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Columbia and the Community

Columbia in the Community

The principal statement of this institutional orientation came from Seth Low, the civic-minded alumnus who served as Columbia's eleventh president prior to his election as reform mayor of the newly unified New York City. Having moved Columbia physically from 49th Street and Madison Avenue to our present campus on Morningside Heights, President Low envisioned a corresponding shift in attitude from nineteenth-century elitism to community responsibility. At the dedication of the Morningside Heights campus in 1896, he declared, "A university that is set upon a hill cannot be hid. I count it a matter of no little moment that here, in its new home, Columbia cannot escape the observation of the city, nor can the city escape from it. In the desire to be of service to the city, the university must ever find a potent inspiration." And, he added, "The university cannot be indifferent to what is going on in the great city of which it is a part, and neither can the city forget, as it looks toward that hill, that there is in its midst, in the university, a life the great watchword of which is truth."

Broadway, looking north, early in the twentieth century.

As new waves of immigrants swept into the city, Low insisted that the University should educate a diverse student body. This commitment took on special force during the next one hundred years as the University evolved in tandem with the neighboring community of Harlem, which had become a magnet for African Americans migrating north from Manhattan's more densely populated neighborhoods. In 1912, a pioneering student named George Haynes became the first African American to earn a Columbia Ph.D. In times both good and bad during the course of the twentieth century, the University appeared to some community members as a beacon of opportunity and hope, but to others as a cold, indifferent neighbor.

Part of that perception was based on the fact that until the 1960s Columbia was largely a commuter school. Students and faculty worked at Columbia, but relatively few lived in Morningside Heights, Harlem, or Washington Heights. Consequently, many did not consider themselves residents of the community.

As the University purchased more buildings to house faculty and students in the graduate and professional schools—and more residence halls were built for undergraduates—Columbians began to feel at home. But at the same time that Columbia people were beginning to feel a part of the community, Columbia ownership of housing was resented by some residents as encroachment.

Early in the 1950s, before 116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam became a thoroughfare for pedestriants and a locale for campus and community events.

It was perhaps inevitable that Columbia's needs as a large institution would be a source of friction with the surrounding community, from the disturbances of 1968 to controversies that arose in the 1970s and 1980s over such issues as the attempt to meet the rising demand for faculty and student housing. In Washington Heights, tensions mounted over plans for a medical library and new space for the Dental School, but both situations were successfully defused through President William McGill's thoughtful attention to the community. During his tenure, President McGill, who assumed office in 1970, won over a number of adversaries and received high marks overall for encouraging the input of community representatives and working to develop joint University-community lobbying efforts in Washington.

McGill's successor in Low Library, Michael I. Sovern '53C '55L '80HON, moved quickly to capitalize on the growing foundation of goodwill, utilizing the same talents in labor relations and conflict resolution already placed so often at the service of the city and University. President Sovern established the Office of Government Relations and Community Affairs to strengthen communication between Columbia and other area institutions and organizations. His efforts to develop amicable approaches to problems through cooperation with community leaders proved especially valuable as planning got under way for the Audubon Biomedical Science and Technology Research Park in Washington Heights. There were heated debates on how best to honor Malcolm X in the project and how to assure that the community would benefit in jobs, health care, education, public safety, and improvement in the quality of life. In the end a spirit of collaboration prevailed, together with the support both financial and moral of Columbia's partners in the venture—the city, the state, and the federal government. And today the benefits to all are clear.

In the past eight years, we have built on past progress, and we have strengthened our connections to the community, in part by establishing the Office of Public Affairs, bringing in Alan Stone as vice president for public affairs, and augmenting the role of Larry Dais '76B as assistant vice president and director of community affairs.

Congressman Charles Rangel is a regular speaker at academic and community events.

We believe that the level of trust, still not as high as it could be, has nonetheless risen significantly. The Columbia campus is more open and receptive to the community. We are working well with the public officials who represent the neighborhood, including our distinguished honorary alumnus and now the dean of the New York delegation in Washington, Congressman Charles Rangel '87HON, as well as Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields and State Assemblyman Edward Sullivan, chairman of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee.

Columbia last year was the site of more than thirty community events, from the C. Virginia Fields Business Women's Dinner to the New York Urban League Frederick Douglass Awards. The number of such events has been increasing by an average of 20 percent each year.


Perhaps the most important trend of all is the growing spirit of candor. Problems are recognized and dealt with directly. We know that the new climate will not be perpetually sunny. Columbia is a large and still-growing institution with extensive needs. Community relations will always be dynamic. It is hard, difficult work.

We have done much, and we are committed to do much more. In this effort, we are heartened by the assessment of Borough President Fields, who has said, "You can't erase all those decades. But Columbia today is moving in the right direction."

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