Stand Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754--2004
Stand Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York,
by Robert A. McCaughey
Columbia University Press, New York, 2003 (715 pp)
As a proud Columbia University alumna, with three degrees from that institution, (Barnard, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Journalism), whose son is a junior at Columbia College, I approached this book with anything but my usual critical detachment. It would be fairer to say that I dropped everything to savor this compelling volume—written by one of the stars of Barnard's history department, Professor Robert A. McCaughey —about one of my favorite organizations. I'm sure my enthusiastic reaction was also triggered, in part, by knowing so many of the players as the history moves into the present era. As the University Senator representing Barnard during my undergraduate years, I worked directly with such figures as the late president William J. McGill, as well as with the provost, deans, and other significant administrators.
Even given my unabashed bias, McCaughey doesn't disappoint. This comprehensive, insightful, detailed and thorough exploration of how modest pre-Revolutionary King's College became Columbia University, one of the world's foremost research institutions, will surely stand as the definitive history of the university. It is a fitting, and perfect, present celebrating Columbia's 250th anniversary.
But unlike me, McCaughey never loses the historian's critical perspective, describing both Columbia's triumphs as well as its failings. Written in a lively narrative style—with an affectionate, but sometimes mocking tone—McCaughey has produced a scholarly yet accessible text that is anything but a hagiography.
As he writes, "Columbia's story often departs from the typical collegiate saga. The same goes for its founding." From its humble beginnings as King's College in 1754, located in lower Manhattan (spurred by the announcement that despised New Jersey was planning to launch a college of its own), Columbia's future was anything but secure. During the early decades, enrollment was small, especially compared to the older and more established Harvard and Yale, and its mission less clear. And when it was founded, the College was far richer than its competitors, a situation that current fundraisers for the university would like to restore. The College was also precariously poised politically, by siding with the British Crown rather than the Revolutionaries. So much for the impression often given that Columbia has been one of the more radical colleges.
McCaughey covers the beginnings of Columbia's development into a major university, with its move to its present Morningside Heights campus, its addition of graduate programs and professional schools, the founding of Barnard College as an affiliate that brought undergraduate women to campus, and particularly the powerful legacies of two of Columbia's most significant presidents.
As McCaughey writes about the efforts of Frederick A.P. Barnard, who "...inherited a small, potentially wealthy, and nationally negligible college...and twenty-five years later turned over to his successor an institution within a decade of being one of America's two or three world-class universities. University presidents mattered in the late nineteenth century, and none mattered more than Columbia's—to Columbia and to American higher education." Similarly, the ambitions of long-time president, Nicholas Murray Butler, who was determined to burnish Columbia's standing, persuasively put Columbia on the map as a prestigious university.
Nor does McCaughey shy away from discussing Columbia's anti-Semitism between the first and second world wars, when many trustees and deans were concerned that there were too many Jews on campus—and "conventional wisdom in the 1920s, as a reporter for Vanity Fair put it, was that Çall Columbia students are Jews.'" Even if, as McCaughey writes, the idea "was less about keeping Jews out than trying to hold places in the College for Çour natural clientele' or Çboys from good families,'" the effect was the same. Interestingly enough, the bias against immigrants (or Jews) did not seem to prevail for the immigrant Catholic students who flocked to the College.
That was but one chapter, however, in Columbia's long history—a history that encompasses its adoption of the much beloved Core Curriculum, its glory days when major scholars and teachers like Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun and Mark Van Doren, and its pivotal role in the sciences, when luminaries such as I.I. Rabi, Robert Millikan and Harold Urey were on campus conducting original research, and earning Nobel Prizes for their work.
McCaughey also analyzes the problems that led to the 1968 student riots, Columbia's spotty history at dealing with its Harlem and Morningside Heights neighbors, and its current efforts to reclaim financial stability, and academic glory. Columbia has mattered in making New York City what it is today, and what America is too; as the 21st century unfolds, Columbia's role in the world takes on increasing significance.
He concludes by pointing out that, "Columbia in the last part of the twentieth century has earned the sustained regard of Americans by its role in advancing the intellectual, social and career mobility of many of those best able and most suited to provide leadership in a city and a world but also a nation where no one ethnic, racial or religious group will constitute an effective majority."
This is a magnificent book about a magnificent university, which should be read by anyone who cares about standards and vision in higher education.#