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Anyone who has graduated from Columbia in the last 60 years can tell you that to earn a B.A. degree, you must either swim 75 m (three lengths of the pool) or take the beginner’s swimming PE class. The younger graduates can also tell you that SEAS students, strangely, do not share this ritual. Columbia legend offers a logical explanation: if one day Manhattan sinks, CC students would have to swim across the Hudson, but SEAS students could use their engineering skills to build a boat.
As likely as this theory sounds, this bizarre division between CC and SEAS only came about less than two decades ago, as a result of a combination of misunderstandings, journalistic errors, Columbian bureaucracy, sketchy decision-making and a healthy amount of bitterness.
On September 5, 1991, the Spectator published an article titled “Swim test dropped as requirement.” Kathryn Yatrakis, then the Associate Dean of Columbia College, was quoted saying, “The Columbia College Committee On Instruction (COI) has agreed in principle to eliminate the swim test from the list of degree requirements effective immediately.” This article announced, “As of now, all Columbia College students will be free from the requirement. Students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) are still expected to swim, but the requirement is being review [sic].”
Close, but not exactly right. While the CC COI made a proposal to remove the swim test requirement at that time, the CC faculty members still had to vote on the proposal before it could be passed. Two weeks later, the Engineering Student Council (ESC) voted to send a letter to the SEAS COI recommending the abolition of the swim test since the students (wrongly) believed that the swim test had been abolished at the College.
The following month, the Columbia College COI submitted their proposal to eliminate the swim test to CC faculty members. The proposal was rejected and Columbia College kept the swim test because, as Associate Athletics Director Ken Torrey pointed out 18 years ago, and will tell you today, “Swimming is a valuable skill, and the swim test is a great opportunity to help weaker swimmers improve their water safety awareness and confidence.”
When people finally realized that the College was keeping the swim test, ESC wanted to make sure that the SEAS COI did not follow their liberal arts brethren. ESC felt that “too often Columbia College tries to dictate what the Engineering School does,” according to the ESC chair Brad Poprick, SEAS ’92. Boldly defying CC hegemony and trying to prove that SEAS students did not really want the swim test, ESC recommended that the SEAS COI conduct a poll. ESC told Spec that “student opinion alone should decide the fate of the swim test, and not the College faculty.”
But the poll backfired. It found that SEAS students actually wanted to keep the test, with 100 out of 180 students voting in favor of the requirement. But in a shocking move that defied the results, logic and democratic decision-making, the SEAS COI recommended that the SEAS faculty abolish the test anyway. COI Chair and Vice Dean of SEAS Ralph Schwarz argued, “It was felt that the opinion of the students was important, but should not govern the COI. Non-academic requirements should not remain for the sake of tradition.” He justified ignoring the majority with some questionable interpretation of results: the minority “felt very strongly,” while the 100 students who voted in favor of the test “didn’t really care. They voted for the status quo.”
In May 1992, SEAS faculty voted 25 to 23 to abolish the swim test given the recommendation of the SEAS COI, and on the grounds that the swim test did not have academic value, was an invasion of privacy, and the fact that some people had “psychological phobias.” Furthermore, they felt that it was not worth inconveniencing all students for the benefit of the few who did learn to swim because of the swim test requirement.
But unlike the CC faculty vote, the Athletics department was not represented during the SEAS faculty voting or decision-making process. “It is a shame that SEAS lost the swim test,” says Torrey. “I saw nothing but good coming out of the program, and we did not even have the opportunity to argue in favor of it.”
It’s nearly 20 years later, and it doesn’t look like SEAS will get the swim test back anytime soon. But we still ponder about this mysterious tradition and sometimes ask ourselves: if CC students have to take a swim test, shouldn’t SEAS students take a boat-building test?
– MMT, photo by Columbia University Athletics