Archival Collections
Columbia University Archives

Central Files, 1890-1984 

Columbia University. Office of the President
Phys. Desc: 
927 linear feet (927 record cartons)
Call Number: 
Columbia University Archives
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Biographical Note

Central Files grew out of the information needs, working relationships, and activities of the president of the University as well as the secretary, provost, and other administrators. In order to comprehend the scope and content of Central Files, it is helpful to understand the changing relationships between the president and secretary of the University, the working relationships and administrative patterns established at Columbia during the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century, and the changing needs and structure of the University administration over time. The records that eventually became Central Files originated in the Office of the President during the 1890s. President Seth Low's correspondence was organized by his personal secretary, William H.H. Beebe. Beebe later became the first secretary of the University, a position that was created in 1895 to assist the president in carrying out an ever-increasing number of administrative duties. As University secretary, Beebe continued to keep the president's correspondence, and this task remained a responsibility of the secretary's office until the 1970s. Close cooperation between the president and secretary continued throughout the administration of Nicholas Murray Butler, particularly until the 1920s. As new administrative responsibilities emerged, they often devolved on the president and the secretary until new posts could be created to undertake them. Information for the president was often funneled through the secretary. A closely interacting group of administrators and the centralization of administrative functions also helped to create and maintain Central Files. From the 1890s to 1920, in particular, administrative responsibilities were placed in the hands of these few individuals, many of whom remained at the University for decades. The president, treasurer, secretary, registrar, superintendent of buildings and grounds, and deans handled most administrative tasks. In addition, University Presidents Seth Low and Nicholas Murray Butler were actively and personally involved in administrative issues, kept close tabs on a range of issues and projects and frequently requested information from their staffs. Because Low and Butler were so intimately involved in administrative affairs, their records acted as the administrative files of the University. This close collaboration among administrators, the personal involvement of presidents, and a continuously increasing number of administrative tasks resulted in the creation of the large body of interrelated correspondence and other records that became Central Files. The patterns established in the 1890s and early 1900s of channeling information to the president and secretary, filing records under the name of the sender, and centrally collecting and disseminating information continued even as the University administration developed into a larger and more complex organization. Eventually, however, these patterns no longer served the differing business needs and administrative styles of a more modern, professionalized administration. Several important changes in the nature of Central Files occurred during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration as president of the University from 1948 to 1952. During this time, there appears to have been a less direct relationship between the president, secretary, and Central Files. In addition, Eisenhower was often absent from the University and seems to have delegated many tasks to the provost, secretary, vice presidents, and other top administrators. These officers used Central Files as a depository and sent batches of records to the files as needed. It also appears that Eisenhower kept his own separate set of files and may not have used Central Files as much as his predecessors did. Finally, most of the records relating to Eisenhower’s administration were removed from the University following his election as president of the United States. As a result, while Central Files remains an important resource for documenting the University and its administration during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the records from this period provide less information on the presidency. Throughout the 1960s, Central Files seems to have become less useful to the majority of administrators. Documents regarding Central Files cite difficulties locating information; the length of time needed to retrieve records; lack of subject filing; and administrators’ concerns that, because of the filing system employed in Central Files, clerks were not able to locate all the materials relevant to their particular requests as reasons for reluctance to use the files and their proposed reorganization. (Plans for reforming the filing system were never realized. However, during the 1960s or 1970s, file clerks purged certain records dating prior to the 1940s. No documentation regarding what materials were removed from the files has been located). Other collections in the Archives that include records from this period show that many administrators were keeping their own separate sets of files. In fact, three top-level administrators made significant deposits of records to the files in 1967, apparently at the request of the secretary of the University. The absence of a single central figure requesting and filing information may also have contributed to the declining usefulness of the files as did the changing role of the secretary, whose post had become more administrative and less closely tied to the president and high-level policy decisions. For example, the Office of the Secretary was placed under the vice president in 1959, where it remained until 1969. Most importantly, the secretary’s role as a link between the president and the rest of the administration appears to have lessened after the 1940s. A third important change in Central Files occurred in 1971. After seventy-six years, responsibility for Central Files was transferred from the secretary to the president’s office. At the time, a major argument in support of the move was that the president’s records should be managed by the president’s office rather than that of the secretary. The relationship that began with William Beebe overseeing the president’s voluminous correspondence had been outgrown by a burgeoning University administration, changing administrative styles, and differing concepts of the role of key administrative offices.

Scope and Contents

Central Files is composed chiefly of correspondence sent and received between Columbia University administrators and other University officers, faculty, and trustees, as well as correspondence sent and received between University administrators and individuals and organizations from outside the university. Central Files mostly contains correspondence sent and received between Columbia University administrators and other University officers, faculty, and trustees, as well as correspondence sent and received between University administrators and individuals and organizations from outside the University. In most cases, incoming correspondence and copies of replies are filed under the name of the individual or organization corresponding with University administrators. Correspondents from within Columbia include presidents and high-level administrators (the provost, secretary of the University, treasurer and controller, and vice presidents); administrators in various administrative units such as facilities management, budget, student services, controller's, provost's and registrar's offices; presidents, deans, and directors of Columbia's affiliated institutions, colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools; faculty members, in particular those who served as departmental chairs, departmental executive officers or committee chairs; trustees, in particular the chair of the board and the chairs of trustee standing committees; alumni and benefactors; and the chairs of University standing and special committees. Correspondents from outside Columbia include the presidents, administrators, and faculty of other colleges, universities, or research institutions; the officers of private foundations; government officials and military personnel; appointed officials of the New York State Department of Education; honorary degree recipients; dignitaries and politicians; members of the public; and, occasionally, students at the University. Other records in the files include: reports, budgets, proposals, minutes and agenda, legal documents, personnel records, invitations, pamphlets, publications, floor plans, petitions, fliers, press releases, and speeches. Records represent the tenure of presidents Seth Low (1890-1901), Nicholas Murray Butler (1902-1945), acting president Frank D. Fackenthal (1945-1948), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1948-1953), Grayson Kirk (1953-1968), Andrew Cordier (1968-1970), and William J. McGill (1970-1980). The first few years of the tenure of President Michael I. Sovern (1980-1993) are also represented.