Following staff shake-ups, organizational restructuring, and the decision to pay tour guides, there is a “new direction” for the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee. But will these changes be enough to address campus tour shortfalls?

Columbia tour guides will now be compensated for their work following a change in leadership and restructuring within the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee (URC).

Senior Associate Director of Admissions Kathryn Saunders made the announcement in a July 25 email to URC members. “As we transition into new leadership and a new direction of the URC, we wanted to provide you with another important update,” the email reads. “We decided to restructure the organization moving forward, by turning the role of a URC Tour Guide into a paid employment position.”

Saunders has worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions since 2012 and was previously the URC’s Director, but her new position as Senior Associate Director means she will no longer work directly with the URC. Jack Hein, who has worked as the Manager of Visitor Relations since August 2021, has been tapped as the new Director.

The move to pay tour guides follows other recent compensation changes for on-campus jobs. It was announced on July 26 that the pay structure for CC and SEAS residence advisors would be revised following months of organizing from RAs. 

Amid the changeover in leadership and the move to pay tour guides, Saunders’ description of a “new direction” for the organization feels apt. But as the URC evolves, will there also be a reckoning with problematic aspects of its campus tours?

After following a campus tour this spring, it became clear that certain aspects deserved greater scrutiny—from the use of statistics publicly refuted by Professor of Mathematics Michael Thaddeus to the lack of mention of Barnard College. After interviewing various student members of the URC and reviewing training materials provided to Bwog, concerns grew even more.

About the URC: “A New Direction”

The Undergraduate Recruitment Committee—housed under the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Visitors Center—is responsible for recruitment activities for prospective students at Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. A recruitment flier for the URC defines the role of tour guides as to “introduce and affirm the Columbia undergraduate experience with the world’s best high school students” through campus tours and other events, such as the yearly Days on Campus event for admitted students.

Prior to the recent restructuring, successful applicants to the URC were taken on as volunteers and grouped into cohorts of six or seven beneath paid URC interns—also students who had previously volunteered as tour guides. Interns received additional training to guide the volunteers, a process described as “very long and involved” by a former URC intern in comparison to the relatively brief training received by the unpaid volunteers. During the 2021-2022 school year, there were approximately 100 volunteer tour guides and 15 interns, according to a former URC member.

But the URC will look almost completely different this year.

To accommodate payment for tour guides, the URC will be drastically restructured. The number of tour guides will be reduced to 40, slashing the size of the organization by more than half. This dramatic change means that all previous URC members have had to reapply if they wish to remain part of the organization. Over 80 students have applied for the position.

According to the application for the position, tour guides will now be compensated $15 per hour and will be responsible for leading two campus tours for a total of three hours per week. Each tour guide will also be expected to present at one additional event per semester, such as a student panel or Q&A session.

The restructuring will also replace the former role of URC Intern with the new “URC Leadership Team,” composed of five student workers who will “support the URC Admissions Officer Team in the management of the URC body in its entirety,” according to application materials. This position will also be compensated $15 per hour, but will require a five hour weekly commitment in addition to the three hours leading weekly tours.

In addition to these roles, there will also be ten “Tour Captains” to assist the Leadership Team in training and managing the tour guides.

Tour Guide Training and the URC Manual

A campus tour is composed of numerous aspects, including stories about Columbia’s campus, history, and statistics such as class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios. An engaging tour will also be made personal through the inclusion of the tour guides’ own experiences at Columbia.

To make sure tour guides have a strong command over this wide range of information, all URC student workers go through a comprehensive training process.

One tour guide who went through the training process last winter said that new trainees also received instruction on topics like public speaking and tour management, and they were walked through the extensive URC Training Manual. 30 pages in length, the manual is filled with information from quick statistics about Columbia, historical anecdotes, descriptions of Columbia’s Core Curriculum, and more that tour guides are expected to memorize.

Bwog was provided a copy of the manual as well as other presentation materials used in URC training. A review of the manual used for the 2021-2022 academic year found that some of the statistics tour guides were trained to recite are of questionable methodology.

“Dubious” Statistics

In February, Professor of Mathematics Michael Thaddeus published a report questioning the data that Columbia provides to the annual U.S. News college rankings. Professor Thaddeus began the investigation in light of the University’s rise to the second position in last year’s rankings, which was touted as a sign of Columbia’s prestige and academic rigor. His findings of the use of “inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading” data unleashed heavy scrutiny from national media outlets.

The University initially stood by its data, but then voluntarily chose to not participate in this year’s rankings to, in the words of Provost Mary C. Boyce, pursue a “thorough review” of “the data [to] ensure it complies with U.S. News methodologies.” A week later, the fallout continued as Columbia lost its No. 2 ranking from U.S. News, who said that the University “failed to respond to multiple U.S. News requests that the university substantiate certain data it previously submitted.”

Not only was this data provided to the U.S. News, but was also used in the formation of campus tour materials Many of the statistics touted in the 2021-2022 URC training manual—like a 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio, class sizes averaging below 20 students, and a yearly research expenditure of over $1 billion—are the same ones that Professor Thaddeus called “dubious” and prompted the U.S. News to strip Columbia of its No. 2 ranking.

The following statistics are directly quoted from the training manual, followed by the criticisms offered in Professor Thaddeus’s report.

On page six, the manual parrots the claim that the University offers a “6:1 student to faculty ratio.” In his investigation, Professor Thaddeus followed the methodology prescribed by U.S. News to calculate this number and came to an estimated 11:1 ratio, which is far from what the University reports.

Though Columbia would not be bound to follow U.S. News’s methodology when reporting statistics on a campus tour, even Professor Thaddeus’s most favorable estimate (7:1) fell shy of the University’s claimed 6:1. In his executive summary, Thaddeus said that a figure “between 8:1 and 11:1 would most accurately reflect the true student-to-faculty ratio at Columbia.”

Questions continue with the numbers claimed for class sizes on campus.

On page 13, it is claimed that “80% of the classes on campus have fewer than 20 people.” Professor Thaddeus reviewed data from archived course bulletins and found that the true number “probably lies somewhere between 62.7% and 66.9%.” He added, “we can be quite confident that it is nowhere near” the numbers claimed by Columbia.

It is also claimed on page 13 that only 8% of courses enroll at least 50 students. Thaddeus said the figure “probably lies somewhere between 10.6% and 12.4%,” which is “significantly worse” than the number reported by the University. 

Professor Thaddeus continued: “There does not seem to be any way of slicing and dicing the data to get anywhere near Columbia’s reported figures.”

There are links in the training manual to other documents, including “fact sheets” that provide additional statistics. In a URC fact sheet, it is claimed that there was “over $1B in sponsored research project expenditures at Columbia last year.” This is an oft-touted statistic (proudly displayed on the front page of Columbia’s research website) that has also been scrutinized by Professor Thaddeus.

He notes that this figure differs significantly from totals reported elsewhere by the University. According to Thaddeus, for the fiscal year of 2020, Columbia reported just shy of $763 million of research expenses to the federal government. In the Board of Trustees’ Consolidated Financial Statements for the fiscal year ending June 2021, Columbia reported $701 million of research expenses. Neither of these figures approaches the $1 billion number repeatedly presented by the University. It is unclear what causes this discrepancy.

Following the Professor Thaddeus scandal—which has now resulted in two class action lawsuits against the University—Columbia released a Common Data Set on September 9. In the announcement, Provost Mary Boyce wrote that the data set “reflects the University’s work in recent months to review our data collection processes, following questions raised by a faculty member regarding the accuracy of certain data the University submitted to U.S. News and World Report in 2021 for its ranking of undergraduate universities.”

In the updated data set, Columbia continued to report a 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio for the Fall 2021 semester. As noted above, this is the same figure claimed in the 2021-2022 URC manual and which Professor Thaddeus criticized in his initial report.

Other figures saw substantial change from the data reported to U.S. News, namely class sizes. Provost Boyce wrote that, “57% of undergraduate classes had enrollments of under 20 students in fall 2021.” As stated above, the 2021-2022 URC manual cited this figure as 80%. The 57% figure is notably even lower than Professor Thaddeus’s estimates.

Another class size figure that changed significantly is the number of courses enrolling 50 students or more. Where the 2021-2022 URC manual cited this figure as 8%, the new data reported by the University puts the number at 14.45%, even higher than the number estimated by Professor Thaddeus.

According to the job description provided to returning URC applicants, members of the new leadership team will be tasked with “[updating] the campus tour manual and other reference resources.” However, it remains unclear what aspects of the manual will be updated.

The URC office had previously declined to respond to any questions about the use of these statistics or any changes that might be made to campus tours this year.

Public Speaking Tips and Tough Questions

A strong command of the facts may be necessary for tour guides, but prospective students and families also expect a campus tour to feel personalized. So—as the URC emphasizes frequently to tour guides—personal anecdotes form the backbone of the tour. 

“Anecdotes are the most important part of your tour!” the manual reads. “As a current student, you can give guests the best and most accurate insights to life at Columbia through your own experiences.” 

Likewise, the bulk of a campus tour is largely unscripted. Each stop on the tour leaves room for the tour guides to discuss their cherished memories, funny stories about friends, or other personal experiences at the University. For example, when discussing the Core Curriculum, a tour guide might elaborate on their favorite text or a particularly memorable professor.

Given the unscripted nature of a campus tour, unexpected questions might arise. A guest might ask questions about parts of their experience that, if answered truthfully, could potentially paint a university in a negative light. 

A tour guide must be ready to respond on the fly to whatever a guest throws at them, from questions about the safety of campus to inquiries about the university’s stress culture. According to training materials, these questions are to be reframed and deflected.

A URC training slide provides tour guides with a list of challenging questions that they should feel comfortable not answering. The questions listed are: “I’ve heard that NYC has a lot of crime, so how safe is campus? There’s a lot of stress culture at Columbia, right? What’s something you don’t like and would change about this school? How does the school react to protests and strikes? How does Columbia compare to [insert school name here]?” The slide reminds trainees that they should “feel empowered to say ‘I don’t know the answer to that’” in response to these or similar questions.

Another training slide titled “Negative Experiences” instructs trainees to “remember to generalize your answer in a way that encompasses what is generally experienced on campus, and the objective resources that are available for that experience.” 

Further, tour guides are instructed to “remember that a lot of the negative (and positive) experiences at Columbia are not unique to the University. Before answering a question, ask yourself: How much of this can I attribute to Columbia vs. the ‘college experience’ more generally.” Page eight of the URC manual has similar advice: “Stay Positive!” it reads. “Try to spin negative questions into positive answers.” 

On a campus tour, positive anecdotes are exemplary of the unique experience offered at a given university. Negative experiences, however, are not attributable to any shortcoming of the institution. They are either flukes—not representing what the majority of the school’s students experience—or mere shortcomings of the “college experience” generally, not a fault specific to one institution.

Prohibited and Mandated Topics

Some questions are not to be spun positively. They are to be unanswered all together.

For example, according to two former URC members, tour guides were instructed this spring that they were “obligated” to not respond to guests’ questions about an ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the University. Columbia is one of 16 schools named in a class-action lawsuit that accuses the institutions of participating “in a price-fixing cartel” that operates to “reduce or eliminate financial aid as a locus of competition,” resulting in what the plaintiffs say has “artificially reduced financial aid, and systematically increased the net tuition prices paid by thousands of students and their families.”

Further, in recent years, there have been attempts to make the experience more inclusive for guests, recognizing that prospective students and their families come from a myriad of backgrounds. This can result in the removal of a previously-included element of the tour, if deemed necessary to not alienate prospective students and families.

Former URC members said that this Spring, tour guides were instructed to no longer discuss Pupin Hall’s historical role in the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. They say that this was, however, an anecdote that the URC encouraged sharing during training sessions over winter break.

As interns were previously responsible for the majority of volunteer training, a former intern was asked during an interview why this change occurred. They responded saying the Manhattan Project anecdote was removed to make tours more “inclusive” after concern was raised that including it downplayed the harm and damage caused by nuclear weapons. “Less divisive” anecdotes were added in its place, such as Pupin Hall being the birthplace of FM radio.

Another change to the tour in recent years was the addition of a land acknowledgement, which tour guides are required to deliver at the beginning of every tour. This acknowledgement—the only officially scripted part of the tour—can be found on page 11 of the manual.

It states: “Manhattan means island of many hills in the language of the Lenni Lenape people and it is part of the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Lenni Lenape and Wappinger people who are still active members of our community throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”

This addition coincided with the installation of the plaque in John Jay Courtyard, which features similar language. The plaque was installed on Indigenous Peoples Day in 2016 after years of lobbying from Indigenous students and a petition was circulated by Columbia’s Native American Council. It remains the only memorial to the Lenape people on campus.

But, despite being a required part of the tour, not all tour guides deliver the land acknowledgement.

One tour guide said that some within the URC find the land acknowledgement “performative” and choose to forgo delivering it. On the tour Bwog shadowed this spring, the tour guide did not deliver a land acknowledgement. Whether or not URC workers are disciplined for not following the protocol is unclear.

What about Barnard?

A prospective student does not take a tour to merely learn about a university’s impressive stats and academic atmosphere. They also want to explore the campus’s culture—what clubs are available, what the student body is like, and what they could expect socially over the next four years.

Indeed, a good portion of the URC tours does focus on matters outside the classroom, telling prospective students about cherished campus traditions like the tree-lighting ceremony and Bacchanal that have been integral experiences for Columbia students for years. Tour guides boast that Columbia has over 500 clubs, and they tell anecdotes about how they met their closest friends.

But they often do not mention Barnard.

URC tours are centered on prospective applicants to Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, with Barnard hosting its own individually tailored campus tours and application process. As students on a URC tour are there to learn about CC or SEAS specifically, there is not a need to delve into great specifics on Barnard’s unique academic offerings and culture.

However, Barnard’s affiliation with Columbia provides numerous benefits to CC and SEAS undergrads, something unique to the Columbia experience which could help draw prospective students.

For example, the ability to cross-register for courses at Barnard greatly expands the academic offerings and variety for CC and SEAS students, yet URC campus tours do not mention this unique asset to prospective students.

And despite listing fixtures in the Morningside Heights community in close proximity to Columbia’s campus—including museums and parks and other study spaces—the fact that Barnard’s campus and facilities are just across Broadway and are open to CC and SEAS students was not mentioned.

Mentions of Barnard can and sometimes do arise on tours as part of an anecdote shared by the tour guide. For example, a former tour guide we interviewed said that they reference Barnard in passing when discussing the University’s various dining halls.

But why should there not be an official explanation of Barnard’s affiliation with Columbia on the tour when it provides such a wealth of opportunities to CC and SEAS undergrads?

Barnard’s only mention in the URC manual is relegated to the FAQ section, prepping tour guides on how to respond in case a guest asks about Columbia’s historic women’s college.

“What is the relationship between Barnard and Columbia like?” the manual reads.

The answer: “Columbia University and Barnard College are independently affiliated schools. Barnard is a historically women’s liberal arts college and Barnard students are often considered part of the larger Columbia community, while they still have their own housing, facilities and specific traditions. Columbia and Barnard students may cross-register for as many classes as they wish, and some smaller, more specialized departments are actually shared between the two. Socially, many things are combined. You would not really know who is a Barnard student and who is a Columbia student unless you directly asked them. However, they are still separate institutions, with separate presidents, financial aid, core curriculums, and admissions processes.”

Barnard admissions is much more eager to talk about the partnership than URC. A self-guided tour booklet describes the relationship between Columbia and Barnard in its lead paragraph, saying:

“Barnard students benefit from a small close-knit community, while a unique partnership with Columbia University gives them unparalleled access to the wealth of resources of an Ivy League university. Barnard and Columbia students share open registration for undergraduate courses on each other’s campuses and participate in joint clubs and organizations, resulting in a vibrant intellectual climate and active social life.”

The lack of clarity and enthusiasm on URC tours about Barnard’s relationship to the broader institution is a noticeable absence in the campus tour’s construction, especially when there are such a breadth of benefits gained by CC and SEAS students through the affiliation with Barnard.

As with questions about the statistics used on campus tours, the URC office declined to respond to questions about the organization’s portrayal of Barnard College on campus tours or clarify if there are current efforts to improve the manual to more accurately reflect Barnard’s relation to the rest of Columbia’s community.


Campus tours—by giving prospective students the opportunity to see a college with their own eyes and a chance to learn about a school directly from a current student—play a powerful role in the college decision-making process. Any facts and personal experiences shared on a campus tour may make or break a prospective student’s decision to apply or to seek other college choices.

And for many guests, the tour might be the first and last time they ever set foot on a college’s campus. The impression formed on this short, one-hour tour can last a lifetime, an urgency Columbia is well aware of.

“Sometimes there’s no substitute for firsthand experience,” reads the campus tour website. “We find that’s true of New York City in general, but especially true of Columbia. A visit to Morningside Heights is your chance to engage with our diverse, dynamic community, explore our one-of-a-kind campus, imagine the life you’ll build here—and dream big about where a Columbia education could lead you.”

Given the power of a campus tour to shape the perception of the university for the hundreds of guests on campus any given day, it goes without saying that the information provided by a university should be trustworthy and perspectives offered should be well-rounded. 

The buzzword for the modern college admissions process is “holistic.” Universities claim that they consider the whole student, see the complete picture of an applicant and ensure that the student is a good fit.

“The college application process is a personally meaningful milestone…This is a time to discover who you are, imagine who you want to become, and decide whether Columbia College or Columbia Engineering might be the right college for you,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions & Financial Aid Jessica Marinaccio wrote to prospective students.

“Students often ask us, ‘What are you looking for?’ Just as you are looking for the college that is the best match for you, we are looking for students who are the best matches for us,” she continued. 

Is this not a two-way street?

The only way a good match can be found is if both applicant and school are forthright and honest about their own strengths and weaknesses. According to the Undergraduate Admissions website, the University reserves the right to rescind an offer of admission if the “candidate has misrepresented himself or herself in the application process.”

But what recourse is available if a university provides inaccurate data to its applicants? As Provost Boyce wrote in her statement announcing the release of the Common Data Set:

“[A]nything less than complete accuracy in the data that we report – regardless of the size or the reason – is inconsistent with the standards of excellence to which Columbia holds itself.”

Representatives of the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee declined to respond in official capacity to multiple requests for comment throughout this investigation. URC Director Jack Hein said that “office policy” prevents participation in interviews. The Office of Communications has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Low Library via Bwog Archives