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
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
View video highlights of the symposium and a transcript of the proceedings.
Quotations from the keynote speakers.
View the timeline.
View the timeline.
View the timeline.
View the timeline.
The first single-volume interpretive history of the University in 100 years.
Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.