Does Columbia have an estranged relationship with the military? From the 20-plus students who fought for the British during the War for Independence, to those alumni who paid Irish immigrants to take their place on the Civil War battlefield, Columbia has always had a strained relationship with the American military. If, at times, the University seemed wedded to the Armed Forces, as more naval officers graduated from Columbia than from the actual naval academy, it is Columbia who asked for a divorce some time in the '60s and has given the military the cold shoulder ever since. When Provost Alan Brinkley accepted to meet with me to discuss a project for the 369th Harlem Hellfighters Museum, I was shocked.
The 369th was a military unit made up of blacks and Hispanics that actually saw combat at a time when people were supposed to remain behind the front lines. It turns out this unit-the first to wear a foreign uniform on the field of battle-is right in the university's backyard, so Columbia rightfully saw a future collaboration as advantageous to both parties. After deciding how the university could help preserve and catalogue documents, the provost made the following comments: "The image that Columbia University is anti-military is bad for everyone. It's bad for the students, the faculty, and the alumni."
How did Columbia get this image? It may be hard to believe but many critics have questioned the university's stance long before the creation of Fox News. During the First World War, Columbia professors and students came down on both sides of the fence. Some members of the faculty were considered too pro-German, others were strong advocates for the socialist revolution, and still others denounced the war economy and profiteers. Does any of this sound familiar almost a century later?
If liberalism were a religion, Columbia University would be a sort of East Coast mecca where devotees flock to take part in the festivities of pro-revolutionary culture that flourishes on campus. It's not hard to imagine protesters swarming counterclockwise around the sundial and fancying themselves as the protectors of the true faith against the banality of the American experience. If the academy were a bubble, the University is an air bag designed to protect the occupants from the impact of the outside world-the real world.
In Provost Brinkley's office, we came to several agreements about what Columbia could do to change its present course: first, a war memorial to the many alumni who have fallen in battle. Unfortunately, most of these may have been forgotten over time, but, with some effort, those who gave their lives should be recognized for future generations. The provost spoke of a monument not unlike the names of benefactors carved in stone and positioned throughout Low Library.
Last year, a Columbia student deployed to Iraq contacted me. There was a small problem with his tuition and he couldn't solve it from overseas, and, apparently, no one in the administration was willing to help. Provost Brinkley agreed that a University Veteran's Affairs representative would be a wise decision.
Understanding the needs of veterans is important, but it is also important to recognize those who have made an impact. Alfred Lerner was a true rags-to-riches story. He was a Columbia student. He was a billionaire. He was a generous alumnus who donated the funds to build the student center. Alfred Lerner was also a Marine. A plaque in Lerner Hall will recognize the military service of this Marine officer who credited much of his success to the training he received both at one of America's finest universities and United States Marine Corps.
Columbia also needs a campaign to invite members in the veteran community, to consider attending Columbia University. I have already spoken to the School of General Studies dean of admissions about bringing more veterans to the University. There was plenty of agreement, but little follow up; hopefully with more attention to the matter, that will change. The University could make a gesture to waive the application fee for veterans who apply. I'm sure that would foster goodwill.
This is a step in a positive direction and, although Columbia's history with the military cannot be altered, it is subject to the judgment, inquiries, and inspection of any who consider it. There can be no doubt that reputations can be both earned and reformed. I'm certain I'm not the only one who believes in changing one's past for the better future.
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