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  Nearly 7500 Columbia students gathered on September 11 to watch Barack Obama and John McCain discuss public service.
McCain, Obama share views on public service at Columbia

The attack ads were yanked for the day. Partisan jabs among campaigners were toned down. And on the evening of September 11, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama ’83CC arrived at Columbia University with a shared message: Public service is a cornerstone of American democracy.

Obama and McCain came to the Morningside Heights Campus for a presidential forum organized by Service-Nation, a nonprofit coalition that promotes volunteerism. They appeared separately in front of an audience of about 1000 community leaders, military veterans, and family members of 9/11 victims in Alfred Lerner Hall, where Time managing editor Richard Stengel and PBS senior correspondent Judy Woodruff interviewed the candidates about how they would promote public service if elected president. Some 125 Columbia students got inside Lerner for the event, which wasn’t sponsored by the University, and nearly 7500 students watched the program on a JumboTron at Low Plaza and took part in a variety of daylong activities promoting civic engagement.

“The student body saw this as a historic opportunity to be part of the most important political campaign that any of us have ever seen,” said journalism student Greg Bocquet ’09JRN. “We realize that this is a turning point for our country.”
By sundown, traffic on Broadway near 116th Street was blocked off and pedestrians were required to have a University ID to get inside Columbia’s gates. Television news crews jockeyed for precious parking spaces on either side of College Walk, while inside the quad, College Democrats and College Republicans held a voter registration drive together. “This isn’t about taking sides,” said Jonathan Kaiser ’10CC, a member of the College Republicans. “Our campus is a national stage. People are just so happy that the candidates came.”

At around 7 p.m., a cool breeze was blowing in off the Hudson River after a muggy day. Students were opening blankets on the grass and steps in front of Low. Undergraduate leaders took turns speaking at an outdoor lectern about student volunteer opportunities throughout the city, in keeping with the day’s theme of public service.

President Lee Bollinger delivered opening remarks inside Lerner Hall, where guest speakers included New York governor David Paterson ’77CC and the Hollywood actor Tobey Maguire. Bollinger remarked that a forum on public service is an ideal way to mark 9/11 “because it helps us make this a day of reflection and enlightenment — to learn once again that the simple act of caring for others contains within it all the satisfactions one can hope for in life.” He pointed out that Columbia has stressed civic education dating at least as far back as World War I, when the University created the Core Curriculum in part to nurture “the responsibilities of citizenship” in undergraduates. Bollinger highlighted several of the University’s service programs, such as Double Discovery Center, which brings first-generation, college-bound public school students onto campus for mentoring, and Columbia Community Impact, which sends nearly a thousand student volunteers to serve in New York neighborhoods each year.

Left: Barack Obama ’83CC; Right: John McCain with Time managing editor Richard Stengel and PBS senior correspondent Judy Woodruff.  

A coin toss had determined that McCain would speak first, and the military veteran of 26 years laid out the following vision: Faith-based organizations and the private sector should form the bedrock of public service in the United States. McCain said he would consider boosting government funding for civilian organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps but that government-supported programs can’t meet most of our service needs. “The essence of volunteerism starts at the grassroots level, not necessarily at the federal government level,” he said. “Let’s not in any way stifle what already is very, very successful in America.” McCain also said that he would make it easier for foreign nationals to study and ultimately to work in the United States.

Obama took the stage to uproarious applause from the Columbia students watching him outside on the campus JumboTron. After shaking hands with McCain, with whom he’d visited Ground Zero earlier in the day, Obama smiled widely at the audience, observing: “I’ve got a slight home-court advantage here. This is my alma mater.”
In contrast to McCain, Obama, the former community organizer, stressed the importance of government programs. He touted his national service plan, a $3.5 billion proposal that would offer college students tuition breaks in exchange for their volunteer efforts, double the size of the Peace Corps, and triple the size of AmeriCorps. Obama also said he would create a new corps focused on promoting alternative energy in local communities. “That is going to cost money,” said Obama, “but mostly it’s going to require government to provide the opportunities and a president who is willing to inspire people to get involved and get outside of themselves.”

McCain and Obama agreed on some things. They both said the U.S. needs to expand its armed forces to ease their overburdened ranks. And they both criticized higher education institutions, such as Columbia and many others, that don’t host Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on their campuses. (Columbia students participate in ROTC by commuting to the military’s regional officer training courses at Fordham University. In 2005, the University Senate, comprising student and faculty leaders, voted not to formally invite ROTC back onto campus because the military’s policy banning openly gay service members was seen to violate the University’s nondiscrimination practices.)

Said McCain: “Shouldn’t the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military?”

After the event, journalism students were sitting on the steps of Low and on benches in the quad, blogging and filing stories for their courses on laptops. The journalism student Bocquet interviewed Governor Paterson, former senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), Queen Noor of Jordan, and others during breaks in the program. “This is one of the reasons why I decided to come to Columbia,” said Bocquet, “to be part of something larger.”

At 10:30 p.m., a large crowd of students had gathered near Lerner Hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of the candidates. But by then McCain’s and Obama’s motorcades, with their elaborate police escorts and multiple SUVs with dark-tinted windows, had already left campus, driving very quickly toward downtown Manhattan, drawing curious stares from New Yorkers standing in crosswalks and at bus stops near 110th Street.

Barnard College freshman Sinead Redmond said she was buoyed by the experience. “It’s what, our third week of school and we saw the next president of the United States,” she said. “I feel like we’re part of it.”

—E. B. Solomont ’02JRN


 
 
Keeth Smart ’10BUS, Jason Rogers, Tim Morehouse, and James Williams ’07CC celebrate on the podium after winning silver in the team saber competition at the Beijing Olympic Games.  
Saber rattlers strike silver

The silver medal came for Erinn Smart ’01BC on a Saturday during the Beijing Olympics after she and her American team foiled the Polish and Hungarian fencing teams but could not beat the formidable Russians.
It was the first time an American women’s foil team has won a medal in an Olympic competition.

A day later, it was Smart’s brother’s turn. Keeth Smart, who started working on his MBA at Columbia this fall, helped the U.S. men’s saber team win silver. On his team was another Columbian, James Williams ’07CC.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” Keeth said. He enjoyed competing but plans to focus on his studies and put training aside for a while. “My parents stressed education far more than athletics,” he said, lamenting that his father and mother are not alive to share these milestones. “Even though they are not here, I know they are proud of what we’ve achieved.”

It’s no coincidence that three elite fencing athletes have ties to Columbia, which has long produced championship-level fencing teams. New York City has been a mecca for fencers for several decades, as some of the best trainers in the world have established clubs here.

  Erinn Smart ’01BC
James Williams scores a point against France’s Nicolas Lopez in Beijing.

Keeth Smart and Williams trained with fencing icon Yury Gelman, a master who has been the U.S. Olympic men’s saber coach since 2000.

Erinn majored in economic history at Barnard; her older brother is entering his first year at Columbia’s Graduate School of Business. Williams, who is ranked the world’s number 26 saber rattler, is pursuing a master’s degree in Slavic cultures at Columbia.

Erinn and Keeth Smart, who grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, began fencing as preteens after their father learned about the nonprofit Peter Westbrook Founda­tion in Manhattan and enrolled them in classes. Westbrook, an Olympic medalist himself, helped train them. Their childhood friends teased them by yelling “Zorro!” when they walked by, carrying their sheathed swords.

Two other alumni competed in the Summer Olympics, but did not make it to the finals: Courtney King-Dye ’04CC, an equestrian who competed in dressage, and Erison Hurtault ’07CC, who ran the 400-meter sprint.

—Cindy Rodríguez


 
 
  Alan Brinkley
Brinkley to step down as provost

After serving as the University’s chief academic officer since July 2003, Provost Alan Brinkley is stepping down in June so he can return to his first love: teaching.

“I always intended to return to teaching and scholarship and always thought of this job as something I would do for a limited time, which has turned out to be six years,” Brinkley says. “Being provost has been a great experience, but I have missed my life as a historian and will be glad to return to it.”

Brinkley plans to finish out this academic year, take a sabbatical during the 2009–2010 academic year, then plunge back into academia, though he hasn’t decided what projects he’ll take on.
While Brinkley was provost, Columbia created new housing for faculty, enhanced the arts in the life of the University, increased attention to undergraduate education, and strengthened the diversity and quality of faculty.

Brinkley is a highly respected historian who has written several books including Liberalism and Its Discontents (Harvard University Press, 1998), The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (Knopf, 1995), and Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & the Great Depression (Knopf, 1982), which won the 1983 National Book Award.

—CR


 
 
Rafael Yuste
 
 
$10 million gift to support new biological imaging lab

To understand how the brain works, neuroscientists today need to manipulate cells as well as to peer inside them. Columbia professor Rafael Yuste, for instance, can keep brain tissue alive for hours in a nutrient bath and induce particular neurons to fire by flashing tiny laser beams at them. Yuste observes the neurons with a high-powered microscope the whole while, to see how they function as part of larger neuronal networks.

A special kind of laboratory is necessary to conduct this type of research at the highest level: The lab’s temperature and humidity must be precisely controlled, its air must be free of electrical noise, and it must be insulated from vibrations caused by traffic and subway trains outside. That’s the kind of lab that Yuste’s research team will soon have at Columbia, thanks to the charitable Sherman Fairchild Foundation. The foundation recently gave Columbia $10 million to create a state-of-the-art biological imaging facility that will occupy 1 of 14 floors in the new Interdisciplinary Science Building, going up now at Broadway and 120th Street and slated to open in the fall of 2010. The Sherman Fairchild Foundation’s gift is the first named gift for the $179 million project. The foundation previously provided the naming gift for Columbia’s Sherman Fairchild Center for the Life Sciences, a modern-looking building erected on the the northeast corner of the Morningside Heights Campus in the 1970s.

The new Interdisciplinary Science Building has been designed to foster interaction among researchers who work at the boundaries of biology, engineering, chemistry, and physics. Yuste says collaborating with people in those fields is imperative to advance his work. A pioneer of biological imaging, he was among the first neuroscientists to use two-photon microscopy, a high-powered form of microscopy developed originally by physicists.

“To solve the mysteries of the brain, my team needs to be able to tap into the knowledge that engineers have about circuits,” Yuste says. “We’re watching the brain’s gears, looking for its most basic organizational design, trying to identify the common denominator that explains how its circuits work. We think similarly to the way physicists, chemists, and engineers think, and I can’t wait to be in the same building with those folks, to be working alongside them.”

—David J. Craig


 
  Nineteen Lion greats enter Athletics Hall of Fame
  Alton Byrd ’79CC enters the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame this year.

Rolando Acosta ’79CC, ’82LAW grew up playing baseball on the streets of his native Dominican Republic and spoke little English when he arrived in the U.S. as an adolescent. But he was accepted to Columbia, set a record for career victories among Lions baseball pitchers that still stands, and is now a New York State Appellate Court judge.

Stacey Borgman ’98BC, as a native Alaskan, had never touched an oar before she set down her scull in the Harlem River as a college sophomore. Eight years later, she was competing for the United States women’s rowing team at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. She now practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Acosta and Borgman are among the 19 individual Columbia student-athletes who enter the University’s Athletics Hall of Fame this year. As Columbia went to press, an induction ceremony was to take place October 2 in the Rotunda of Low Memorial Library. The inductees were also to be recognized at halftime of the Columbia-Princeton football game October 4.

The 2008 Hall of Fame class includes the former NFL players Marty Domres ’69CC and Bruce Gehrke ’49CC, former NBA head coach and first-round draft pick Walt Budko ’48SEAS, women’s basketball star Ellen Bossert ’86CC, current New York Giants team physician Russ Warren ’62CC, and the entire 1983 men’s soccer team, which was the NCAA tournament runner-up.

Visit www.gocolumbialions.com.

—DJC


 
 
Donna MacPhee  
MacPhee named VP for alumni relations and CAA president

The University’s new vice president for alumni relations, Donna MacPhee, graduated from Columbia 19 years ago, but in many ways she has never left the campus.

Her career propelled her from the hectic world of contract negotiations for Major League Baseball sponsors to managing finances for the National Hockey League to founding her own event management business. Even still, she continued to give back to her alma mater.
Over the years MacPhee has volunteered for more than a half dozen University committees, chairing several of them, and last year cofounded the Columbia Athletics Women’s Leadership Council, which has raised more than $100,000 for athletics.

When the job to lead Columbia’s alumni outreach efforts as president of the Columbia Alumni Association became available, it seemed tailor-made for her. “I was already spending so much time volunteering at Columbia University that my husband joked, ‘Don’t you work there already?’” MacPhee says.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is perfect,’ ” MacPhee said. “It encompasses everything that I would like to get involved with: being part of Columbia, building the CAA, collaborating with all the schools, working with different types of people.”
MacPhee ’89CC is scheduled to start October 6, succeeding Eric Furda ’94TC, who left Columbia in February to become director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. She takes the helm at a time when Columbia is expanding efforts to reach out to graduates. MacPhee’s plans include supporting the alumni groups at the individual schools and helping to bridge school-based efforts so they can learn from one another.

“Donna was our dream candidate,” says Susan K. Feagin, executive vice president for university development and alumni relations. “She’s a passionate Columbian who had the right kind of professional experience to lead us to new levels of partnership in connecting our alumni University-wide and worldwide.”

—CR

Read President Bollinger’s announcement of the appointment at alumni.columbia.edu/bollinger_letter_092208.html.


 
  9/11 benchmarks
  Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman designed the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

In the shadow of the Pentagon, 184 steel-and-granite benches jut from the ground, each one representing a person killed at the Pentagon and on the hijacked jet that struck the building on September 11, 2001. Each bench is bathed in light and shimmers from the reflection of trickling water running underneath. From a distance, the repetition of the benches gives a sense of unity.

Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, alumni of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, designed the memorial in their 250-square-foot studio near the Morningside Heights Campus. They won an international competition in 2003 to honor the Pentagon’s 9/11 victims; their finished work was unveiled this past September 11. More than 20,000 attended the dedication ceremony of the sprawling, two-acre memorial, which cost $22 million to construct.

Kaseman and Beckman met at Columbia, graduated together in 2001, and later married and formed their own design firm, KBAS Studio.

“We didn’t tell anyone we were entering the competition, because it was a very personal thing for us,” Kaseman says. “It was our way to inject some positivity into the incredibly negative atmosphere of the time.”

—CR


 
  Food for thought: Evenings at Café Science

For a while, it seemed the stream of people entering PicNic Market & Café, a French bistro on Broadway between 101st and 102nd streets, would never stop. It was a breezy Monday evening in August, and about 100 Columbia alumni, faculty, students, and local community members arrived to listen to Frances Champagne, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, talk about the genetics of maternal behavior. The event was part of the University’s monthly Café Science discussion series, which invites the public to “eat, drink, and talk science” with prominent researchers.

Psychologist Frances Champagne discusses the genetics of maternal caregiving at a recent Café Science event at PicNic Market & Cafe.
 
 

For Champagne, Café Science offered a chance to talk about epigenetics, the process by which life experiences can alter gene expression. Champagne has found in her lab work that if mother rats do not provide good care to their babies in the first week of their lives, changes occur in the female babies’ DNA, affecting the quality of care they will provide eventually as mothers. “A lifetime of experience is encoded in the proteins surrounding our DNA,” Champagne explained. The audience had plenty of questions. One man asked why Champagne limited her study to the genetic effects of the female rats’ parenting. “What about the father rats?” he wondered. “Don’t they matter?”

“They do matter,” Champagne replied as chuckles echoed across the restaurant, “just not in a baby rat’s world.”

Other Café Science talks have covered such diverse topics as earthquakes, Alzheimer’s disease, and dark matter. Marjorie “Cookie” Neil started the series shortly after she was hired as Columbia’s director for science development in May 2006. She had read that cafés and bars across Europe and the U.S. had begun hosting science lectures, and she thought it sounded like a good fit for the science faculty at Columbia. The first Café Science discussion was held in June 2006, and the program has been a big success. “We’ve never had anything but a full house,” Neil says.

Fortunately for Neil, finding faculty who are willing to participate in Café Science hasn’t been difficult. In fact, she often receives e-mails from researchers volunteering their services. One of the reasons faculty have been so supportive of Café Science is that it gives them an opportunity to make their work accessible to the public, says Darcy Kelley, a professor in Columbia’s biological sciences department who gave one of the first Café Science talks. For instance, Kelley points out that while Columbia’s medical program has a strong reputation, the University is generally not known as a science school. That impression is starting to change, though, thanks in part to Café Science and other recent efforts, such as the World Science Festival, a citywide event that Columbia mathematics and physics professor Brian Greene helped found last year.

Champagne’s talk prompted a lively discussion that could have gone on for hours. At 7 p.m., though, the wait staff began scurrying to set up for dinner service, and Neil informed the audience that it was time to leave. Champagne had scarcely stepped out the door when a small crowd gathered around her to ask additional questions. Such enthusiasm is typical at Café Science, according to Neil. “We have regulars — I call them ‘loyalists’ — and there are always new people, too,” she says. “It’s a unique opportunity for scientists, and for the public.”

— Erica Westly


 
 

In brief

Obama’s impact

African Americans have been following the 2008 presidential race far more closely than have other Americans, according to a national survey conducted in September by Columbia’s Center on African American Politics and Society (CAAPS), USA Today, and ABC News. Fifty-six percent of blacks said they’re following the election “very closely,” compared to 48 percent of whites. The survey also found that 31 percent of African Americans have given money to a candidate in the race, compared to 21 percent of whites, and that 14 percent of blacks have worked for a candidate, versus 7 percent of whites.

The researchers, led by Columbia political scientist Fredrick Harris, found that Barack Obama’s candidacy has caused a sharp increase in optimism and national pride among African Americans. In addition, the researchers hypothesize that Obama’s campaign theme of cross-racial unity is contributing to a shift in African American identity, such that blacks today are increasingly likely to identify themselves first and foremost as Americans, rather than as blacks. In 2000, 76 percent of African Americans identified themselves first as blacks; today almost half of them identify first as Americans. “These competing identities open up the possibility of blacks building and joining multiracial coalitions in a variety of causes that address issues of mutual interest across different communities,” the report reads.

To read the results, visit www.iserp.columbia.edu/publications/press_releases/black_politics_survery.html.

Digital mind reader

Engineers can put electrodes on a person’s scalp that sense changes in the brain when it recognizes a familiar image. Columbia biomedical engineer Paul Sajda says his new “brain computer interface system” could be used to develop technology that quickly scans surveillance tapes for faces of known criminals or for signs of suspicious activity. The invention, called C3Vision, might also have applications for reviewing visual medical information, such as in X-rays or MRIs. To watch a video demonstration of C3Vision, visit http://staging.spectrum.ieee.org/video?id=521.

Up from the barrio

Students at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a middle school run jointly by the University and the New York City public school system, recently hosted a prestigious visitor: Leonel Fernández, the president of the Dominican Republic, stopped by on September 25. Fernández, who grew in Washington Heights, was in town for the opening of the UN General Assembly and also spoke at Columbia’s annual World Leaders Forum.

The school’s students each wrote a letter about a global issue in preparation for the visit. Several students read theirs aloud to Fernández; topics included the U.S. financial crisis, nuclear weapons, climate change, poverty, and women’s rights. José Maldonado-Rivera, the principal at CSS and a Teachers College alumnus, said Fernández’s visit was “a unique opportunity for my Hispanic students to see how somebody from the barrio, through hard work and dedication, was able to drive himself to the top.” The school, at 123rd St. and Morningside Avenue, serves mostly Hispanic and African American children.

President Fernández spoke to a packed auditorium of about 250 students, parents, and faculty, discussing politics and answering such questions as: What is the most difficult thing about being president? Managing conflicts, he replied. What would you be if you weren’t a president? A writer, he said.

Top grades for green effort

Columbia earned the highest grade of any university this year on the College Sustainability Report Card, which evaluates educational institutions on their recycling and conservation efforts. Columbia is the only university in New York State—and one of just 15 nationwide, out of 300 graded—to earn an A-, the top mark given in 2008. Columbia received praise for its innovative recycling programs, its efforts to reduce waste in dining halls, and its green building projects, among other initiatives.

Sustainable living today is an art at Columbia: Students compete to see whose residence hall consumes the least electricity, they earn redeemable points at local restaurants for recycling paper and plastics, and dining halls send away old cooking oil to be transformed into biodiesel fuel. Columbia recently established the city’s first recycling center for batteries, small electronic waste, textiles, books, toner cartridges, and lightbulbs; last year the University saved roughly 105 tons of furniture and office equipment from landfills by donating them to nonprofits or by repurposing them on campus. Also last year, the U.S. Green Building Council singled out the University’s proposed 18-acre Manhattanville development in West Harlem as a model of environmentally friendly urban design.

“The value of environmental sustainability and awareness of our responsibility to the community around us and the world at large are at the core of Columbia’s culture,” says Nilda Mesa, the University’s assistant vice president of environmental stewardship. “Our goal as a university is to put that awareness into practice.”

The Report Card is published by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which is a special project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
 

 
 
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