Morningside Heights

New Building's Shortcomings Risk Constraining CBS Ascendancy

Editorial in The Bottom Line by Jared Goldstein

The new building represents a long awaited opportunity to redress structural issues that have been holding Columbia Business School back from the top three. This is where we belong and where the world's top business city demands us to be. This opportunity will probably not be available again to our school until at least well into the 21st Century. From what I have seen of this new building's plans, vision, and its compromises we risk blowing the chance to break into the top of the top. I fear that the millions to be spent on this building will be spent on the wrong priorities, taking our school in the wrong direction.

The Bottom Line editorialized last week that Columbia Business School's ranking suffers for student dissatisfaction. The currency of our degrees depends on a sense of community here at CBS, the flip side of the vaunted New York Advantage. More than anything else at this point, the reputation of our school is based on the quality and satisfaction of the MBA program's students. This is a testament to the hard work of faculty and administrators in this decade, as personified in Dean Feldberg's tireless work. When his administration began, there was a great deal more to be done to raise our school in the rankings. For example, academic quality, student selectivity, and alumni support have all gone way up. Student dissatisfaction with the building remains our Achilles Heel. This should continue to have a drag on future donations for decades.

This situation is largely caused by a barely adequate building that lacks community space. All space at this university is tightly contested, so planning for more space must be done judiciously and strategically. Hallways and bathrooms are packed between classes. The library is nearly as cold as the outdoors. People study with jackets and scarves on, and we endure colds for weeks. Clubs do not have adequate offices and this affects student life. Our cafeteria is packed during lunch time. Undergraduates, whose student center has been torn down, are joining the overflowing MBAs in the Deli. This is life for MBAs at CBS.

The community that exists at CBS is a community of sardines. Members of the Columbia Whine Society, of which I am a member, sing a chorus of complaint about the library, lack of study space, and the exodus for a place to have a meal with another person. The new building's plans do not address any of these obstacles to quality of life. It will merely split our sardine-like community asunder, so that we have even less in common.

The most comprehensive solution would be to renovate and expand Uris Hall. We seem to be under-capitalized for this solution. Perhaps we should forgo a new building until we can do the job right. Instead, classroom and group meeting spaces will be split between this building and the new one across Amsterdam Avenue, four blocks down. We will no longer be a school of over packed sardines. Instead, Columbia MBA students will experience not one but a second set exoduses. With the new building out yonder, I envision study groups trying to unite, trudging back in forth across campus and snow, vainly searching for missing or confused group members. The cafeteria in Uris will remain seatless, continuing our never ending search for a flat surface and a chair to dine with.

Instead of addressing our need for increased community, the new off-site building will perpetuate, encourage and be a symbol of the emptiness that MBAs are likely to feel after its construction. The new building will have a vast lobby and two-story atriums. In our space and community starved program, such architectural minimalism does not serve our needs. Form is not following function.

Those of us who participate in or lead campus activities would appreciate real offices for our clubs, so we can have files, institutional memories, and libraries of books and magazine subscriptions. Other top business schools have offices for clubs. Perhaps these schools value extracurricular activities as community and leadership builders. Let's do away with empty atriums and fill them with the community spirit that only club offices can provide. As the new building is envisioned club leaders will continue to struggle unnecessarily. Our big atriums with lots of empty space to heat will do little to warm the need for human contact. Surely, it strikes many of us as strange that Happy Hour is the only time that many of us are in one place, and most professors boycott it.

It does not have to be this way. The new building can serve our community and enhance it. More important than club offices, we need an attractive late night cafe in the lobby that is accessible to students in the building and from the street. This cafe must be run by a private off-campus firm that must competitively bid for the concession. Part of the bid consideration should consider quality of food, late hours, affordability/fair prices, customer responsiveness, and space for graduate students to socialize, work, or have smaller scale events.

Columbia University Dining Services acts like a monopoly with Uris Deli. The quality is not that great and prices seem to have a 10-20% premium over stores outside the campus gates. My proposed new building cafe would provide an atmosphere that students and professors can enjoy together in civility. It will relieve congestion in Uris Deli and provide Dining Services with some much needed competition. Present plans for the new building preclude a community eating space. It is a shame because breaking bread together in a pleasant environment is a time honored international tradition.

The new building's plans include a student lounge. I hope that if it is built without food amenities that is will be less dreary than that abandoned and forlorn lounge in SIPA, or the strange atmosphere that pervades our own Lehman Lounge.

Some of the rest of the two thousand square foot lobby can go street front stores, such as a dry cleaners, of which one is being displaced by the building, an international newsstand, and a Mailboxes etc. type establishment. The reason I am pushing for commercial spaces in this building is that the new building is removing or displacing necessary and useful community amenities, including a Post Office. As the building is being designed now, it will be extremely difficult to retrofit stores into the building without hugely expensive work. If these shortcomings are not rectified soon, they will likely be part of the new building permanently. A monument to shortsighted planning and not having quite enough money to do the job the right way. It will also leave a hole in the fabric of the neighborhood that is not likely to heal with all the institutions having expanded onto Amsterdam over the past few decades.

Stores make a building fit into a commercial avenue's context better. With the new building stores will largely be missing from that side of Amsterdam Avenue from 110th to 119th Streets. The new building's removal of commercial space from the neighborhood has got to have safety ramifications for both students and community residents, especially at night. Having a late night café will provide neighborhood security, street activity, ground level lighting, and a safe haven. All without having to hire security personnel. Something will have to be done to make that building safe. Last summer and autumn there were several cases of rapes reported to Columbia Security in that vicinity.

The Fall issue of Hermes states that "the new a fitting symbol of the School, embodying tradition...." All too true, unfortunately. The unpleasant reality of Columbia University student life is that it has been overly relying on its New York advantage for at least a hundred years. Unfortunately, this seems the tradition that the new building is celebrating: one of a University that is aloof to student and neighborhood needs, aloof to student comforts and need for community. This will continue to dog the currency of our degree and needlessly hold us back. The facade's only ornamentation is a secant with two creases in its corners. It looks like a frown. I propose turning this into an elongated triangle, an arrow pointing up. A more fitting symbol for an edifice housing the best Business and Law Schools in the Excelsior State. Besides ornamentation, we need the building to give students real reasons to smile.

Let's learn from our mistakes. One hundred years ago, Columbia University was preparing to move from its overcrowded campus on 49th and Madison Avenue to the present Morningside Heights campus. The Trustees faced decisions that would decide the feel and fate of this University for over a hundred years. The obvious choice, as chronicled in Columbia, Colossus on the Hudson, was to buy land to the Hudson River. The steps of Low Library would have had tremendous views of sunsets, the football stadium on the bottom where Riverside Park and the highway is today, the river, and New Jersey.

Instead, the campus faces south, embracing New York City. The Trustees waived on the more expensive option to encourage student life (as was done at the other Ivies) and let the football stadium be located off campus. Community amenities like a student center were to wait for fifty years. These decisions have held Columbia back from its top ranking to this day. Columbia College, the main undergraduate school here, is not even ranked top ten, largely because student life suffered for the decisions of academic and fiscal expedience. Its close competitors from that era are in the top ten and have been there for decades. Those schools' alumni reward their administrations with large donations because of the friendships they formed while in school. I posit that the Trustees' decisions in 1896 have even held back CBS' reputation through a reverse halo effect, even though CBS was not to be founded until decades later. This is because undergraduate school reputations drive their universities' reputations.

Similarly, Business School reputations these days are driven by the quality and quality of life of their core MBA programs, not their Executive MBA or Ph.D. programs, for example. The MBAs programs, including student life, are the heart of the Business Week and US News rankings. If space is too constrained to do the job right in the new building, perhaps the EMBA program can move to Columbia's beautiful new building on Lexington and 51st Street or rent similar space somewhere more centrally located. The EMBA program may be an even richer source of revenue for CBS and Columbia than the MBAs, but they don't drive our reputation as much, and I doubt that they donate as much down the road. It seems to me that once again the EMBAs are getting the fruit while students suck on rinds. Our tuition and living expenses are probably the highest for any business school; we should not feel like second class citizens in our own building/s. Their dominance in the new building is probably a reason that this building falls so far short of what we need it to accomplish for the CBS MBA community to make it to the next level.

I do not have all the answers to the questions that face our community with this new building. I think that the current planning process is leaving out too many perspectives and risks locking our school into some negatively constraining structures. We need to include diverse student leaders, faculty, all levels of Business School employees, Law School representatives, an expert from the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and neighborhood representatives into the new building's planning process. Let us not lose this opportunity to use the new building to vault our MBA program ranking to the highest level while improving the surrounding community.

The writer of this article is a student leader and a former community organizer. As an undergraduate, he served as an advisor to the designers of Columbia College's well-received Schapiro Dormitory. He also worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of Twentieth Century Architecture and Design.

Throughout last semester he unsuccessfully attempted to bring these ideas up to the GBA, the Dean, and the Dean's point man for the new building. If this article does not open up a broader constructive dialogue, the author would be happy to participate in an independent committee to better our school and community through the new building's design.

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