May

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Mag Preview: Collective Consciousness

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Illustration by Nora Rodriguez

The Mapril issue of The Blue and White will be out in print soon.  We’ll also be posting the entire magazine on Bwog.  Now, Literary Editor Anna Kelner discovers that the lifetime Columbian may be a thing of the past.

“I’ve become the institutional memory here. At history department meetings when someone comes up with a ‘brilliant new idea,’ I’m the one who says, ‘We tried that in 1987. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.’”

Some professors like Eric Foner – Dewitt Clinton Professor of History, CC ’63, and PhD ’69 – have progressed from freshmen to grad students to storied intellectual giants, all in shadow of Butler Library. Foner typifies the Columbia ‘lifer’: wielding influence far beyond the department, Foner maintains friendships with classmates like Jonathan Cole, Provost and Dean of Faculties Emeritus, as well as Robert Kraft, donor of the Kraft Center. He also advises young bureaucrats on issues like the continued impact of the 1968 riots.

Indeed, administrative responses to student protests still manifest in ways only veterans perceive. Foner describes how the academic calendar was born in the wake of ’68; classes used to begin in late September and adjourn in late May, but after several balmy-aired protests administrators declared that “students got more riled up in the warm months.” Rebellion also prompted more substantive change as admissions increased minority recruitment and the history department inaugurated the first course in African-American history – taught, naturally, by Foner himself. Foner presented the value of hindsight simply: “They weren’t here. I was. I saw it.”

Foner’s gravitas stems both from his long history and from his tenured status, and he has been supported emotionally, academically, and financially by the University. As budget cuts reduce tenure, Zane Mackin, GS ’01, Italian PhD candidate and Lit Hum instructor, foresees a future in which today’s Eric Foners will struggle to snag an adjunct position at whatever university will take them.

“We don’t have job security, they pay us peanuts, and health benefits are practically non-existent,” said Mackin. Between 1980 and now, the percentage of all university classes taught by tenured professors has dropped from 75 percent to less than 25 percent.

Mackin particularly fears the shift will adversely impact the faculty’s ability to criticize the administration without fear of repercussions, as professors like Foner do. “If we’re dedicated to inquiry, we need that freedom of speech,” Mackin emphasized. “It’s disappointing to realize the administration is open to questioning everything in the classroom, but if it threatens the Columbia brand or the financial bottom line they’re not interested in rocking the boat whatsoever.”

Lifers also promote institutional longevity. Norman Christ, professor of physics, CC ’65, and PhD ’66, remembers darker days in the Physics department when prime candidates were scared away by the University’s humanities focus and Manhattan’s decline. “There was a deliberate change – there’s the Rabi Scholar Program that targets high school students in the sciences,” Christ reflected. “The effects of this have been breathtaking,” Having seen the alternative firsthand, Christ values the bright young physicists he works with all the more.

Victoria Rosner, CC ’90, PhD ’99, often finds an opportunity to tell her students of her history at Columbia, so “they know that I was in their position once,” Rosner explained. “Hamilton Hall is always Hamilton Hall – although they did clean it up a bit.” Rosner finds that the common experience can bridge the gap between lecturer and student.

As more grad students flounder, the legacy of lifers may too soon vanish into the annals of history. “If there’s anything you’d rather do than this, even if it’s something like being a rock star or a poet, do it,” Mackin cautioned. “The odds are probably equitable to what we’re doing here.”

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3 Comments

  1. Hooah  

    Nora Rodriguez is GREAT.

  2. flip side  

    how do you get change with a lifer?

  3. rosner!  

    victoria rosner is AMAZING, her class is my absolute favorite. she strikes the perfect chord as a past student, because she remembers how difficult it can be without treating you like a kid. she even gave an extension to everyone who asked. she is the best!!!!

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