Students frequently condemn Columbia for being steeped in unbreakable traditions. Updates to the Core Curriculum are never quite right, our library seems to have an obsession with “the Classics,” and even the buildings on our Morningside Heights campus lack variety, with most being designed by the same architectural firm: McKim, Mead & White. The University, it seems, is oftentimes like a boulder: very, very, very big—and nearly impossible to budge.
And so it should come as no surprise that this is exactly how Columbia, formerly known as King’s College, was meant to be when it was established: loyal to the classics and firmly entrenched in the ideals of its administration.
However, it is important to note that our University has not always been so unyielding.
As many of us know, King’s College was a Loyalist institution. So Loyalist, in fact, that it became the target of public hatred during the early phases of the American Revolution:
“... the drift of the colonies toward revolution finally reached into the heart of the King’s College in the spring of 1775. In April, [President] Myles Cooper was one of the five New Yorkers to be warned in a public letter, ‘… Fly for your lives or anticipate your doom…’ ... About midnight on May 10 a ‘murderous band’ of some size tried to make good the letter’s promise… with an eye to seizing Cooper… the mob ‘broke the College Gate open.’”
At this moment, something that might seem drastic by today’s standards occurred: The University responded positively to “revolutionary” thought, and changed its name. With this development, the “spirit of loyalist education” picked up and moved to Nova Scotia, creating a void on our campus—a void that, for a while, would be filled by radical, revolutionary ideals.
Humphrey, in From King’s College to Columbia, writes that President Cooper would have been shocked to find that Episcopalians no longer comprised a majority of Columbia’s students, faculty, or trustees. Even worse was the fact “that, by some Revolutionary magic, the treasurer of the college was the son of William Livingston.” (Livingston, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, had challenged King’s College’s since its founding on that grounds that its principles were too “narrow.”)
Loyalists were literally run out of Columbia, and the school itself was run by the descendants of individuals who had previously condemned its close-mindedness.
But this revolutionary mindset didn’t last long. Changing our name from King’s College to Columbia was originally intended to be a revolutionary act symbolizing the rejection of England and the glorification of America. In 1784, the University was given a name often used to describe the New World as it saw itself as breaking off from the Old World, creating something new and better.
At the same time, however, the choice of the name “Columbia” almost seems to contradict this vision. The term originates from Christopher Columbus, a man so ingrained in the Old World mindset that he refused to even admit that he hadn’t really discovered anything new. He was a slaver. A colonizer. A rapist.
In some ways, this contradiction is very appropriate.
Columbia is also a school that touts its progressive values and the global education it provides despite being once supported with funds from an arms dealer who made a fortune from the savagery of frontiersmen.
We once ran Loyalists out. Now, it seems we’ve become them all over again. Columbia just couldn’t escape the Old World for long, and our University’s name reflects that. Columbia prides itself on diversity without actively acknowledging that many of its classrooms were built with funds from slavers and those who traded cotton and sugar with the Deep South: Earl Hall, St. Paul’s Chapel, Dodge, and possibly more.
There is, however, something greatly positive we may take from this.
Of course, since the 18th century, there have been other instances of our school ceding to dramatic “revolutionary change.” In 1968, Columbia was rocked by protests against the administration’s ties to the Vietnam War and the proposed building of a segregated gym. More recently, Columbians have made demonstrations against Columbia’s investments in fossil fuels and private prisons. We’ve even seen some successes: The University divested from the private prison industry in June of 2015.
Knowing this, the University’s drive to make amends to the groups affected by its colonial past should not stop with the Lenape plaque installation. Instead, the University should continue to work with students of color and do more to decolonize Columbia.
There’s no real reason why we can’t change the names of buildings that honor colonizers and slaveholders. There’s no reason why we can’t remove the statues of Hamilton and Jefferson. There’s no reason why we can’t stop dropping buildings into communities of color and enacting the same colonialist tendencies that our “liberal” institution condemns in its classrooms. And there’s even no reason why we can’t change the very name of this school.
And if you think all of that is laughable, consider this: Our school’s name honors Christopher Columbus’ legacy every minute of every day. Yet most Columbia students seem to be disillusioned with the entire narrative of his so-called discovery of these “new lands,” if not completely contemptuous of the man’s truly despicable history.
Luckily, while Columbia’s foundations are trapped in the Old World, the school itself is filled with minds from the New.
Getting University administrators to approve the placement of the Lenape plaque on this campus was no small feat. It took dedication and resourcefulness, as well as the cooperation and tremendous support of University leaders such as Dean Suzanne Goldberg, Associate Vice President Ixchel Rosal, Dean Cristen Kromm, and the trustees themselves.
We know that if leaders in our community continue to keep their minds open to what Indigenous students and other people of color on this campus really need, there is nothing stopping us from achieving a greater understanding and shaping a greater university.
As Thomas Paine once said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Let’s not pretend that we don’t.
Tristan Stidham is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and a political chair for the Columbia University Native American Council. Noah Ramage is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and a political chair for the Columbia University Native American Council.
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