Columbia kicked off a new four-part lecture series titled "Our Past Engaged: Four Turning Points in Columbia's Recent History" last night in Low Library with a lecture given by professor of history Kenneth T. Jackson focusing on the interaction of the University and the city in the years between the Civil War and the Progressive Era.
Jackson suggested that the University, at least during the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, did not embrace its location but rather distanced itself from the city. Additionally, the growth of the University, with respect to its size, diversity, and even its intellectual attitude, did not parallel the immense development of New York City during the same period.
Jackson started his lecture by first praising Columbia University for its 250 years of history. Indeed, he pointed out, in 1754, when the Columbia was first created as King's College, "there was no such thing as the United States yet."
He went on to discuss the importance of the time period for New York City and for the University. It was during the 19th century that New York came to be both an important port city and in the later years, the emergent center of world capitalism. At the same time, Columbia moved its campus twice, first to 49th Street and Madison from its original location downtown in 1857, and then to its present location in Morningside Heights in 1897.
Just as the later half of the century was a time of tremendous change for the city, the period also marked a time of transformation for Columbia. "Columbia became today's Columbia in the 1890s," said Jackson.
Nevertheless, Jackson went on to say that Columbia's transformation did not match that of the city and that "for large periods of history, Columbia did not keep pace with the city."
"New York, by 1854 was an unrivaled metropolis in the Western Hemisphere," said Jackson. "However, in 1854, Columbia College only had 6 faculty members and 142 students."
Secondly, Jackson suggests that the attitude of the University remained rather unreceptive and even hostile to the city. Making a joke about Columbia's relatively insignificant presence in the history of New York, Jackson says, "Mike Wallace, in his book concerning the history of New York, writes less about Columbia than he does about brothels in the city."
"For so long, Columbia wished it was in Hanover, or Cambridge, or New Haven ... The trustees thought that the institution should be set in a more bucolic, safe environment, away from the city, better for scholarship," added Jackson.
In this sense, according to Jackson, Columbia saw the city as "a problem, and not an opportunity."
Lastly, Jackson pointed out the disparity that existed between the diversity of the city and the diversity at the University.
He said that by the early 20th century, New York was a world city with ethnic groups from all over the world; the University, in contrast, did not welcome such diversity inside its gates.
For the time between the Civil War and the Progressive Era, Jackson argued, Columbia remained mainly Episcopalian while the city was experiencing mass immigration and an explosion of diversity.
"The University did not break with tradition upheld by similar institutions, and adopted subtle and not so subtle ways of limiting and restricting certain groups," said Jackson. "All institutions tended to discriminate, but Columbia could have been different."
"Could Columbia have been what its location allowed it to be, by embracing the diversity of the city?" asked Jackson. He suggested that perhaps Columbia "missed an opportunity" in not doing so.
At that point, the lecture continued with two responses to Jackson's presentation, given by Evan Cornog, associate dean of the School of Journalism ('96 GSAS) and Mike Wallace, professor of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY ('64 CC, '73 GSAS).
Cornog first questioned the premise that "the marriage [between this city and the University] could have been happier than it was."
He suggested that in fact, the very nature of academic work is something "outside of the world." Or in other words, that "distance from the public was fundamental to many universities."
Wallace followed by referring to the huge growth of the city's corporate and financial sector during the era, and its subsequent effect at Columbia.
According to Wallace, the establishment of the Schools of Law, Business, Architecture, Teaching, Engineering, etc., which occurred at around same time New York was experiencing the rise of corporate capitalism, reflects Columbia's correspondence with the city.
"The new corporate elite of this age sought to define the city ... and expected Columbia to educate the upper echelons of New York," said Wallace. And therefore, Columbia did respond to this demand made by the city during the era of corporate growth.
The lecture concluded with a comment from an audience member who stated that he believed Columbia's present location and diversity to be aspects which attract many students and differentiate the University from other institutions. And to that, Jackson replied that indeed, "the last thing Columbia wants to do now is to distance itself from the city."