It is the best of times, it is the worst of times to be a member of the graduating class of 2010.
After four years of learning, living, partying, and occasionally holing up in Butler Library or 1020, seniors will leave Morningside Heights facing one of the toughest job markets college graduates have seen in recent years. They are exiting a stage of personal growth to enter what is largely a scene of uncertainty and, it would seem, unemployment.
Columbians are inheriting a world that seems more gritty than the one they anticipated on move-in day in 2006. This period may be more comparable than other years have been to the 1970s—one of Columbia’s toughest decades, in which it bore the fallout of the 1968 protests that shut down the school and felt the brunt of New York City’s increasing financial woes.
But now, this culture of uncertainty brings with it a rhetoric of “change”—the notion largely responsible for electing Barack Obama, CC ’83, as the nation’s first black and Columbia College-alumnus president. It is this rhetoric that has many students who came in with their sights set on Goldman Sachs graduating into Teach for America’s classrooms.
As University President Lee Bollinger never fails to remind students, the world is being turned upside down, and it is up to today’s young graduates to figure out and shape the new global order—though they may need to find jobs first.
Over the past four years, students have seen a similar tension between expansion and contraction within the University. Ambitious projects—such as Columbia’s plans to build a new campus uptown in Manhattanville, a Capital Campaign, a new on-campus science building, and Barnard’s new student center—sparked oft-turbulent struggles. With change comes controversy, and Columbia is no stranger to that.
The national economic crisis hasn’t helped. But the University and those who rely on its well-being are beginning to bounce back.
The class of 2010 started Columbia’s New Student Orientation Program before Facebook opened up to non-networked users. Since then, the website has undergone several transformations, and the class of 2010 has evolved along with it: As this year’s 116th Annual Varsity Show quipped, forming a Facebook group has become a new means of protest.
When students heard that the Arts Initiative would begin reporting to the School of the Arts instead of the Office of the President, they formed a virtual group on the social networking site. When Barnard students were outraged at a proposed mandatory meal plan, they reacted the same way.
This change has left activists questioning where concrete protest has gone, but it probably quelled administrators’ nerves, since virulent protest at Columbia has been the elephant in this ivory tower’s room since 1968. This spring’s warmest days saw little turbulence on Low Steps.
2008 marked the 40th anniversary of the 1968 protests. Through both official and unofficial programming, Columbia carefully acknowledged the events that have cast a shadow on its past and shaped its future. But as the University has set its sights on larger projects that hearken back to a previous flash point—a trigger for protest in the 1960s stemmed from what became known as Columbia’s “Gym Crow” plan to build a gym with different entrances for University affiliates and local residents—the level of campus controversy has deepened.
The class of 2010 saw Columbia turn into a lightning rod for outside media from the beginning of freshman year.
It began in October 2006, when a few students rushed the stage where Jim Gilchrist, head of the border-hawking Minuteman Project, was speaking at the behest of the Columbia University College Republicans. “No one is illegal,” the students’ banner said, sparking a fight on a Lerner Hall stage and media coverage nationally.
The next year, too, began with a high-profile event. As part of the World Leaders Forum—one of a slew of Bollinger-spearheaded programs intended to make Columbia a “global university”—Columbia announced it would host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For a week, the campus rocked with debate over academic freedom and Iranian politics. Despite outside criticism and threats from alumni to withdraw funding, Bollinger refused to cancel the event.
Student groups responded by organizing a huge single forum on campus for the day of the speech. Students clamored to get tickets, but those who could not do so were able to watch the speech on a huge South Lawn television screen between interviews with international media outlets.
Before Ahmadinejad’s speech, Bollinger delivered a sharp introduction that laid to rest any questions about where his political sentiments lay, and redirected the surrounding controversy from the issue of Iran to the strong statement the usually soft-spoken president was making. He condemned Ahmadinejad’s positions on Israel and human rights, saying he exhibited “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
The fallout came in the form of op-eds alternately praising and condemning Bollinger, heated faculty meetings, and Iranian media reports of a group of professors who purportedly intended to travel to Iran to apologize for Bollinger’s scathing introduction that turned out to be false.
Meanwhile, a spate of bias incidents galvanized the student body. In September 2007, homophobic and Islamophobic graffiti appeared in a campus bathroom. Two weeks later, a noose was found on the door of Teachers College professor Madonna Constantine, who is black. (Constantine was later terminated due to accusations of plagiarism). Later, a swastika was found on the door of a Jewish TC professor, and anti-Semitic graffiti was scribbled in a Lewisohn Hall bathroom. Each incident resulted in rallies or protests that decried the perceived lack of cultural tolerance on campus.
All this goes to say that the graduating class became quite familiar with controversy in its formative years. The above incidents in particular, combined with the ongoing debate surrounding the 17-acre Manhattanville expansion, led a group of concerned students to embark on a hunger strike in that chilly fall of 2007. They camped out on South Lawn and met with administrators to negotiate demands such as revised expansion plans, curricular changes to reduce the focus on “dead white men” in the Core Curriculum, and increased support for minorities on campus.
The strike polarized students, dividing them between strike supporters—those who approved of the strikers’ demands, despite perhaps questioning their method—and those who opposed the strike entirely. (Each group, of course, formed its own Facebook group.) After 10 days, the strikers ate dinner following the announcement that Columbia would revamp the Major Cultures requirement along with other, smaller reforms.
That same year, students pushed for another change—this time, with regard to financial aid. In what became known as the Ivy League Arms Race, Columbia students made noise as peer institutions steepened their financial aid packages. Thanks to a $400 million donation from John Kluge, CC ’37, the University eventually ponied up the aid, saying it would fully finance a Columbia education for students whose parents made below $60,000 and substitute all loans with grants. But Columbia relies on tuition more than institutions such as Princeton, and could not afford to entirely match the changes of the nation’s top three colleges.
Still, it was a huge moment for students and administrators. But it soon became just another expense and an onus on the University’s budget, though administrators rushed to say that Columbia’s status as a “need-blind” school was unquestionable. The national economic crisis hit home in fall 2008, showing the limits of Columbia’s power of the purse—while also slightly narrowing the difference between it and the richer Ivies.
Current graduates have seen Columbia come to terms with this new financial reality. Noted in the University’s most recent financial statement is the state of the endowment, listed as “investments, at fair value,” whose value dropped from $7.1 billion in 2008 to $5.7 billion in 2009. The percentage losses, when announced, were often touted as less consequential and harrowing than the drops in the endowments of Columbia’s peers. This relative stability was attributed to less risky fund management and a smaller reliance on the endowment.
In response, Columbia reduced the central administration budget, told each budget division to expect an 8 percent cut in endowment funds, delayed the implementation of a new computer system, and froze raises. Administrators have said these changes reflect the need to make the most out of fewer resources. Small-scale saving measures included decreasing Ph.D. students funded by the University by 10 percent, decreasing adjunct funds, increasing the enrollment cap on certain Core classes, and increasing the size of incoming classes by 50 (although the profits on the last measure were somewhat mitigated by the money spent to renovate the new undergraduate dormitory Harmony Hall, which was needed in order to accommodate the larger student body).
This strategy has come to the fore as students have seen Columbia change both its physical and symbolic landscape.
After a major legal battle that resulted in the state saying it would seize privately owned land in Manhattanville on Columbia’s behalf, the University began the process of pre-construction to lay the groundwork for Phase I of the expansion project. But that progress has recently come under increased scrutiny, as Manhattanville plans have been placed on hold pending a New York State Court of Appeals ruling on whether the state should be allowed to invoke eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf, in exchange for market-rate compensation for the current owners of disputed properties.
The initial decision by the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, which was made in December 2009, surprised many with its strong language and unexpected rebuke of Columbia’s plans. As the June 1 Court of Appeals hearing looms, the delay has called into question the more strategic aspects of Columbia’s plans, even as expansion in some significant form seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Beyond the legalities, it is unclear precisely how the economic crisis will affect Manhattanville. Harvard had to cancel a similar expansion project, though it is clear Columbia is in better financial health and intends to forge ahead.
In expanding globally, Columbia recently began building Global Centers, which are low-cost international offices intended to connect scholars throughout the world. This method is an example of an ambitious plan that has been guided by logistical costs. Fear of underwriting and educational duplication kept the University tied to its Global Centers model, as opposed to developing branch campuses.
As of now, centers have opened in Jordan, India, France, and China. Offices in South America and Africa are also in the works.
But before Columbia could expand uptown and internationally, it looked inward. The University is preparing to open a new, Rafael Moneo-designed science building that cost $200 million, and the school aims to use it to combine different disciplinary fields. The project was initially billed as the Northwest Corner Building, but its name changed to the “Interdisciplinary Science Building” for a few months before reverting back to the original. The name fluctuations reflect the University’s failure, as of yet, to find a naming donor for the building.
As students graduate, they are leaving a school whose deans were all appointed by Bollinger. Recent hires include philosopher Michele Moody-Adams as dean of Columbia College, civil engineer Feniosky Peña-Mora as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Stanford psychologist Claude Steele as provost, or chief academic officer. Bollinger was lauded for a diverse slate of hires, but it is unclear how smooth the transitions have been, and donation numbers from this year have not yet been released.
Across Broadway, a new building cropped up along with a new president after Barnard’s long-time McIntosh Student Center was demolished in 2007. Harvard business scholar Debora Spar stepped in following former president Judith Shapiro’s departure. Spar made pragmatic administrative shifts that reflected the effects of a plummeting endowment. Some students and old-time Barnard affiliates decried the changes as ruthless, saying Spar made a homey school feel more businesslike. Spar oversaw the construction of the new Diana Student Center, named after trustee Diana Vagelos, BC ’55. The bright-orange Diana represented years of planning and millions in spending from Barnard’s most well-endowed alumnae.
But the Diana reached deep into the pockets of even the strongest givers, leaving a gap for Barnard to fill—which it did, with the announcement of a mandatory meal plan. Disgruntled students again took to Facebook to condemn the changes, which required all students to purchase a meal plan regardless of their year or residence. At heated “town hall” meetings, protesters complained that Barnard was trying to pass the financial buck to its students. Administrators eventually created a meal plan task force, and an altered—though still mandatory—meal plan was unveiled this spring.
Outside the gates, the economic crisis also affected retailers. Morningside Bookshop shut its doors last summer and was replaced by a new branch of Book Culture. The bar La Negrita became 999. American Apparel moved in. Ricky’s replaced media store Kim’s Video and Music. Empanada Joe’s opened and closed within a brief time span, with vegetarian falafel chain Maoz taking over the space just a few weeks ago. Tomo’s vacant spot will soon be filled by Mel’s Burger Bar. Morningside Heights has constricted and regrown during the graduating class’s time here.
Columbia has been growing, but that ideal of growth has been tempered by realities such as finances and the dissent of the people the University serves. This leaves students in limbo, as many graduate jobless but optimistic. They have everything and nothing to anticipate as they are asked to remake and change a world that now happens to be run by Columbians from Albany to the White House.