Columbia University

February 27, 2020

Logo Credit: Columbia University

Columbia University defines itself by its location "in the city of New York". On a morning like this it feels like there is nowhere else in the world. Riding the train up from midtown Manhattan, emerging from the subway platform - the university has its own subway stop - into the brilliant sunshine of a brilliant February day, there is a palpable feeling that one has arrived.

Image Credit: Gryffindor

This feeling repeats at intervals throughout the day. As a visitor who has spent weeks on this campus over the course of the last twenty years, the grandeur of Columbia's campus never seems to fade. Columbia University was built during New York's Gilded Age and bears the unmistakable architectural feel of the city's other most renowned institutions: the Met, the Public Library, Grand Central, and the mansions of 5th Ave.

Entering through the gates of the campus from Broadway and 116th street, one steps from the bustle of Morningside Heights into the embrace of one of the most striking campuses in the country. Neo-classical architecture dominates the senses and fills one with awe. Limestone, red brick, and copper show the venerable patina of age in a city where new construction rises in glass and steel.

In the education industry where age equals reputation, Columbia is older than dirt - a theme that we will come back to at intervals. When you see it, you will make no mistake: Columbia is one of the most iconic educational institutions in the United States, located in the most iconic city in the world.

I am here to attend the morning information session and tour, and grab lunch with a family friend who is in her first year here. This afternoon I will tour Columbia Engineering.

Columbia knows how to make an impression. Visitors ascend a grand plaza and staircase to arrive at the Low Memorial Library, arguably the very heart of campus. This library emulates the Pantheon of Rome with its domed vault and colossal columned facade.

It is impossible not to be humbled by the view from these steps, especially on a day like this. Eight names are emblazoned on the opposing facade: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, and Vergil. We will come back to these names later.

Within the visitors center the Classical assault continues. Philosophers peer down from on high, surrounded by dusty boxes that no one cares to move. Ornate coffered ceilings tower a height of fifty feet or more. These New Yorkers know how to impress.

No time to stand about, the information session will begin momentarily. We are led outside, across the main square, and into a modern theater. There are about 75 of us. Most of the visitors today are international students. A number of countries are represented and half are with a group from Abu Dhabi.

The info session takes place in a steeply pitched auditorium. There is a screen available but no AV is used. The session begins with the obligatory yet respectful invocation of the original inhabitants of this "island of many hills" - the Lanape people. It's a welcome statement as we travel back in time to imagine the university's founding as Kings College way back in 1754 by royal decree of King George II of England. The first classes were held in that same year in a building attached to Trinity Church on Wall St. Alexander Hamilton attended King's College and to this day is the college's most famous drop-out. The college was shuttered during the Revolutionary War.

Venerable history.... Check!

The theme of this info session is the idea that "Columbia's location the city of New York defines us". Today, as ever, this is a risky thesis to advance.

Columbia College counts 6,000 undergraduate students in total, spread across the school of arts and sciences (4,500) and the school of engineering (1,500). The respective schools posses student to teacher ratios of 7:1 and 3:1. You don't hear this every day! Next we learn that undergraduate students can sit in on graduate level classes and that 80% of classes contain 20 students or less.

The arts and sciences and the engineering programs are linked through Columbia's Core Curriculum, a "set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major." The core curriculum is renowned - and relevant to today's students - and core classes average 14 students (topped at 20).

Coming from a college that recently tore itself apart over a western-centric course requirement (and subsequently gutted the century-long project), I admire Columbia's ability to make the case that its core curriculum is relevant to students from all walks of life, the world over. Columbia's core curriculum is canonical and western to the extreme, beginning with the Literature Humanities course - LitHum according to the locals (2019-2020 syllabus here). This is a course that prospective students should be aware of in order to understand what they are signing up for. In short, the names of Homer and Herodotus will not soon be removed from campus buildings.

But our presenter today is adept at framing the questions that students will ask as they interrogate these works. "What does it mean to be human? How does the past impact the present? Why is this deemed an important text in the Western canon?" She argues that Lit Hum constitutes a "universal education" and will give you "the ability to converse with anyone on the planet in a fruitful and educative way." These are, "foundational texts" and through reading them with your fellow students you will learn to "empathize with others" and practice "discussion and debate."

Fall Semester 2019 - Lit Hum Syllabus

Homer, Iliad (Chicago, tr. Lattimore)

Sappho, If Not, Winter (Vintage, tr. Carson)

Homer, Odyssey (Norton, tr. Emily Wilson)

New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha

Herodotus, The Histories (Oxford, tr. Waterfield)

Aeschylus, Oresteia (Aeschylus II, Chicago, tr. Lattimore)

Sophocles, Antigone (Sophocles I, Chicago, tr. Lattimore)

CONTEMPORARY CORE: Parks, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Theater Communications Group)

Plato, Symposium (Hackett, trs. Nehamas, Woodruff)

Virgil, Aeneid (Bantam, tr. Mandelbaum)

Ovid, Metamorphoses (Penguin, tr. Raeburn)

Spring Semester 2020

New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha; Luke and John

Augustine, Confessions (Modern Library, tr. Ruden)

Dante, Inferno (Bantam, tr. Mandelbaum)

Montaigne, Essays (Penguin, tr. Cohen)

Shakespeare, Macbeth (Oxford)

Cervantes, Don Quixote (Harper Collins, tr. Grossman)

Milton, Paradise Lost (Modern Library)

Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Oxford)

Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Vintage, trs. Volokhonsky, Pevear)

Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Harcourt)

Morrison, Song of Solomon (Vintage)

The Lit Hum course is just one part of a student's work in the core curriculum. Indeed, the core will occupy approximately 1/3 of your total undergraduate coursework, or 1-2 courses each semester. In addition to the reading and discussion-intensive Lit Hum course, students take a workshop-style University Writing course (1 semester) in the first year with approximately 10 students per class. The goal of this course is to develop students into "competent and capable academic writers." First year students also take a required Frontiers of Science course (1 semester), chaired by physicist Brian Greene, which introduces first years to the scientific research opportunities on campus.

In subsequent years, Art Hum (Masterpieces of Western Art) and Music Hum courses make extensive use of the art and musical resources of the city of New York, while maintaining the Western Civilization focus of the core as a whole.

For those of you who have had enough white, male authors, artists, composers, etc., I have some disappointing news. Upper division students take a Contemporary Civilization course that was established in 1919 in order that students could wrestle with the aftermath of WWI. This course (2019-2020 syllabus here) sends students back to the canon to read and analyze the Bible, Qur'an, and Talmud, in addition to reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Neitzsche, Marx and many, many more.

In an era when colleges and universities seem locked in competition to make both curriculum and college life more attractive for students, here is a college that is unapologetic in its conviction that a Classical curriculum is best. Seeing the entire institution aligned in this conviction, in the year 2020, is nothing less than a show of force. In the 1960's Brown University led the way in eliminating university requirements with its Open Curriculum, and the intervening decades have seen many institutions follow Brown's lead to some degree or another. Today Columbia stands almost alone in the depth, breadth, thoroughness, and rigor of it's core.

Our presenter today acknowledged this very point when she said, "OK - this is conventional, this is Western, we recognize this! That's why we have introduced a Global Hum requirement of two courses! And we require 4 semesters of foreign language, (...choose from 52, some of which you may never have the chance to study again), and a PE requirement."

I will give you this, Columbia College, you have secured your status as "distinctive" if only through adhering to a curriculum that will send many students fleeing for the exits. (For the record, no students left the information session at this point)

Next points in the info session:

  • College is a time for exploration. Students may declare major at end of second year and not before

  • Advising is key in this setting. Columbia promises robust advising across all four years

  • Pre-professional advising is additional to general academic advising, designed to support exceptional outcomes for students

  • There is no typical Columbia student but passion is a uniting theme

  • 50% of students participate in Greek life, some fraternities are service oriented

  • Students have discounted tickets to Broadway shows, music and sporting events, max price is $25.

  • Students have a lottery for free tickets to popular shows and cultural events to encourage students to take advantage of the urban environment

  • Columbia career services offers life-long career networking and support

  • Columbia strives to create a safe campus. Buildings are secure. Columbia student ID provides access to buildings on campus as well as free access to 30 museums and galleries across the city

In conclusion, the session looks at the question, "Why Columbia?"

There are some compelling arguments. Columbia promises a need-blind admission policy for domestic students to ensure that one's ability to afford tuition is not a factor in the admission decision. (Nota bene: Columbia is need-aware for international students). Students eligible to receive financial aid are promised that the financial aid award will meet full, demonstrated need with no loans. Approximately 50% of undergraduates qualify for need-based aid. For students receiving financial aid, the average aid award is $65,000.00.

It's worth stating that all financial aid at Columbia is need-based. Columbia offers neither merit scholarships nor athletic scholarships.

Finally, we learn that there is no difference in the rate of admission in early decision or regular decision. The rate of each is 5%

The info session is over - let's get to the tour.

My first impression of our tour guide, Davis, is highly favorable. He's from Oakland, plays on Columbia's rag-tag club ice hockey team, it's 30 degrees, and he is wearing a t-shirt under a lightweight jacket. This kid is tough as nails!

Second impression is even more favorable. Only half-way through his freshman year, Davis is the leader of a campus VC club, is in a fraternity, and is involved in cultural groups on campus. Davis' wide involvement is impressive, and we haven't even mentioned his part-time job as a tour guide let alone his academic work as a student.

Davis is humble, totally outgoing, and approachable. His relaxed and confident style fits perfectly with the vibe of the campus: we got it, we know it, don't sweat it.

We won't be sweating today. Quite the opposite, it's 40 degrees (5 degrees C) and we won't be going inside any buildings on our tour - a theme I am noticing on the campuses of institutions that handle a high volume of admission visitors. Necessary as this may be, it does mean that visitors have little chance to observe, first hand, the student experience.

Davis' easy descriptions give a sense of the student experience. He tells us that students have ready access to professors, and that professors are eager to mentor first year students. This point comes as a surprise at a research institution, but it's clear that Columbia's advising programs are robust and personal.

Students take their studies seriously here, but based on this tour they seem to do even more outside of the regular academic program. Pre-professional clubs are a hot topic in the info session and on the tour. Pre-professionalism is a good thing - in moderation - and I wonder to what extent this career focus is generational or specific to the Columbia student-type.

It's quickly evident that Davis is a "joiner," and he descriptions give a sense that social life at Columbia is organized by affinity groups. This is reasonable given the institution's size and its uber-urban location. There's only so much opportunity to meet people out-and-about, so students connect through affinity groups like clubs, organizations, fraternities and sororities, and athletics.

It strikes me that Davis has found a successful and balanced approach to social life here. But reading between the lines of Columbia's joiner culture, one can see that there are very few places on campus to simply hang out and be a student. I wonder if joining is obligatory. By extension, I wonder if this community is clique-y or exclusive.

The Lerner Hall student center, which ostensibly serves as a student union, is not particularly inviting. There aren't many places to plunk down and socialize, and even the club-members who are tabling today are set up in a awkward hallway. Cafeterias that I see don't double as places to relax. This seems a challenge specific to New York City, living on an island where private spaces are small and public spaces are either expensive (and hence exclusive) or jam-packed. This could be a challenge for college students who one often envisions congregating on wide lawns and just generally being outside.

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It's worth stating that there are no open spaces or playing fields on campus. The entire campus is paved or built, with the exception of a few tight patches of manicured grass. Students who wish to throw a frisbee or play a game of kickball will need to walk one half mile to Morningside Park or one mile to Central Park. Students on organized athletic teams such as ultimate frisbee must travel six miles north to the Baker Athletic Complex at the very northern tip of Manhattan island. The train takes approximately 30 minutes to get there. These are the trade-offs to life in the big city. I don't present them as a criticism, but rather as facts worthy of consideration.

Our tour covers the main locations on campus, by area of study, and there are occasional insights about the history of Columbia. For example, Davis points out Pupin Hall, the building that housed Enrico Fermi's laboratory where the first atom was split in the US (German's achieved the feat just before), and many subsequent achievements of the Manhattan Project.

Image Credit: Ajay Suresh

The semi-public spaces that I do see on campus, for example the foyer of a residence hall or the lounges in Lerner, are not particularly conducive to hanging out. As I make my way around campus, I am thinking about how the very design of campus sets up a sort of transitory existence. Couple this with your typical high-achieving Ivy league admission candidate and the type of student drawn to NYC, and we have a picture of the hard-driving type-A competitive student that Columbia is known for.

Or do we?

Davis, relaxed, understated, and cool, refutes my theory. After spending an hour with him on the tour, he is a compelling reason why someone might want to come to Columbia University. He's the best of the Ivy league stereotype - articulate, high-achieving, and uber-involved, but also humble, friendly, relaxed, chill.

Wait a minute... ice hockey... in Oakland? Where did this kid go to high school?

So I asked.

With respect to his privacy, I won't share, but it was a top, top New England prep school. I would be willing to bet, based on the quality of this tour, that he was a tour guide at his prep school for all four years. And I also asked where else he considered enrolling. Turns out he narrowly chose Columbia over Amherst College in Massachusetts.

While I cannot extrapolate from one tour guide to the whole institution, the overall sense that I get from the tour is that Columbia students are independent, peer-oriented, and self-directed. Even the low-key students are super-high-achievers. Davis seems to navigate this place with ease. I must remind myself that Columbia is not easy!

As the tour concludes back at Lerner Hall, my understanding of student life at Columbia is still limited. I've seen campus exteriors and heard the accounts of an excellent tour guide, but much is missing. Fortunately I have scheduled lunch with a current freshman, who I will meet in about an hour.

When I return to the Low Library after lunch and a walk through Morningside Park, the admission lobby is BUZZING. The students are squirming and yelping like puppies, unable contain their excitement. It seems that Harry Styles was seen on campus this morning. The closest I can come to confirming this is the fact that he did an interview with Mary Louise Kelly at WNPR today and he played the Tiny Desk on February 25th - two days ago. (BTW that concert is fantastic. Have a listen.)