Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004

By Chaddock, Katherine Reynolds | Academe, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004


Chaddock, Katherine Reynolds, Academe


Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004

Robert A. McCaughey. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2003

On the occasion of its 250th anniversary, Robert McCaughey provides us with Columbia's fifth published institutional history. Potential readers may wonder about the need for a 715-page addition to the previous volumes. Why not simply publish a twentieth-century update to the most recent saga, Frederick P. Keppel's 1914 book Columbia? However, McCaughey, chair of the Barnard College history department, demonstrates that a book returning to well-plowed ground can contribute in valuable ways-one of which is to model unusually compelling historiography for future authors of college and university evolutions.

Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004 confronts the common organizational problem of chronological order versus topical arrangement by opting for a middle ground, happily deviating from institutional histories organized by parades of successive presidential reigns. Early chapters follow the calendar, moving from attempts by colonial governors and denominational leaders in the early eighteenth century to promote a collegiate impulse in commercially enthusiastic and religiously plural New York to the 1754 start up-with Anglican support and under denominational auspices-of King's College, which was to become Columbia University. Later chapters use as a framework key issues, including Jews at Columbia; women at Columbia; the bumpy starts of the law school, the medical school, and Teachers College; the core curriculum and great books courses; the influence of faculty public intellectuals such as John Dewey, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Robert K. Merton, and Richard Hofstadter; and, of course, student unrest.

Although McCaughey correctly asserts that "Columbia's story often departs from the typical collegiate saga," the volume is noteworthy for depicting struggles not uncommon in other institutions then or now. Early American colleges, for example, typically shared with Columbia an emphasis on elements of the classical curriculum, influential and highly involved trustees, a faculty ranging from committed to shirking, and struggles to rein in rowdy boy students. Later, Columbia joined the University ot Chicago, Stanford and Johns Hopkins Universities, and others in seeking approaches to maintaining undergraduate quality while reaping research gains. Strong, often overbearing, presidents on many campuses struggled against the realities of faculty governance and the expectation that faculty would collaborate and be consulted in the conduct of university affairs. McCaughey's account of how Columbia approached these and other issues can be seen as a set of case studies that are interesting and instructional for their commonalities with other institutions and with other times, including the present.

The narrative strength of Stand, Columbia, and an element that sets it apart from most other college histories, is its depiction of institutional actions as human actions. !Resolutions, trustee votes, presidential dicta, and the like arc enlivened with discussions of motives, individual experiences, and personal preferences and interactions. For example, the discussion of Columbia's handling of the "woman question" in the late nineteenth century is a story of people who lined up for or against admitting female students. We learn that powerful faculty star John W. Burgess, who had built the School of Political Science for Columbia and a national reputation for himself, was a white supremacist and Confederate Army veteran from a Tennessee slave-owning family who wanted no Jews, women, or African Americans at Columbia. President Frederick A. Barnard, clearly a favorite of the author, pushed for women's admissions after growing up in a family of strong women and observing women's success in some classes during his faculty years at the University of Alabama. …

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