Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fertile Ground

Ah, the Good Old Days

Anyone who thinks the weak Columbia teams during the record losing streak, (1983-88), represented the low-point of Columbia athletics and campus life in general, is well... wrong. The mid-to-late 1970's were much, much worse as the University's entire existence seemed to be in jeopardy.

It's hard to believe with today's $3,000-a-month rents for a studio on the Upper West Side, but the entire neighborhood from 116th all the way down to 72nd Street was a little dicey during the day and downright dangerous at night during most of the 70's.

Things got so bad, that at one time there was talk of moving Columbia College to Westchester County just to avoid what looked like the inevitable complete collapse of Manhattan.

Another problem was the college was still totally male, and even with Barnard across the street, social life on campus for undergrads was... scary.

It's hard to quantify this in actual numbers, but the malaise in the neighborhood definitely took its toll on athletics as much as it did on total admissions and fundraising.

Let's imagine what it must have been like for a varsity recruiter in say, 1975:

RECRUIT: Hey what's all this I hear about crime in the neighborhood? I heard one of your top players, Ed Backus, was mugged last year.

COACH: Um, that's overblown. Besides, there are a lot of poor people in the area... they have a right to steal from us.

RECRUIT: What?!?

COACH: Never mind.

RECRUIT: Okay, what about Baker Field? I heard it's falling apart and most of the stadium has to be roped off because the seats aren't stable.

COACH: Yeah, that's why we suggest that all our players remain on the field at all times.

RECRUIT: Hey, when can I check out the campus? Heh, heh, I'd like to see what the girls look like and stuff.

COACH: Er, you better not call them "girls." We had a player injured by an angry mob of women at Barnard last year... don't wanna get into it. Actually, don't try to talk to the women at Barnard. Columbia is now officially recommending that college students try to date the women at F.I.T.... it's only about 90 blocks away. But don't worry, word is the college is going co-ed soon. Just hold on buddy.

RECRUIT: What do guys do for fun after practice and class?

COACH: Well, we have a rifle range in the basement of Ferris Booth Hall, and then there's the restaurants around the area. Just don't eat anything at the Chock Full O' Nuts on 116th Street and for God's sake, stay away from the Moon Palace Chinese restaurant. Most of offensive line went in there last season and no one's seen them since.

Now let's reprise that same scene, but instead of 1975, it's 2007:

RECRUIT: Hey what's all this I hear about the neighborhood going too upscale? I hear it's getting pretty expensive around there.

COACH: Welcome to the major leagues kid! Don't worry, you won't have to pay any rent out of your pocket because Columbia is a fully residential college. And it's nice to have someplace to eat other than a diner on the weekends.

RECRUIT: What about Wien Stadium. Is the FieldTurf all installed yet?

COACH: Yep, since 2005. And now they have it on the soccer field too.

RECRUIT: Hey, when can I check out the campus? Heh, heh, I'd like to see what the girls look like and stuff.

COACH: Well, you're in luck. Ever since the college went co-ed in 1983, the ratio of undergrad women to men on campus is better than 2-to-1. But you still better not call them "girls."

RECRUIT: What do guys do for fun after practice and class?

COACH: Do you have 3 hours? Because it'll take me about that long to tell you all your options. And now you can take the subway anywhere you want to go without any problems. It gets a little crowded but it's been the safest mode of transportation in this city for 25 years now.

Columbia and New York City are so much better off these days that I suspect today's athletic recruiters will never know just how good they truly have it. Even 9/11 didn't dent the application bonanza, and there's word today that real estate and equity market profits are so strengthening the city that S&P and Fitch have once again boosted NYC's bond rating.

The 80's, and the years during the 44-game streak, were not as great as things are now, but the excitement surrounding the positive change in the neighborhood was electric. The trend is sometimes more important than the bottom line. And while the football team languished, it did get a great new stadium and at least the tacit acknowledgement that the sport was here to stay. Meanwhile, the 80's also saw the soccer team hit new highs, and basketball had some very good years as well.

But all of New York's fortunes need to be taken with a grain of salt when we look to even more steady improvement in athletics. When the city's reputation really soared in the mid-90's thanks to record low crime figures, it looked like the sports teams and recruiting benefited immediately. I thought there was no coincidence that the strong '94-'96 seasons for football and the near-championship 1993 season for men's basketball all came during that upswing too.

But then athletics got left in the dust. Applications continued to soar, New York became hotter and hotter, but we still lost recruiting battle after battle. My only explanation for all of that is that the stronger powers-that-be at Columbia, namely the faculty, grabbed most of that advantage for themselves, leaving athletics far behind the gravy train.

The new regime in the Athletics Department not only seems effective at changing things within the department itself, but making sure it isn't left out of the overall picture at Columbia in general. (I mean, when was the last time a new restaurant opened on Morningside Heights and decided to raise money for the law school?).

And tying Columbia athletics more directly to city in general is a good move. If the football and basketball teams start to win consistently, the local media will get behind them. Sources tell me the all-sports radio station WFAN would be more than happy to do more segments about the Lions when and if the winning starts.

Here's a tip: the winning is starting already and your credentials as a sports media outlet or just as a fan will be enhanced greatly if you get on board now before the inevitable, (but still welcome), "bandwagon effect."

Pictures of the Day

Here are some great, but alas undated, pictures of South Field, the pre-Baker Field home of Columbia's athletic teams. Enjoy!


At Tue Jul 03, 10:48:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who was there, the 1970 to 1976 period was a remarkably tough time for Columbia and probably not really comprehensible to today's students. There were four other crises on top of the city's fiscal crisis and the real concern that the city would lay off all its cops and firemen:

the spring riots of 68, 70, and 72 wreaked havoc on our reputation as a place to send your 18 year old. A number of top faculty departed for other schools to seek more stable environments, and it was impossible to replace them. Our academic prestige declined significantly.

the other Ivies were all coed by 1970 or 1971. We were getting killed in admissions on that point alone.

the University was in fiscal crisis. Bill McGill had to make some drastic cuts to balance the budget. It's impressive that Levien got built at all. All kinds of programs were cut including vital alumni programs. The admissions staff was tiny.

We couldn't offer housing to at least 15% of the class. If you lived in the metropolitan area, you were placed in one of three zones of increasing distance from Morningside Heights and told no housing--please commute. All the city kids who got into other Ivies departed for those schools. We got the kids who didn't have better choices than to commute to Columbia (many of whom were talented kids, but that's no way to recruit a class).

However--I am confident that if you looked at the overall won loss record of Columbia sports from 1975 to 1985, you would see one of our best decades for sports, if not for academics and recruitiment. Why? Because we had a first year class of 750 males, which finally put us on a par with the other Ivies in terms of male enrollment since the others had all gone coed, and our admissions standards were at historic lows, so we weren't turning away qualified student athletes. Check out baseball, basketball, wrestling, basketball, swimming, tennis, soccer, fencing during those years....we had some excellent teams and many outstanding individual athletes.

At Tue Jul 03, 06:23:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our problems in the late 60s and early 70s were a result of admissions taking a class with too many red diaper babies. The student body had a few real head cases. Take Dave Gilbert of Brinks fame. Our admissions department was in a shambles and was taking a lot of kids who were spoiled brats from ultra left wing families who actually thought that the Vietnam War could be ended by blowing up Columbia. Combine that with an insensitive administration and an indifferent group of trustees and disaster who almost predictable. Read the Cox Report. A great deal of the credit goes to Rupp and Bollinger plus Bill Campbell for turning this place around. Abolish GS, turn Barnard into a greater Columbia College, and we are unstoppable.

At Tue Jul 03, 08:45:00 PM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

Any way you slice it, the recovery of the University is remarkable. I realize athletics got a decent boost from the big male numbers in the 70's, but not enough.

I'm in favor of keeping Barnard and GS for many reasons. From an athletics point of view its clear that Barnard adds to the pool of available female athletes. And GS is a cash cow people. The students just take classes. They may add an average of 1-2 more bodies per non-Core Curriculum class, (GS students don't take core classes), and for that CU gets big tuition dollars and doesn't have to give them dorm rooms or other facilities.

At Tue Jul 03, 10:16:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Abolish GS, turn Barnard into a greater Columbia College, and we are unstoppable"

Amen, brother!

GS might bring in some money, but what does it do to the school's academic reputation to have a bunch of rejects just sign up for classes at CU like it's some community college? Then they go out into the world and proclaim themselves CU graduates. Perhaps we wouldn't need the blood money we get from their enrollment fees if we took better care of the undergraduates in CC and SEAS so that they felt more compelled to be active, generous alumni down the road. (Anyone think Harvard or Princeton is jealous of our GS cash cow? didn't think so).

As for Barnard, the school might increase the number of potential female athletes, but if Barnard were absorbed into Columbia then Columbia could comfortably increase the class size and achieve the same effect. Plus Barnard's facilities could be updated and integrated into the CU athletic department, which is severely space constrained at the present.

At Wed Jul 04, 12:07:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is anonymous 1 checking back in in response to anonymous 2. I certainly agree that a merger with Barnard would be a huge step forward, but you are going off the deep end if, when you say Columbia's ills were the result of admissions taking too many red diaper babies, you mean to say that admissions office policies were responsible for a too left wing student body. You are also forgetting your Columbia admissions history.

The admissions director who admitted the class of 1964 was named Dudley. He left after one year as director because he admitted that class based primarily on grades and SAT's, and there was a reaction by the administration and alumni against that approach (there's your reward for focusing on intellectuals) . The new director of admissions was Harry Coleman, a Columbia rower and prep school graduate who worked very hard to establish relations with the prep schools and to support athletics. The criticism of Harry was always that he was too friendly to the prep schools and the jocks--he was hardly receptive to red diaper babies. Harry was succeeded by John Wellington, a former varsity football and Old Blue rugby player, and Wellington was succeeded by Mike Lacopo in the summer of 1970, who was also a varsity football player and a US Marine. Lacopo served as director until 1976. The Columbia College admissions office from 1960 when Coleman came in until 1976 was run by former Columbia varsity athletes who were not at all sympathetic to student protesters.

It's interesting to realize that the classes of 1965 through 1971 or 72--in other words, the riot years--were admitted by Harry Coleman, who could not have been less sympathetic to left wing students. Coleman and his successors did the best job they could given the applicant pool, but Columbia was not a first choice school in those years, since undergraduate education was so badly underfunded by the central administration--think of the old gym, the lack of housing, the old stadium, etc., etc. The student disturbances were the outgrowth of two things--the Vietnam War and central administration indifference to undergraduate conditions over many years, and not because admissions was sympathetic to "red diaper babies." Just the contrary in fact--under Harry Coleman admissions was praticing affirmative action for socially conservative students to compensate for the fact that Columbia was not a first choice school for those students.

By the way, GS has some pretty good students, and there are less than 1000 of them on an FTE basis. Merger with Barnard would accomplish a lot--GS is a bit of a non-issue.

At Wed Jul 04, 12:57:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

Wow anonymous 1, you certainly have some good inside historical information.

I don't envy the lives of admissions officers of any era. I kind of wish all the schools would have their own admissions tests and long interview processes with 4-5 sitting professors, but I'm not naive enough to think that's fiscally possible anymore.

I do know that the SAT is an evil cancer on education at every level in this country. I did well on the damn test, so this is not sour grapes. My students at NYU are so standardized-test drunk that they hardly have any real hobbies. I can only hope I find some way to relieve my own daughter of the admissions game stress and she grows up to learn she can be smart and productive no matter what college she chooses, or even if she chooses not to go to college at all.

At Wed Jul 04, 05:02:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We had some good people in admissions but they made some bad choices. Perhaps you are right that Columbia College was underfunded and by the central administration. The Cox Report is a pretty good source of information on why so many students turned out to be so destructive in the late 60s. My peeve with GS is historic. We were "promised" by successive administrations that GS students would receive a BS and not a BA to distinguish them from the College. We were "promised" that our classes woul dremain small and selective. Take a look at how many courses are preceded by a C in the catalog. So we have an adult population taking classes with our students although GS basicaly admits any warm body. Of course there will be a few exceptions in the GS student, but by and large the students get most of the benefits and use the same resources as our highly selective College students. Take a look at fund raising, for example, and see how little GS grads give back to Columbia as opposed to us. So what is the point? Either we are a highly slective institution or we are in part a hihgly selective institution.

At Wed Jul 04, 07:22:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1 again: every admissions office makes mistakes--it's impossible not to because it's unheard of for a teacher or a school to knock a kid who has issues. Every kid is great according to the recommendations. So admissions has to read between the lines and that is not easy. Go back to the mid sixties when we had many fewer applications and were in a sense looking for kids or needing to take risks on kids who had upside potential (as opposed to being overwhelmed by highly qualified students as today) and the potential for a mistake increases. All I'm saying is that with Coleman as director of admissions there were many more socially conservative kids extended offers of admission and matriculated on campus (and many fewer left leaning kids) than there would have been without his direct efforts to recruit that type. So don't blame the admissions office--they were on your team.

That's a seque to the standardized testing issue. Because of grade inflation and uniformly glowing teacher and counselor recommendations, colleges are in need of a differentiator to help them choose the top students. SAT's and AP exams, if not "objective," are at least a uniform measurement by which kids can be compared. Plus they do have real merit--you simply can't count on even straight A students being able to read and write well. The SAT's do offer insight into who can read and write at a high level which is not something a high school transcript will tell you. Add the huge increase in applications from around the country and even from around the world, and you get the current situation where standardized testing is more important than it ideally should be in order to differentiate candidates who otherwise seem very comparable. It's not going away any time soon.

At Wed Jul 04, 06:21:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on regarding GS; it is a huge cash cow and a back door into Columbia; we should get out of the community college business; GS students take our classes, except for the core. This will take a transformation of the board whihc is underway right now thanks to the great Billy Campbell. No more "Big Hat No Cattle" trustees who talk up a one world storm but don't have the financial clout to do anything for us. Gs is a product of the upper West Side liberal intelligentsia who were a vocal minority on the board for years, who wanted to turn us into CCNY.


Post a Comment

<< Home