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Columbia College of Columbia University

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Columbia College of Columbia University

Columbia College
Established 1754
School type Private
Dean James Valentini
Location New York, New York, USA
Enrollment 4,587 (Fall 2012)

Columbia College is the oldest undergraduate college at Columbia University, situated on the university's main campus in Morningside Heights in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It was founded in 1754 by the Church of England as King's College, receiving a Royal Charter from King George II of Great Britain. Columbia College is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States. The college is highly selective in its admissions. For the class of 2015, the college accepted 6.4% of its applicants, the second lowest acceptance rate in the Ivy League and in the country, behind Harvard.[1]


Columbia College was founded as King’s College by royal charter of King George II of Great Britain in the Province of New York in 1754. Due in part to the influence of Church of England religious leaders, a site in New York City in the Trinity Church yard, Wall Street on the island of Manhattan was selected.

Samuel Johnson was chosen as the college’s first president and was also the college’s first (and for a time only) professor. During this period, classes and examinations, both oral and written, were conducted entirely in Latin.

In 1767, Samuel Bard established a medical college at the school, now known as the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, which was the first medical school to grant the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree in America.

Due to the American Revolutionary War, instruction was suspended from 1776 until 1784, but by the beginning of the war, the college had already educated some of the nation's foremost political leaders. Even at this young age, King's College had already educated Alexander Hamilton, who served as military aide to General George Washington, then as the first Secretary of the Treasury and author of most of the Federalist Papers; John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States; Robert Livingston, one of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence; and Gouverneur Morris, who authored most of the United States Constitution. Hamilton's first experience with the military came while a student during the summer of 1775, after the outbreak of fighting at Boston. Along with Nicholas Fish, Robert Troup, and a group of other students from King's, he joined a volunteer militia company called the "Hearts of Oak" and achieved the rank of Lieutenant. They adopted distinctive uniforms, complete with the words "Liberty or Death" on their hatbands, and drilled under the watchful eye of a former British officer in the graveyard of the nearby St. Paul's Chapel. In August 1775, while under fire from HMS Asia, the Hearts of Oak (the "Corsicans") participated in a successful raid to seize cannon from the Battery, becoming an artillery unit thereafter. Ironically, in 1776 Captain Hamilton would engage in the Battle of Harlem Heights, which took place on and around the site that would later become home to his alma mater more than a century later, only to be entombed after his dueling death some years later at the original home of King's College in Trinity Church yard.

With the successful Treaty of Paris in 1783, the domestic situation was stable enough for the college to resume classes in 1784. With the new nation's independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, the name of the institution was changed from King's College to Columbia College, the name by which the institution continues to be known today. The college was briefly chartered as a state institution, lasting only until 1787, when due to a lack of public financial support the school was permitted to incorporate under a private board of trustees. This 1787 charter remains in effect. The renamed and reorganized college, located in the new national capital under the Constitution and free from its association with the Church of England, students from a variety of denominations came to Columbia as a response to its growing reputation as one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the new nation.

After a brief period of being housed in another lower Manhattan building on Park Place near the current location of New York City Hall, in 1857 the college moved to 49th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

During the college’s 40 years at this location, in addition to granting the Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Medicine degrees, the faculties of the college were expanded to include the Columbia Law School (founded 1858), the Columbia School of Mines (founded 1864, now known as the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science). The Columbia School of Mines awarded the first Ph.D. from Columbia in 1875.

At this time, Columbia College was now not only the name of the original undergraduate college founded as King’s College, but it also encompassed all of the other colleges and schools of the institution. (Though technically known as the "School of Arts," the undergraduate division was often called "The College proper" to avoid confusion.) After Seth Low became president of Columbia College in 1890, he advocated the division of the individual schools and colleges into their own semi-autonomous entities under the central administration of the university. The complexity of managing the institution had been further increased when Barnard College for Women became affiliated with Columbia in 1889 followed by Teachers College of Columbia University in 1891. Also by this time, graduate faculties issuing the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in philosophy, political science, and the natural sciences had also developed.

Thus, in 1896, the trustees of Columbia College, under the guidance of Seth Low, approved a new name for the university as a whole, Columbia University in the City of New York. At this point, the name Columbia College returned to being used solely to refer to the original undergraduate college, founded as King’s College in 1754 and renamed Columbia College in 1784.

In addition to reclaiming the identity of Columbia College and making it the focus of the newly rearranged Columbia University, Low was also responsible for the monumental relocation of the university to its current location atop a hill in Morningside Heights in uptown Manhattan. A tract for the campus was purchased which extended from 114th St. to 120th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.

Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White was selected to design the new campus, which was to be patterned after the buildings of the Italian Renaissance. While most American universities at this point had followed more medieval and Gothic styles of architecture, the neoclassical style of the new Columbia University campus was to meant to reflect the institution’s roots in the Enlightenment and the spirit of intellectual discovery of the period. Columbia College and Columbia University as a whole relocated to the new campus in 1897.

The academic history of traditions of Columbia College clearly had their beginnings in the classical education of the Enlightenment, and in this mold, the college's famous Core Curriculum was officially recognized and codified in 1919 with John Erskine's first seminar on the great books of the western tradition. Also in 1919, a course, War and Peace, was required of all Columbia College students in addition to the Great Books Honors Seminar.

During the 1960s, Columbia College, like many others across the United States, experienced unrest and turmoil due to the ongoing civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. On April 23, 1968, more than 1,000 students forcefully occupied five campus buildings in protest to the proposed expansion of the university's campus into Morningside Park and to protest the university's sponsorship of classified military research. University officials wished to build new gymnasium facilities in the park, which while located directly adjacent to the university, is separated by a steep cliff. Plans to create separate entrances for students and local residents was the primary objection of the student protesters to the proposed expansion plan. A fence at the site was torn down, and police arrested one student, whose release became one of the demands of the protest. After five days, the functions of the university were brought to a halt, and early on the morning of April 30 the students were forcibly removed by the New York City Police Department. As a result of the student protests, the university president Grayson L. Kirk retired, classified research projects on campus were abruptly ended, long-standing ROTC programs were expelled, and the proposed expansion plans were canceled. As the university experienced unprecedented financial difficulties and moribund research agendas in many departments[2] throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, admissions standards in the college—initially relaxed to hasten the diversification of the student body following the 1968 protests[3]—gradually declined in earnest; although paralleling a national trend, students in the class of 1988 (the second coeducational class) earned average scores of 620 on the verbal section and 649 on the math section of the SAT (comparable to 680 and 650 on the post-1995 recentered scale).[4][5] Transfer applicants admitted in 1981 posted a 1100 SAT average and 3.0 grade point average; then-dean Arnold Collery claimed that the students failed "to stand out the way they did before" and bemoaned the cohort's lack of geographical diversity (many had previously attended institutions in the New York metropolitan area, including community colleges).[6]

After two committees reported in 1980 and 1981 that the college's popularity and competitiveness with other Ivy League universities were decreasing without female students, women were admitted in 1983.[7] The median SAT score of the class of 1991 was the highest since the early 1970s.[8] In the 1980s and 1990s, the college experienced a drastic increase in gifts and endowment growth, propelling it from the periphery to the forefront of a university historically dominated by its graduate & professional schools. During the leadership of university presidents Michael Sovern and George Erik Rupp, many of Columbia College's facilities were extensively expanded and renovated. The number of residence halls was increased to accommodate all Columbia College students for all four years of the undergraduate education. Hamilton Hall, the primary academic building of Columbia College has undergone extensive renovations, and the college's athletic facilities, located at Baker Field Athletics Complex on Manhattan's far northern tip at 218th Street, were renovated and expanded.

Columbia College today


Columbia College is known for its rigorous Core Curriculum, a series of mandatory classes and distribution requirements that form the heart of Columbia College students' academic experience. The Core has changed slightly over the years, but students are currently required to take the following:

Course Semesters Required
Literature Humanities

A year-long seminar surveying the great works of Western literature, taken in the freshman year.

Contemporary Civilization

A year-long seminar surveying the great works of Western philosophy, religion, political theory, and economics, taken in the sophomore year.

Art Humanities

A seminar surveying the great works of Western art

Music Humanities

A seminar surveying the great works of Western music

University Writing

A seminar designed to inculcate university-level writing skills, taken in the freshman year.

Foreign Language

A distribution requirement intended to instill at least an intermediate level of a foreign language

Frontiers of Science

A lecture and seminar course designed to instill "scientific habits of mind," taken in the freshman year

Science Core

A distribution requirement over any scientific disciplines

Global Core

A distribution requirement meant to complement the Core classes that concentrate on Western civilization

Physical Education 2 (1 credit per class)

Students are also required to pass a swimming test before receiving their diploma. Some of these requirements, however, may be skipped if the student passes a placement exam or demonstrates requisite proficiency. Most students graduate within four years with a Bachelor of Arts degree.


Most of the College's facilities are located on Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus, especially in Hamilton Hall, which houses its administrative and admissions offices, as well as the directors of the Core Curriculum.

Butler Library, Columbia University’s main library, is home to more than 2 million volumes of the University’s humanities collection. The facility recently underwent an extensive 4-year renovation, including the creation of a new wing The Philip L. Milstein Family College Library in honor of the donor's namesake. Included is a specialized collection of approximately 100,000 volumes containing subject matter in history, literature, philosophy, and the social sciences specifically intended to complement the Columbia College curriculum. The collection of the Columbia University Libraries consists of more than 9.2 million volumes held in 25 specialized libraries as well as a digital library, however Columbia College students do not have unlimited access to all specialized libraries.

Students at Columbia College are guaranteed campus housing for four years. Residence halls, which also house undergraduate students of Columbia's engineering school, are either located on the Morningside Heights main campus or within 10 blocks of the 116th Street entrance. First-year students are housed on the main quad in John Jay, Carman, Wallach, Hartley and Furnald Halls.

The two main dining facilities are John Jay Dining Hall and Ferris Booth Commons; all freshmen are required to have a full meal plan. Other school dining facilities available on the Morningside Heights campus are located in the recently remodeled student center, Alfred Lerner Hall, and Uris Hall.


In 2011, after the resignation of Michele Moody-Adams, James Valentini replaced her as Dean of Columbia College. The students of Columbia College elect the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) to serve as their primary representative, advocate, and liaison to the Columbia University community, including its administration, faculty, alumni and students, as well as to the public.

Notable alumni and former students

Many eminent individuals have attended or taught at Columbia College and King's College, its predecessor. They are enumerated more fully in the List of Columbia College people.

Among those College alumni categorized as "remarkable" by the university during its 250th anniversary celebrations in 2004[9] were Founding Fathers of the United States Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris (author of Preamble to U.S. Constitution, "We, The People"[10]). Other political figures in this group include statesman and educator Nicholas Murray Butler, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, US Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, South African anti-apartheid leader Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo, many New York City mayors, including Seth Low and John Purroy Mitchel, as well as spymaster William Joseph Donovan.

Academics listed include philosophers Mortimer Adler and Irwin Edman, historians Jacques Barzun, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and James Shenton, economist Arthur Burns, paleontologist Niles Eldredge, drama scholar Brander Matthews, art historian Meyer Schapiro and literary critic Lionel Trilling.

Public intellectuals and journalists, including broadcaster Roone Arledge, social critic Randolph Bourne, environmentalist Barry Commoner, and writers like Henry Demarest Lloyd and Norman Podhoretz are also prominent on the list. Major publishers included were Alfred Knopf, Arthur Sulzberger, and Bennett Cerf. Social activist Milton Weston and rabbi Stephen Wise were also considered prominent.

Columbia College graduates recognized in the arts include pianist Emanuel Ax, actor James Cagney, musician Art Garfunkel, composers Richard Rodgers and John Corigliano, lyricists Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, playwrights Samuel Spewack, Tony Kushner and Terrence McNally, writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Herman Wouk, John Berryman, Thomas Merton, Clement Clarke Moore, Ben Coes, and Clifton Fadiman, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, filmmaker Joseph Mankiewicz, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and violinist Gil Shaham.

Architects James Renwick, Jr., Robert A.M. Stern, engineer William Barclay Parsons, baseball player Lou Gehrig, football player Sid Luckman, and business leader John Kluge were also Columbia College students.

Additionally, highly visible former Columbia College students in recent years include President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder (as well as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey) New York Governor David Paterson, New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, political advisor and commentator George Stephanopoulos, actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Paquin, Casey Affleck, Amanda Peet, Matthew Fox and Julia Stiles, radio personality Max Kellerman, directors Jim Jarmusch, Brian De Palma and Bill Condon, writer Paul Auster, historian Eric Foner, economist Michael Wolf, the chart-topping alt-rock band Vampire Weekend, and Grammy Award-winning R&B singers and songwriters Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill.

Among its alumni, Columbia College can count at least 16 Nobel Prize winners.[11]


External links

  • Official website
  • Columbia College Student Council website
  • Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Admission Statistics
  • Stand, Columbia : A History of Columbia University by Robert McCaughey
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