This month, the Barack Obama Foundation is expected to announce the site for the Barack Obama Library and Museum. Columbia is one of four contenders to host the library, which would be built on the Manhattanville campus, but would be funded and operated by the Obama Foundation, not the University.
A primary goal of the Obama Foundation and the future Obama presidential library, is to inspire active citizenship. There is no greater city in which to pursue this goal than New York. A culture of progressive civic engagement through government, business, and activism permeates life both at Columbia and in the city at large. We believe that President Obama's alma mater—our Columbia University in the City of New York—should be the home of the Obama presidential library.
Since his inauguration, University President Lee Bollinger has insisted that Columbia adapt and become a global university. In 2003, he penned an op-ed for the Financial Times, echoing the words of former University President Nicholas Murray Butler: "the university is not apart from the activities of the world, but in them and of them." To this end, Columbia hosts events such as the World Leaders Forum, and has opened eight global centers around the world. However, many of the events Columbia hosts are only open to those affiliated with the University; a presidential library will give Harlemites the opportunity to interact with influential figures.
Housing the Obama library at Columbia would make the president and his family permanent and active members of the University community. Less than three years ago, Obama delivered a rousing commencement speech to Barnard graduates. As undergraduates and soon-to-be alumni, we are eager for the president to maintain an active role in the vibrant life of our institution. This is a relationship that the University is eager to cultivate.
It is also a connection that has obvious benefits for the Obama family. Obama has expressed an interest in living in New York after his second term. New York and, more specifically, Harlem—one of the most prominent centers of black America since the 1920s—would be the most appropriate place for our nation's first black president to monumentalize a legacy of hope and change for people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, and the poor. For example, Harlem would be a great place to continue work on the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which Obama established to address "systemic opportunity gaps for boys and young men of color." Still, the inequalities in opportunity and access that President Obama has fought to eliminate will surely endure throughout the country as they will right here in New York City and Harlem. As such, we believe his library should stand physically—as it undoubtedly will spiritually—at the forefront of those issues.
The location is historically relevant on another front: It is near the General Grant National Memorial, making the site an even more appropriate choice for a museum dedicated to Obama's presidential legacy. Ulysses S. Grant worked to remove the remnants of slavery, secure citizenship for the freedmen, and rectify the Union. In many ways, the president and war hero is a symbol of American freedom, resonating with President Obama's political career.
Currently, Columbia University's plan to host the Obama presidential library is the most logistically compelling. The University of Chicago's bid, previously considered one of the most promising, has provoked controversy, as the plan calls for the taking of 20 acres of public parkland. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently introduced an ordinance that would allow the city to use those 20 acres, and the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the transfer. However, park advocates have argued that such a deal would be detrimental to the citizens of Chicago in that it sets a dangerous precedent of transferring historic public parkland for use by a private institution. Moreover, Emanuel's unprecedented setback in last month's mayoral election may jeopardize his ability to dedicate land to the library. Columbia, in contrast, already owns the land for a potential library—in the most populous city in the U.S., too. Using that land—acquired through the Manhattanville expansion—will provide a direct benefit to the community: The library is a public space that will attract visitors from Harlem, Columbia, and the rest of the world.
It is undeniable that ironies will abound if the first black president's library is built in a neighborhood where black and Latino community members are being pushed out. That is a result of eminent domain, a process that separates people from their homes and communities. However, Columbia is already deeply and irreversibly implicated in this eviction, and while we cannot relieve ourselves of this responsibility by bringing the Obama presidential library to New York, we can provide a home for Obama's enduring message of hope and change. These values are entirely commensurate with those of Columbia, Harlem, and America. We hope that the Obamas bring the presidential library to our alma mater and the great city on the Hudson shore.
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