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Research: Columbia University Marketing History

Walk with me through the making of Columbia University Marketing Effort: Through 1912 Official Guide, which will take you back more than hundred years to investigate how Columbia University becomes a brand people revere.

Title: Columbia University Marketing Effort: Through 1912 Official Guide

Research method: Interviews, primary source analysis, literature review

Presentation: 1 slide and 1 academic paper

Time in Development: 1.5 months

Developed for: MSTU 4016: History of Communication

Collaborators: Ioana Literat (project supervisor)


This research is not only the most memorable academic project in my life so far, but it is also the first academic investigation I have ever touched on. I knew nothing about conducting an academic research when I started working on this project but I knew that I was strongly curious about this topic and wanted to go far for this assignment.

The assignment is called Media Archaeology, which is a part of MSTU 4016: History of Communication by Professor Ioana Literat. It calls for older technology or practice of interests, and the research must be investigated through one primary source. The goal of this assignment is to enrich students' understanding of contemporary issues.

Since my background is in Marketing and now that I am moving into Education field, my interest lies somewhere in these two topics' intersection. And, quite obviously, the allure of prestige and an opportunity to become a part of something bigger than myself had been the main cause that led me into this graduate degree. So, I figured that this topic would be perfect for me.

An Official Guide to Columbia University: 1912 edition

After I decided that I want to know how Columbia University becomes a brand people look up to globally, I had to find a marketing material dated as far back as possible. And Columbia University Archives had my back. I went through all the brochures, booklets, and guides listed on the archive with these criteria:

First, it must be a marketing or public relations material, meaning that it must try to convey some message about Columbia University to public (as oppose to other kinds of stakeholders such as donors, alumni, or faculty members). Second, it must be a material presenting the whole university (as oppose to specific school o college such as Columbia College, or Teachers College). Lastly, it must be the oldest material I can find that still fits the aforementioned criteria.

These criteria landed me a 200-page booklet called An Official Guide to Columbia University printed in 1912 under Nicholas Murray Butler’s presidency.


Who Goes to Universities, Anyway?

Let me tell you that my first look into the booklet made no sense to me. Vast majority of the booklet just went on and describe physical spaces of each building. I did not understand why would someone print a book describing something so trivial like..

The walls are of warm-toned salmon-colored brick, and the vaulting, including the noble dome, which rises to a height of ninety-one feet, internally, with a diameter of forty-eight feet, is executed in Guastavino tiling of a pink tone which harmonize admirably with the wall. (pg.36, St. Paul's Chapel)

Also, who makes 200-page booklets? Nowadays people barely even read a one-sentence caption of an Instagram post.

But this booklet is not for 2010's crowd. It actually aims at 1910's crowd. The crowd that must also be interested in universities or interested in going to universities too. Then, some questions arose. Who go to universities in the 1910's? and What make a university a top university in the 1910's?

Once again, Columbia University had my back. This time, I was referred to Professor Robert McCaughey, an American History Professor at Barnard College. Professor McCaughey was so helpful and full of wisdom. In one interview, he answered all my questions and much more.

In the 1910’s, university degrees were not a necessity or requirement for adults to enter job markets, rather, it was a special addition to make the degree holders more remarkable than the rest. According to Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 Series H 751-765 by U.S. Department of Commerce (1975), only 2.6% of twenty-three-year-old persons held a bachelor degree in 1920 (p. 386). Moreover, these degree holders were also not just any adults, but primarily male adults from wealthy families.

It was safe to say that universities in the 1910’s had a specific clientele. Therefore, universities did not put much effort into communicating with broader public, or even prospective students. In fact, the number of undergraduate-level applicants is not too vast. Columbia University would not start rejecting applicants until 1919. Columbia University’s president during that time, Nicholas Murray Butler, expressed his concern on undergraduate class size in news article in Columbia Spectator (1917, p.2), which the headline reads “Too Many Students Coming To Columbia”.

However, Butler thought differently. He was concerned about his university’s image in public’s eyes, mostly due to fundraising-related agenda. Normally, universities raised fund from alumni. On the other hand, Columbia University’s alumni were not the main funders of their alma mater since they did not feel much campus spirit in their years of being Columbia students, which is a common phenomenon among students of universities in urban area. As a result, Columbia University got majority of its funding from affluent families in New York City such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers.

With a goal of establishing Columbia University into public’s eyes, Butler organized an editorial committee to write this “Official Guide to Columbia University” to give information about the university to new comers and passersby. It was mostly aimed to help making a walking tour around the university more enriching for both new students and general public who made a visit. The guide was a 200-page booklet, consisting mainly of detailed description of each building in the university and history of the university, complete with statistics and directory of faculties, students, and fraternities that the university housed at the time.


The Messages

After getting a good sense of what the world of higher education looks like in the 1910's, I started to analyze the content of the booklet and came up with 4 recurring themes that keep coming up in the book.

The Legacy Of Great Men: The guide mentioned great men who graduated from, or worked for Columbia University consistently such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, the first president of the university, and Alexander Hamilton (who has a whole page dedicated to a picture of his statue).

International University: It was well known at the time that Butler saw himself as a social and international man. Considering his personality, it was not a surprise to find a number of evidence on the guide that Columbia University presented itself as an international university. According to Professor McCaughey, Harvard University, another major university of that time, saw itself as a national university and moved towards that direction, therefore it was more likely for Americans to know of Harvard University, than Columbia University. In Europe or Asia, however, people were more likely to recognize the name of Columbia than Harvard.

This international university position was also supported by the university’s physical location. New York City, in which Columbia University is located, has historically been a prominent port city. As a result, many of international students at Columbia University at the time were children of international merchants and diplomats. As demonstrated by the guide, international student organizations were already present in 1912, which suggested that the number of international students enrolled in Columbia University at the time was significant. There were five international student organization mentioned in the guide: Deutscher Verein, Le Société Française, Latin American Society, Chinese Club, and Ottoman Club.

Academically, Columbia University also stuffed its libraries with collections of books, texts, and researches from many countries around the world as presented in the guide. As well as partnerships and collaborations with academic institutions around the world. As evidenced on page 10 of the booklet “Relations with foreign universities have been brought about and Columbia now sends professors to Germany every year to lecture on American themes and receives from abroad professors from German, French, and other foreign institutions”.

Vast Resources: Here come the part that I did not understand when I first read the booklet and it seemed to be the chief point of this booklet. For most part of the booklet, though, was detailed description of what each building had to offer. In an interview with Professor McCaughey, he mentioned that having vast resources to offer for students can be one factor to take universities to the top tier as there were no ranking in early twentieth century.

The Absence Of New York City: There is none but one instance where New York City was mentioned in the guide and that one reference was “On October 31, 1754, Letter Patent were issued incorporating THE GOVERNORS OF THE COLLEGE OF THE PROVINCE OF NEW YORK, IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, IN AMERICA” (p. 1). Apparently, the remark was not meant to indicate, lot alone emphasize, the location of the university by any mean. Rather, it was only text on the patent that was issued to establish the university.

This avoidance could come from the public’s fear of cities, which was a hectic new phenomenon at the time. By mentioning New York City, this guide reminded readers a feature of the university that was deemed undesirable, and this fact could more likely hurt the image of the university than helping it.


And Today?

See any subtle change?

See any subtle change?

Apparently, Columbia University's prospects are not scared of big cities anymore. To understand this change, I interviewed Tom Sternal, President of Generation. Mr. Sternal had been working with Columbia on its branding since 1990's and, at that time, he was working for an agency called Jan Krukowski & Co. In the 1990's, Columbia University was not stressing about the fact that they locate in New York City. As a result, it attracted students who might not be a good fit for a big city. Because New York City has very strong characteristics, when students come to attend Columbia University, they simply cannot ignore the city around the campus. Students either love it or hate it and when students hate it, everyone loses. The university decided that they had to address this problem and that was when Jan Krukowski & Co. proposed that one solution was to make it as prominent as putting the city in the university's name. The university agreed with caution and Columbia University became Columbia University in the City of New York since.

If you are still curious for more, here's my paper and presentation.



Special Acknowledgements

Gary Shapiro, Staff Writer, Office of Communication and Public Affairs, Columbia University


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