The Kluge Scholars Program for intercultural and international leadership, which offers financial aid and special programming, has helped nearly 500 Columbia College students since 1987 and enriched their experience on Morningside Heights. On Oct.1, Columbia celebrated the program and the 90th birthday of its benefactor, John W. Kluge, CC'37, with a black tie dinner in Low Library Rotunda.
"I'd rather by far invest in people than buildings," Kluge said. "If I can infuse a mind to improve itself, that'll pass on to their children, and to their children's children."
More than 300 people -- current and former Kluge Scholars, faculty, alumni, administrators and friends -- were on hand to honor Kluge, who attended Columbia on scholarship, became one of this country's most successful entrepreneurs and has generously chosen to give back to his alma mater so others might follow in his footsteps.
"If it hadn't been for Columbia, my path in life would have been completely different," Kluge told those assembled in Low Rotunda. "Columbia gave me an opportunity, and you scholars are being given that opportunity as well. The best thing I can do is to do something for other people that other people have done for me.
"If I can help disadvantaged students to experience the sense of a common enterprise and shared dreams that I knew as an undergraduate, then everything we accomplish will be more worthwhile."
The Kluge Scholars Program provides 40 to 60 four-year scholarships to students in need in each incoming class, but "access to Columbia is just part of what the Kluge program provides," noted Austin Quigley, dean of the College. The program also enables extensive programming aimed at achieving goals of intellectual growth, leadership development and global awareness.
"Columbia would not be the great institution it is today were it not for John Kluge," said President Lee C. Bollinger. "Like their namesake, Kluge Scholars are making their mark in every corner of the world."
One who came back to honor her benefactor was Cynthia Young, CC'91, who graduated magna cum laude and is an assistant professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. "If I had not received a Kluge scholarship, I would have been just another Cleveland kid working full-time and going to community college," said Young. "[Kluge's] willingness to invest in human potential, that commitment to leveling the economic and racial playing field, helped me reach my goals and lies at the very core of who I am as an activist, teacher and researcher."
Individuals cannot apply for an undergraduate Kluge scholarship; admissions officers choose Kluge Scholars after the incoming class has been selected. The merit-based award is offered to select students from underrepresented populations who the admissions officers deem most able to benefit from being part of the community of scholars and who will in turn uniquely contribute to their cohorts' experience at Columbia.
Born in 1914 in Chemnitz, Germany, Kluge came to this country at 8, grew up in Detroit and won a scholarship that allowed him to attend the College. After graduation, he worked in a printing company, served in the Army during World War II and then became a broadcasting entrepreneur. He gradually acquired media outlets, starting with a single radio station, WGAY, in Maryland , and then acquired other radio stations, independent television stations and syndicated rights to television shows and movies. Metromedia, the company he built, grew into the largest independent television business in the United States and diversified into many other areas, including telecommunications.
In 1986, Kluge sold his television interests to Rupert Murdoch and became more involved with philanthropy. In addition to endowing the Kluge Scholars Program, Kluge has contributed generously to the Library of Congress, where he formed the James Madison Council, a private sector advisory board. He also founded the Kluge Center, which supports scholars, and helped fund the National Digital Library project, which brings the library's educational resources to remote locations.
"To me, philanthropy comes naturally because I know that when you pass out of this picture, you don't take anything with you," Kluge said. "With the sands of time, we make very little difference, but what difference we can make we should try to make."