future. Since I became President of Columbia University, I have felt it is critically important to identify opportunities for growth. I have made a deliberate choice to focus on the Manhattanville area of West Harlem. If we are going to grow, my strong desire is that we grow with Harlem. As the quintessential great urban university, Columbia needs to stay in an urban setting - in New York in northern Manhattan near our current campus on Morningside Heights.

In addition to addressing our critical need for space, we must also find more ways than ever before to share the benefits of growth with Harlem. Certainly we know that Columbia's vitality over time will bring economic benefits to the community in the form of jobs and local retail & commercial development. Benefits will emerge from continuing discussions we are having with leaders in the community and the city. We also hope to add to the cultural and intellectual life in the community.

My main message is just to say how committed Columbia is to enhancing our relationships with the community. There is so much to do and so much to build on. Columbia has evolved from a schoolhouse of eight students and one teacher in 1754 to one of the greatest and most diverse universities in the world. I am exhilarated at the thought of building for the future of Columbia with our friends and neighbors.

Reprinted with permission of the Amsterdam News copyright 2004. All rights reserved.
The op-ed was featured on January 6, 2004.