At the end of his final year teaching at Columbia, Michael Rosenthal, a professor emeritus in the English department, received a gift from his Literature Humanities students: a hardcover copy of “Tales from Shakespeare” with its pages hollowed out. Inside sat a bound booklet titled “If I Could Be Permitted a Totally Ridiculous Statement”—a compendium of Rosenthal’s one-liners for each book on the syllabus. In a section of general “Rosenthalisms” lies the following quote:
“The great joy of being a Columbia alumnus is having forgotten all the same books as all the other Columbia alumni.”
But Rosenthal hasn’t forgotten the books from Lit Hum. In fact, he reread all 26 books each year he taught the class, and as associate dean of Columbia College from 1972 to 1989, he oversaw the curriculum for 17 years. His entire career was founded upon bestowing the merits of classical literature upon undergraduates, but hey, who can remember all those books anyway?
“Basically, I’m an ironist,” Rosenthal tells me.
While Rosenthal’s name isn’t immediately recognizable to most of today’s Columbia students, he spent over 50 years shaping the University’s culture from behind the scenes as a dean and a professor. If you can think of a pivotal moment in late-20th century Columbia, chances are that Rosenthal was there: the 1968 protests, the shift to coeducation, changes to the Core—Rosenthal has a story (and an opinion) for every milestone. Though his career was spent entrenched in the University’s administration, his work remained grounded in the values of equality, intellectual integrity, and undergraduate students’ interests.
When I talk to Rosenthal, I feel like I’m talking to the human embodiment of the Upper West Side—his conversation leads with deadpan humor and dignified sensibility. He grew up on 91st Street and Central Park West, attending the Horace Mann School in the Bronx. Like any good New Yorker, he felt the need to leave the city for college, only to realize that living anywhere else didn’t really feel like living. He graduated from Harvard, obtained a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, and returned home to New York to enroll in Columbia’s graduate English program. He’s stayed uptown ever since.
After earning his doctorate, Rosenthal only worked as a professor of English for five years before his appointment to associate dean, beginning his 17-year stint in the world of University administration. Working as a dean usually entails falling in line with their institution when facing controversial issues—but to Rosenthal, sticking to the status quo was merely a suggestion. Roger Lehecka, an instructor in American Studies and a former Columbia College dean of students, says that Rosenthal “was unlike an administrator you’d expect in that he always said what he thought and believed. He had strong beliefs, and he didn't care about his own standing, even though at that time he didn’t have tenure.”
From his seat in the dean’s office, Rosenthal advocated for prioritizing undergraduate students’ experiences and financial aid, maintaining the University’s policies of need-blind admissions, and meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need. He established the Columbia College Oxbridge Scholars Program in 1983, which allows Columbia students to enroll in Cambridge or Oxford University for a year. Out of view from the student body and the public, Rosenthal quietly built the undergraduate Columbia experience of today.
Rosenthal started his Columbia career around a pivotal moment for the future of undergraduates: the 1968 student protests and uprisings. He was an instructor when students began occupying Low Library and Hamilton Hall. Much of the faculty took a position of awkward neutrality in 1968, supporting students and their goals but keeping an arm’s length from direct action, and Rosenthal mostly followed suit. When he heard that the New York Police Department was on its way to quell the student action, he could sense the brutality that would ensue. He wrote about that day in his chapter in the 2018 book on the Columbia student protests, A Time to Stir.
“As the uniformed police faced us in front of Fayerweather, I spotted F. W. Dupee, a marvelous professor of English whom I revered. I resolved that whatever happened I would stick with him and try to prevent him from getting hurt. He alarmed me when he admitted that he regretted wearing his expensive new dentures before the upcoming police action, but I felt this was no time to confess fear. Not to an older man I admired. The police, clenching small blackjacks, urged those of us in front of the building, now some 20 or 25 strong, to disband, but we hardly could just go away. Instead we burst into ‘We Shall Overcome’ and waited for the police to come at us, which they promptly did,” he wrote.
When he saw Columbia under duress, Rosenthal protected one of the institution’s (and the country’s) most esteemed essayists and literary critics—a person who embodied the University’s intellectual assets, its cultural legacy, and its impact on the world outside its gates. F. W. Dupee’s physical safety was imperative to Rosenthal because he represented the parts of Columbia that are worth defending. Dupee made it out of the incursion with his dentures unscathed, though his eye was blackened by an errant fist.
Ric Burns, Rosenthal’s former student and longtime friend, articulates the dean’s mindset toward Columbia as a cultural institution: “[He] understands really deeply how important institutions of learning are, how fragile they are, how imperfect they are, but how crucial creating the best kind of stability [is].” Burns says. “Not a rigid, unchanging stability, but kind of a basis from which your feet are on solid enough ground that you can survey the world, and get a sense of it, and make choices, and move forward.”
Rosenthal is a traditionalist in many ways, but that doesn’t mean he opposes change unequivocally. Quite the contrary—while many men in his position fought to keep Columbia as a university for men, Rosenthal pushed for coeducation. It’s the first thing he brings up when I ask him about his career. By the late 1970s, the University’s all-male status made it an outlier in higher education, and Rosenthal viewed its aversion to change as ridiculous. While the transition was popular among students and faculty by that time, powerful administrators stood in firm opposition.
Rosenthal persuaded then-Columbia College Dean Arnold Collery that switching to coeducation was in the University’s best interest. Working together, the pair helped lead the charge within the administration to push for gender inclusion. When the college finally began accepting women in 1983, Rosenthal chaired the committee overseeing the college’s transition, resolving issues regarding student health services, athletics, and residential life with the introduction of female students.
“Presidents tend to look suspiciously at me,” Rosenthal tells me. “I was twice nominated by a faculty search committee to be dean and twice vetoed by two different presidents over two different decades. I was secretly hoping in the third decade that I might also be nominated by a search committee. Then I could be vetoed by three different presidents over three different decades. I think two deans and two presidents over two decades was pretty good, but three over three would have been fantastic.”
As a preceptor back in the spring semester of 1969, Rosenthal spent most mornings with a book and a cup of coffee in John Jay Dining Hall. As the semester wore on, a young woman who regularly sat at a table across the room caught his eye: short and brunette, with sheet music occasionally resting on the table beside her. Week after week, he sat at tables closer to her so that, maybe, if he was lucky, they’d have an excuse to meet. By April, Rosenthal was sitting at the table directly next to hers, still never looking up from his coffee and books for longer than a glance. It was she who broke the silence and introduced herself.
Judy Kline was a graduate student at Columbia studying music and German. A divorced mother with two children, dating was nowhere near her top priority when Rosenthal asked if she’d like to have dinner with him that night. In fact, her kids were staying with her that weekend, so she had to decline his invitation.
”I thought to myself, boy, if that doesn't scare him out of John Jay,” Judy remembers. “But he said, ‘How about Monday?’”
Today, they’ve been married for almost 50 years.
The Rosenthals have built an almost impossibly charmed Upper West Side life together. After raising two sons from Mrs. Rosenthal’s previous marriage and another son the couple had together, they’ve found a groove as cultural patrons, empty nesters, and grandparents. The couple sometimes attend concerts at Carnegie Hall five nights in a week; if there’s an exhibition opening at the Met or the Neue Galerie, you can bet the Rosenthals are in attendance. They’ve travelled to East Africa, Mongolia, and braved the tundra at both the North and South poles. At both poles, Judy told me she took the polar plunge—a swim in the frigid ocean water. I asked her if Michael ever joined her.
“Are you kidding?” She laughs. “No, no. And he feels this way about things like marathons. I’ve now run 13 marathons, and [I ask,] ‘What about you, Michael?’ ‘No. There are those who stand and watch,’ to quote him.”
Michael Rosenthal also declined his wife’s request to sit in on his Literature Humanities class when she expressed interest in the Core Curriculum.
“I don't see how you could possibly teach a course with your wife sitting there looking at you,” Rosenthal tells me. “Teaching for me is a wonderful and demanding activity, and you’re really sort of exposed, and if you teach well you allow that to happen because you’re dealing with the book and learning about the book even as you’re teaching. So to have your wife sitting there necessarily judging your performance was just not possible.”
Don’t worry—Judy Rosenthal still took Literature Humanities. Her husband arranged for her to take the class with longtime friend and then-Dean of Columbia College Peter Pouncey.
When I speak to Rosenthal about the Literature Humanities curriculum, his eyes light up, and he sits straighter in his seat. His passion is audible through the buoyancy in his voice when he talks about the classical works.
“The Core Curriculum is not like taking medicine that’s good for you; it’s like having a wonderful, fun experience reading great books, laughing, crying, fighting,” he tells me. “If you can't make the Iliad and the Odyssey fun, you’re really in trouble. The wonderful books, they do it themselves. I mean Oedipus Rex, my God!”
Along with Literature Humanities, Rosenthal taught a now-discontinued course called Colloquium with his close friend Edward Said (yes, that Edward Said). Rosenthal and Said led the highly selective weekly seminar diving deeper into Core Curriculum texts with 12 students and a bottle of wine. Burns took the class in 1977.
“Edward was pure intensity and incisiveness and often aggressively interacted with students in a way that was both charming and frightening; Michael was ironic and balancing,” Burns says. “If it were a basketball team, he was like a point guard, not a center. He was the guy who was going to be picking up the pieces, making sure people weren’t left behind, making qualifying remarks.”
That’s exactly who Michael Rosenthal is for Columbia: an ironic balancing force, quietly ensuring that undergraduate students benefit as much as possible from the people and principles that make up the institution. He doesn’t defend Columbia out of obligation toward its age and prestige—he defends it because he deeply believes the University is worth defending as a force for bettering society.
Columbia is a place of constant change. Ferris Booth Hall becomes Lerner; the pizza shop on Broadway becomes a Sweetgreen; 2,000 new students walk into the gates each fall—one year, they are no longer all male. But maybe more stays the same: freshmen read the Iliad on Low Steps, first encounters happen at the tables of John Jay, and Michael Rosenthal surveys the campus, carrying its culture forward through the constant shifts in the world outside its brick bulwarks. He’s spent a life connecting students to the institution, pushing it forward while grounding it in the values of its traditions.
When I ask Burns to summarize Rosenthal’s role at Columbia, he doesn’t hesitate with his response. “He's a culture carrier,” Burns tells me. “People play different roles in institutions, and some people kind of embody the culture and carry it forward. It’s how institutions both evolve and change and remain coherent and have an identity. It’s a combination of real commitment to learning and the liberal arts with enormous irony.”
Enjoy leafing through our fifth issue!