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From the Issue: Who Are These Kids?

We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White (see About) by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: the quest for a Columbia quidditch team; drugs, sex and ROTC; and a discussion of the institution of the Columbia presidency. In the Conversation, the magazine locates a cool person, and sits down to talk to them for the benefit of all—simple as that. This month, we sat down with Dean of the School of General Studies Peter J. Awn … and just shot the shit about the place of GS in Columbia and higher education as a whole.

The albino marsupial himself.

Illustration by Cindy Pan

In recent weeks the debate over ROTC has brought several groups from the School of General Studies into the spotlight. Freshmen pause for a moment when they come to their first lecture class and see a gaggle of grown adults in the front row. But after a time, they come to casually accept GS students without ever really stopping to consider just how unique Columbia is due to their presence.

In the process of hearing opinions offered by the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University on ROTC, among others, many students have stopped to scratch their heads and wonder just what GS’s place in the Columbia community is—how our strong adult education program makes us different.

The Blue and White now takes this opportunity to revive an old feature in which staff writer Mike Young sat down with Dean of GS Peter J. Awn to discuss the unknowns of GS, its place in Columbia, and problems the school faces moving forward.

The Blue & White: So you were not quite 20 years here and you became Dean in ’97?

Peter Awn: That’s right, in ’97 I became Dean, absolutely. But I think what’s important is that very early on … I got hired and I start teaching my undergraduate courses, which is what I did for the most part (I had a few graduate course) and I said, “Who the hell are these people in my class?” I thought I was going to be teaching 18-year olds! Or you know 18to 21-year olds. And so it was this much more diverse environment, which I thought was a kick. And I went to my department chair, and I asked her, I said, “Who are these people?” And she laughed and she said, “Go over to Lewisohn Hall and you’ll find out.”

So I came over here and in some was I was hooked. … I thought it was just a terrific, terrific model of education that I thought really complemented traditional education… The problem is, we’re so used to it, we don’t appreciate how incredibly cutting edge it is in terms of undergraduate education and why.

The traditional model of quote: “adult education” was seen as an appendage on the “real” university structure, the real colleges at the university, and they were always embedded within a broad continuing education division that ran non-degree programs. Come take a course, do whatever you want kind of environment. So you crated a kind of culture in which when people reached a certain age they were allowed in, kind of, but never taken really seriously. And so the culture creates this dichotomy between the real undergraduates and the older students who are here for self-enrichment, maybe self-advancement. But somehow age and experience have created a sort of mental deficiency that doesn’t allow you to compete. And that has become ingrained within the American private education structure…

If you don’t begin to take in and take seriously the fact that 75 percent of Americans interested in higher education fit more the non-traditional model than the traditional model, you are going to become completely on the fringe of how American society is evolving. Realize how the demographic changes have affected education, and how people’s choices about how they manage their education have changed dramatically since the 1950s.

B&W: You say that pretty early on in your career here you were hooked on GS because you saw it as a cutting-edge model for education.

PA: Well, it was but it needed a lot of fixing. It really did. It still suffered from the fact that Columbia had for decades, if not centuries, been wildly decentralized so that each dean hired his or her own faculty. The academic programs were determined by the faculty of the school, so that even thought you might be in some of your classes with students from the other colleges, in fact the separation among the colleges was fairly pronounced.

So that, I knew, and my colleagues around the University knew, was a model that was well on its way to being buried. That what matters most is an academic model of full integration and the creation of a model of education that the faculty can manage easily without worrying about, “What the hell are the GS requirements. What are the College requirements?” A department should determine, “What do you think is critical for a student to know to engage in order to complete a major?” And if you determine that, why would you make a distinction between one population and another? … So the advantage that we’ve reached now is a Columbia graduate is a Columbia graduate no matter what school they’re from. And that’s how faculty see it and that’s the reality.

Now, my ability to really push this forward as a model as dean has been really [been based upon] the enormous support that one gets from faculty for GS students. And that’s in contrast to what you will find at other elite, private universities. We’ve had 60-some-odd years to be able to bring the faculty along. When you broach this with other Ivy League faculties, they’re horrified. They have no context in which to see this work. Now, I know some colleagues at Princeton and Harvard for whom this is a really interesting idea, but they’re never really sure how to engage their colleagues on this.

Now… when I came in the ‘70s—and this is true, it isn’t in any way to put Columbia College down, it’s just the reality—in the late ‘70s… The City was in such dire financial straits that everybody was as surly as can be. The neighborhood was to put it mildly dangerous.

So in the late ‘70s Columbia College could not generate more than 3,500 to 3,700 applications. We would take one of two applicants to try to build a class of 650. We’d sit at faculty meetings wringing our hands. The faculty was terrific, but why would anyone from outside the city send their child here when they read all of how horrible… And therefore it was hard to keep the level of quality that now seems so obvious.

For a whole variety of reasons, in the ‘80s the whole city turned around. The College went coed and it really began to come into its own, as it should. So it became then, for GS: this is the bar you have to reach to be credible. It’s not just integration, but the students you integrate have to be as competitive intellectually as everybody else.

And that’s been the fun of this for me. Admissions here is really interesting because you have to evaluate people in a very different way from the way you have to evaluate seniors in high school. It’s not less rigorous. It’s just more comprehensive, and in fact we try to prequalify applicants. When you contact us—and we try to make you contact us—we want to have at least one or two initial engagements to help you decide, is it really worth applying? The last thing we want is a pointless application. So we want to convince you not to apply if we don’t think you’ve got a good shot at getting in. So getting thousands and thousands of applications is not to our benefit. We want to be engaged with applications that are seriously viable.

B&W: So do you think that accounts for the much higher acceptance rate in comparison to the College?

PA: Oh absolutely. That’s exactly why. And we do that quite deliberately. Everybody says, “How can that be, how can that be?” First of all, we’re a small operation and we spend an average of four hours per application. You show me a traditional college that does that. Now we have to on some levels because you all come with very complex lives and there’re no two applications that are going to be the same.

Rarely is it a question of your intelligence, but it is always a question of, “Well, how have you managed your life?” For example, we get people from the military, I’d say, and dancers. I talk about them in the same breath and they all look at me, but in fact you’re very similar in terms of background. Why? Frequently people who enter the military do so right out of high school.

B&W: Typically, yeah.

PA: If you just looked at their high            school            record, yeah, you’re going to get some sense of            their potential. But you know, that’s a long time ago, so what’s been going on now? Do they read, can they think, can they write? And do they have the focus and the commitment to do this?

And like the dancers who frequently do the same thing (in fact some of them don’t even go to high school, they frequently have to get a GED)—they haven’t been to school. They’re mid-20s, late-20s. They’re like athletes: you get to a point where your body’s going to give out. You have to decide what you want to do with your life. The ones that we take are voracious readers. They’re really intellectually alive. So they’re auto-didacts, and I think in some ways the people we get from the military are like that. And so you transfer that focus to your work at Columbia in ways that students who haven’t had that rigorous environment don’t necessarily have or have to self-generate. And it really is interesting how those kinds of parallels exist in the GS population.

B&W: So it seems like GS has flagged certain groups of people out there in society that you know from experience will likely do well.

PA: Yeah, but I can give you half a dozen other groups. For example, entrepreneurs. We’ve had a long tradition of incredibly successful entrepreneurs.

B&W: Well I think that the most common perception that I’ve heard is that GS is the back door.

PA: Which is bologna. It can’t be the back door if you’re doing as well as the College students, which is really true. The graduating seniors—basically the GPAs… There’s a little bit to go to make them identical, but it’s so close as to be actually irrelevant. And I also think in a few days it will be better than the College. [Laughs] So give me a break, when you’re the best student in the department as a graduating senior, tell me why that’s a back door.

B&W: So…

PA: The culture wars were ferocious. I find sadly now it’s the Barnard women who are taking the brunt of a lot of the negative sort of press, or negative kind of cultural push. But, oh, no, they were vicious, absolutely vicious to the point where GS students couldn’t join clubs. If you did, you couldn’t become an officer. It was, I mean, all of these kinds of ways to make you feel like a second-class citizen.

Now, more often than not, and I don’t know whether it’s to make me feel good, but a lot of the College students I’ve spoken to (but it seems to come out naturally) say, “You know, I’ve really enjoyed being in classes with GS students. That I really learned a lot from having GS students in my class. It really does make the educational process something a little more complex than it might be were I at Princeton or Yale.”

B&W: Now that, at this point, it’s safe to say that GS is definitely working in the Columbia community, has definitely been accepted…

PA: Where is the real problem?

B&W: Well, my question was going to be: when are we going to change the name?

PA: Oh, no, it’s a horrible name. I could give you a lecture on the Studium Generale, which is the origin of this, but it means absolutely nothing now. There’s nothing “general” about it. The issue—it’s linked to the issue I was going to bring up: where have I, in a sense, failed.

Though I’ve done a lot better, but it’s not even close to enough and will really … and has already begun to have a damaging effect, is financial aid. You’re paying the same tuition as Columbia College students… We get, percentage-wise, functionally half the financial aid dollars that are available to Columbia College students. That’s untenable.

B&W: I almost didn’t come for that reason. I was this close to not [coming] for that reason.

PA: You and 98 percent of your fellow students, and you would be depressed to hear how many people do say no. Really, really talented people who say no, who would thrive here, be an immense contribution to the community.

And as I’ve joked, you could rename it [the college] whatever you want for a couple hundred million. But it has to be a name that is truly unique, that isn’t mirrored at other universities, and that therefore embodies the uniqueness of this educational experiment. Now, if the money doesn’t come, then the pressure that I feel—and rightly so—to change the name may lead us to make a move to pick a name.

You know, you may go for a dead white male from Columbia’s history. Frankly, I would love to name it after a woman. I mean, what Ivy League college is named after a woman? I mean, other than women’s colleges, zero. So now’s the time to say: the majority of undergraduates on this campus are women and we [GS] were the beacon of women’s education, co-education anyway, and adult women’s education in the city and at Columbia.

B&W: Possible names?

PA: You know, I don’t have a serious list. If I did, I’d tell you.

B&W: Well, you covered all my questions without me having to even ask them.

PA: Well, I guess. But you can tell I really believe in this. And it does really disappoint me that colleagues around the other elite colleges and universities haven’t quite recognized this yet.

Now realize that I’m not saying something terrible’s going to happen to Columbia College or Princeton or Harvard. There will always be a very strong constituency for the traditional colleges. The model I’m arguing for is really the marriage of both.

Traditional applicants are very different from how you approach a non-traditional student. Advising is different. And that’s why you need a separate division… And that’s a very interesting model where you have this parallel process of separate divisions recruiting different constituencies. But then they all end up in the classroom together and it’s that that I espouse—an elite traditional college as well as an elite non-traditional college.

B&W: Does it seem to you like other (call them top tier) colleges are testing the waters right now?

PA: Well I think they’re starting to catch on… The best story is [Provost] Claude Steele when he arrived from Stanford. He had literally been here a week and I invited him to speak at orientation for the fall class. And he didn’t know the campus well. I had to go pick him up at his office and bring him over to, you know. And when I got there, he had to admit, “What’s GS?” And I gave him GS101 as we walked across campus and by the end he said, “Why doesn’t every private university have one of these? This is amazing. This is what I’ve been writing about my whole career.”


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  • Van Owen says:

    @Van Owen Seriously, if you want a rocking GPA bring a couple of GS students into your study group. They usually have their shit together and will compliment the group nicely.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I had a weird last couple years of high school because I was an actor in a national tour, for which I needed to become emancipated from my parents therefore making me an “adult.” By the time I was ready for college, I was 19 and had already been living in NYC on my own for a year. I’d dreamed of coming to Columbia since I was 13. So at 19 I start taking tours and getting info, and because of my situation, I was also sent information about GS. I’d never heard of it, but it appealed to me more because of the “real life experience” bit. Not that one could call traveling with a musical theater tour “real life” but basically, I wasn’t a kid coming straight from my parents’ house. My situation was significantly different, and though I’d given up on theater for the time being, because it had technically been a career for me, GS made more sense. I could stay in my terrible Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, stay away from the meal plan, and basically live without any looming authority figure, the way I’d been used to living for years. I was accepted to CC as a ‘traditional’ student at 17 and deferred, and to GS as ‘nontraditional’ at 19…and I chose GS. I didn’t know of any GS stigma until I read BWOG comments on the post about last year’s valedictorian, actually. Then I started second guessing myself, wondering if I’d made the right choice. Now it’s been a year and I’m happy where I am, I’ve never really felt a CC vs GS rivalry on campus, and I definitely don’t feel like my CC peers are ahead of me in any sense of the word, and my GPA reflects this. I had to finish a lot of my public high school work through correspondence so I definitely wasn’t as prepared coming in, but I’d face that same problem in CC. The only difference I notice with GS is the age and experience of the students. When it comes to ability, I’d say we’re all the same. Crazy geniuses aside.

  • Peter Awn says:

    @Peter Awn has the best sock-and-birkenstock combinations ever.

  • GS '12 says:

    @GS '12 Thank you Bwog for paying attention to this issue and talking with Dean Awn (what a great guy, right!?). To be frank, when it comes to the money, I sincerely wish I would have just transferred to CC, GS is plain-out severely underfunded. I went to school at another Ivy, dropped for two years, and then decided to go back, but not at the same place, and the difference in financial aid is tremendous. Other than that, the social stigmas are either present or they aren’t. I don’t fit in to the traditional way many come into GS in that I am not a milvet and I didn’t transfer from a junior college, but hey, I don’t think any of us are here because we want to fit in with the world.

  • GS2012 says:

    @GS2012 For the record, I’m a GS student and honestly can’t think of a time that I’ve felt marginalized. My CC/SEAS/BC classmates have been spectacular to me. And I don’t *blend*. (This is a running joke in the GS community–do you look young enough to not be immediately identified as GS.) I think the key to success for GS students is to continue to do what most of us do anyway–rock your GPA so you always know you’re on par with the traditional students.

    So proud to have Awn as the Dean of GS. He really gets it.

  • CC 14 says:

    @CC 14 it really angers me that GS and CC/SEAS UWriting classes are segregated. Why is that?

  • ... says:

    @... it should be noted that, in 2011, transfer/re-entry/non-traditional students are extremely common amongst top tier public universities. what may have been cutting edge 60 years ago is now pretty much mainstream. at this point, the only thing that is really cutting edge or distinguishing about gs is the effective total cost of attendance and how that cost is completely out of whack with mainstream undergraduate education…

    the health of the CC/SEAS shared FA pool undoubtedly has an upward pressure on the central tuition rate. since CC/SEAS outnumbers gs roughly 3:1, any downward pressure placed by gs is going to get washed out, thus leading to the situation we have today where gs students regularly graduate with law school sized debts.

    it’s one thing to take a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” fundraising approach towards the problem, with the idea that eventually gs will build enough endowment… but in reality, where the norm is students amassing the sorts of debt loads that are frequently levied in gs, a cycle of disgruntlement and weak return giving will perpetuate ad infinitum.

    columbia is not a poor institution, and restricted funds be damned (face it, creative accounting is a universal truth when it comes to making happen what the powers that be want) this university really needs to decide if it’s going to go forth and bootstrap the program with the requisite funds to get a healthy endowment building cycle, collapse it within CC/SEAS or bin it entirely. the current situation whereby gs students are regularly amassing outsized debts in a down economy is not only untenable, it’s borderline immoral.

    tl;dr: if they want to run a program like gs, they need to fund it properly… otherwise bin it. the current situation boils down to gouging.

    1. GS '11 says:

      @GS '11 You’re right… It’s interesting because the cost of education at GS puts some students in so much debt that when they get out for many years they have to pay that back. THerefore they don’t make any significant donation to the school, unless they end up making a whole lot of money.
      After three years here, I’m graduating with about 100,000 in debt and the truth is I don’t see myself making any donations to the school anytime soon because 1. I have to pay back all that loan and 2. I feel like the university as a whole plays a major part in putting students in debt by not doing the right thing and merging the accounts.
      I know I may come across as saying there is a magic way of merging the endowments. That’s not the case. I know there are several obstacles on the way but at the end of the day, they can be overcome with enough will from the University as a whole. But as long as the university plain does not care to solve this issue, the students like myself will have to borrow money at 12% and work their asses off for years to pay it back.
      In second though… I should have taken that full-ride at state school… JK.. I hate Cornell

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous what i find more fascinating is that you commented first as CC ’11. never heard of the track button have you?

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous the CC transfer admission rate is lower than the regular CC rate…about 3 percent…just sayin

  • Just saying... says:

    @Just saying... This article was filled with typos. Otherwise I found it interesting, GS certainly adds positively to our classrooms

  • CC '11 says:

    @CC '11 Please don’t make this thread another nasty fight. I think it be nice if anyone who has a cool story about a GS student to share it here. I’ll start: I had an econ class with a former Marine who managed the motorcade for dignitaries when they visited Afghanistan. He was in charged of something like 15 Humvees at a time. Cool right?

    1. Horray... says:

      @Horray... …UW!!

  • Thanks Bwog says:

    @Thanks Bwog For posting this. I hope a whole of students from all schools, including GS, read this and come to appreciate the unique aspect of Columbia education.

  • What's that sound? says:

    @What's that sound? The parade of spoiled CC and SEAS children hurrying to make nasty comments about people who deserve to be there just as much as they do, whether they like it or not.

    1. CC14 says:

      @CC14 I’m in CC, I have no problem with GS, many of my friends are GS, only reason people think people don’t like GS is because of people like you.

      1. GS '11 says:

        @GS '11 I didn’t realize there was such a social boundary between GS/CC-SEAS in the past; a fair number of my college friends are CC (not so many SEAS, but that’s just luck of the draw). The intra-campus tensions I’ve experienced since I’ve been here are mostly from my GS classmates–and you would hope that, being “older” and “mature”, if they had a problem, they would at least keep it to themselves and not post anonymously in a public forum. Sorry for that, on behalf of my school. It’s truly embarrassing.

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