November 1, 1999

After 2 Decades of Struggle, Columbia Is on a Comeback Trail


Columbia University is on a roll.

The university, which during the 1970's and 80's was struggling with a declining reputation and flat alumni giving, has edged out Yale as the third-most selective Ivy League college, after Harvard and Princeton.

Last year it raised nearly $400 million in gifts -- behind only Harvard and Stanford. And Columbia is collecting more money from its patents and royalties than any American university. Even the normally testy relations with its Morningside Heights neighbors have turned adulatory. And to cap it all, Robert A. Mundell, a Columbia economics professor, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics last month, Columbia's third Nobel in four years.

This is clearly a good time for most elite universities. Applications are pouring in. Donors are lining up. And some of Columbia's good fortune clearly stems from New York City's prosperity and rising reputation, which have inflated applications to other local colleges.

But Columbia seems to be particularly blessed. Last year, the university fielded a record 13,012 applications to its undergraduate college and accepted just 13.6 percent of them -- fewer than one in seven. As recently as the 1980's, Columbia was forced to take nearly half of its applicants to keep its classrooms filled.

Once one of the richest and most admired institutions of higher learning -- home to the critic Lionel Trilling, the poet Allen Ginsberg and the physicist I. I. Rabi, among others -- Columbia, by the 1970's, had slid. Its students still spilled off the Renaissance-style campus into the bookstores and bars lining Broadway, signaling the presence of a world-renowned university at 116th Street on the edge of Harlem, and it still held sway as one of the city's largest employers, real estate owners and research institutions.

But internally, things had soured. Alumni were dismayed by the violent student takeovers of five buildings in 1968, aimed at stopping its expansion into Morningside Park, and many stopped giving money. Respected faculty members were bailing out. And students sought safer havens than financially strapped, crime-ridden New York.

Columbia's resurgence now shows not just the benefits of being in the right place at the right time but also the payoff from careful management of a $1.5 billion institution that is as much a business as an ivory tower.

George Rupp, Columbia's preacher-turned-president, who served as dean of Harvard's Divinity School and president of Rice University before joining Columbia in 1993, has proved to be an attentive manager and a careful strategist as well as a nonstop fund-raiser, many Columbia insiders say.

"Rupp is watching the store," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a renowned professor of history and the social sciences, who was on the search committee that chose Rupp.

Stephen Friedman, chairman of Columbia's trustees, likens Rupp to John F. Welch Jr., the hard-driving chief executive of General Electric Corporation, who insists that each of his businesses be among the best in their fields.

"George is a guy who very aggressively wants to be excellent and outstanding in every area he is in," said Friedman, a Columbia Law School graduate and former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs.

Outside the university, too, Rupp is perceived as a strong manager who has helped raise Columbia's stature. Although it is still generally not thought of as part of the fabled trio of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, in some respects it is now seen as nipping at their heels.

"Columbia has ascended nationally and among its peers," said Kay Hanson, executive director of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a group that includes Columbia and 30 other elite colleges and universities.

The son of German immigrants, Rupp, 57, brought an Ivy League pedigree (Princeton undergraduate, doctorate in theology from Harvard) and a long record as an administrator. A tall, gangly man with a preppy look, he is more determined than charismatic.

The Rupp touch is evident in many ways: He has improved operations at a university that had a reputation for loose -- some say sloppy -- management. He has increased revenues by expanding the number of tuition-paying undergraduates, stepping up fund-raising and squeezing greater profits out of the university's intellectual properties -- from biomedical patents to new media projects. And he has polished and expanded the physical plant at a time when first impressions count mightily.

Rupp has also placed new emphasis on the undergraduate college, the smallest in the Ivy League, with about 3,400 students when he arrived.

"The first thing I did was to insist that the college should be at the heart of the university, and that the other schools had to overcome their fortress mentality," he explained in an interview in his neat, ornate office in Low Library overlooking Columbia's quadrangle. "In American higher education, the way John or Mary Q. Public establishes a hierarchy of quality is by an appraisal of the undergraduate unit and how hard it is to get in."

Detractors say the growth in the number of students at the college -- now 3,850 -- has not yet been matched by a similar rise in modern classrooms or in the number of faculty members, and that more graduate students are being used to teach.

"I would rate my experience over all as very good, but there is mediocrity lurking, in bad professors and unspectacular graduate students" said J. J. Lando, a senior from West Orange, N.J., who is triple-majoring in philosophy, physics and mathematics. "There has been a fair amount of student backlash over overcrowding of classes," he added.

Columbia says that when it finishes renovations, there will be more appropriately sized classrooms. And it has introduced fellowships to attract more professors to teach its celebrated core curriculum, anchored by contemporary civilization and humanities literature -- interdisciplinary courses grounded in Western classics. Graduate students, who are only supposed to teach about a third of the seminar-style classes, now cover about 40 percent of the sections.

While most students who were queried said they had not met Rupp, most said they were quite happy. Rupp's strategies, in short, seem to have paid off. Last year, Standard & Poor's added Columbia to its short elite list of triple-A universities, citing its $2 billion capital campaign, its diversified revenue stream and its effective planning and budgeting process.

Michael I. Sovern, Columbia's president from 1980 to 1993, is widely credited with laying the foundation for today's renaissance by selling the land that the university owned beneath Rockefeller Center and putting it into higher-yielding investments; doubling the application pool by going coeducational; conducting a major capital campaign to replenish the university's endowment, and expanding the school's housing.

But while the Columbia that Sovern left for Rupp was greatly improved, it was still not flying. And as the 1990's progressed, Columbia officials looked enviously at the buzz surrounding New York University, their downtown rival.

When Rupp arrived, he overhauled the central administration -- keeping the provost, Jonathan R. Cole, but recruiting most of his other close aides from outside the university. He picked Emily Lloyd, Sanitation Commissioner under Mayors David N. Dinkins and Rudolph W. Giuliani, as his executive vice president for administration. He lured John Masten from the New York Public Library to be executive vice president of finance. And he brought in Alan Stone from the Clinton White House to run public affairs.

Academically, Rupp focused on shifting the balance between graduate students and undergraduates and encouraged aggressive hiring to restore the reputations of weak departments.

Still, the college sometimes seemed like an afterthought in a university of 20,000 students that was best known for its graduate and professional schools in areas like law, medicine, journalism, business and the liberal arts.

Columbia is expanding the college by more than 15 percent (to about 4,000 undergraduates) to make it a higher-profile part of the university and to bring in additional revenue. (With tuition and fees at more than $32,000 a student, an extra 500 students adds up to more than $16 million annually.)

At the same time, it hopes to downsize the graduate program, freeing more faculty time for undergraduates.

The most visible sign of the new attention to undergraduates is the investment in new buildings and renovations. With the help of large donors, Columbia has sunk $85 million into an architecturally arresting new student center and has spent heavily to renovate Butler Library, undergraduate dormitories and the gymnasium. A new residence hall, at 113th Street and Broadway, is scheduled to be completed next fall.

Columbia is also trying to rebuild departments that had slipped, like anthropology, for which it hired six new faculty members, mostly from top-ranked University of Michigan.

Its effort to stage a similarly bold move in economics, however, backfired, when Robert J. Barro, a prominent economist at Harvard, decided at the last minute not to come. But this year, it hired 10 new economists, including young professors from Princeton and Harvard, for the department, which is the most popular major among undergraduates.

Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history who left Columbia 26 years ago and returned in 1995, said he found the university "significantly stronger" than 10 or 15 years ago.

Columbia is taking a hands-on approach to managing its relations with its community. As the largest property owner in the area, and one that some said always seemed more interested in its own needs than anyone else's, the university has long been regarded by many as the enemy; the decision to build a gym in Morningside Park touched off the 1968 protests.

Columbia now consults more with the community about its construction plans. Maritta Dunn, chairwoman of Community Board 9, which encompasses the university, said that when the community protested the university's plans to condemn a building at 116th Street and Riverside Drive, the university said it would re-examine its plans.

"Five years is too short to turn around 30 or 40 years of bad blood," Ms. Dunn said, "but the current powers that be are really trying."

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