Blue Notes, December 2017

On the roof of the Schermerhorn Annex is a greenhouse with the potential to provide riveting education to Columbia students, as well as facilitate groundbreaking research projects. Instead, it has been largely unused for the 21 years it has existed.

schgreenhouse
Illustration by Kristine Dunn

Why has such a promising facility been all but abandoned? Shahid Naeem, the Chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, explains that, at the time of its creation in 1996, the university lacked funds to provide it with infrastructure like “cooling, heating, humidity, lights, or anything else”, believing that “funding would come later.” But funding never came.

While other science departments at Columbia possess their own equipment and facilities for research, Naeem detailed how the lack of a functional greenhouse denied his department the ability to conduct any meaningful research of its own. “Everything from climate change and biogeochemistry to plant pathogens and sustainable agriculture and biodiversity has been proposed for research,” he explained. But all research proposals inevitably stall due to the lack of funding. Some faculty and students have worked within the extreme limitations of the greenhouse to conduct some research, but nothing significant has been possible in its current state.

Naeem described the situation as a catch-22 — research isn’t being conducted because the facility lacks the capability to conduct research, “so it appears to be unused. Because it is unused, there is a sense that there is no need for it. Nothing could be further from the truth…Make it usable, and it will be oversubscribed for research overnight.”

While Naeem admits that it would take a lot — around 10 million dollars — for the greenhouse to be transformed into a top research facility, he estimates only 20% of those funds would be needed to make it functional.

But it seems to me that making this facility functional is well worth its cost. Naeem describes the existing facility as “a dark shell,” but explains that once it is in use, its enormous structure will illuminated and visible from far away, making it “a beacon of Columbia.” And I can’t think what beacon would be better than one that would promote an institution’s commitment to scientific discovery and environmental protection.

— Pavi Chance

Perhaps you know that Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General under Lincoln at the end of the Civil War and two-time U.S. President, is buried just ten blocks north of College Walk at 125th street in Riverside Park. Julia Grant, his wife and First Lady, is buried next to him. But perhaps you don’t know that the monument, commonly known as “Grant’s Tomb,” composed of 8,000 tons of white marble and granite and lofty 150-foot ceilings, is the largest mausoleum in North America. Why is this enormous structure memorializing the Ohio general and politician in the upper reaches of Riverside Park?

At the time of Grant’s death (aged 63 from throat cancer) in 1885, the issue of his body’s permanent placement was controversial. On the one hand, there were vocal opinions that the tomb should be in Washington D.C., yet, just hours after Grant’s death, William Grace, the then Mayor of New York City, offered Julia Grant his city as a burial ground. Julia declared that her late husband preferred New York City to Washington and so the issue was settled. However, other contentious issues remained. A fierce debate arose over whether the $1 million tomb should be placed in Central or Riverside Park while allegations in the press arose that the wealthy members of the Grant Monument Association (GMA) were not donating from their own fortunes to fund the project. In the midst of these debates were Julia Grant’s wishes. Mrs. Grant again asserted that her late husband preferred NYC, that it was near to her long-term residence, and that, rejecting the entire argument, the exact location should not matter since patriotic Americans would travel anywhere to visit the hero Grant’s resting place. Ulysses S. Grant’s only wish was simply to be next to his wife.

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Illustration by Kellie Zhao

Julia’s desires prevailed and the GMA decided upon Riverside Park. Construction began in 1891 under the design of John H. Duncan, whose building design, heavily influenced by the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, had won the architectural competition. Finally, the monument was officially dedicated on the 75th anniversary of Grant’s birth on April 27, 1897.

— Alice McCrum

How did you use your fall break? Did you “exploit the recess as an excuse for a quick holiday in the Catskills or a pre-midterm study period in the libraries?” Those were the fears of Martin Flumenbaum, The Columbia Spectator’s editor-in-chief in 1970, who worried that his classmates would view Columbia’s fall recess as a vacation rather than as an opportunity for political participation.

Although it is widely unknown today, Columbia’s University Senate created fall break in 1970 so that Columbia students and faculty would be able to campaign, canvass, and vote every Election Day. As Sidney Morgenbesser, a Columbia philosophy professor, stated in 1970: “The recess is a rational way to allow students and faculty to become involved in the political system of our country.”

Originally, Columbia’s University Senate passed a resolution for a 10-day election break. The University Trustees rejected the Senate’s resolution, fearing that the long recess would disrupt the University’s academic calendar. The Senate then proposed a compromise: a two-day election break. The Trustees accepted this resolution, which has remained in effect ever since.

While Flumenbaum’s fears about fall break may be largely realized today—as students likely view fall break as a vacation that just happens to coincide with Election Day—one group on campus continues to fulfill the University Senate’s original intention. Every year, Columbia University Democrats (CU Dems) organizes a campaign trip during fall break. This year, CU Dems sent 73 students to Monmouth County, New Jersey to campaign for Vin Gopal for State Senate, Phil Murphy for Governor, and Sheila Oliver for Lieutenant Governor. In a close election, the democratic candidates beat their republican opponents.

— Miya Lee

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