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Columbia’s Identity Crisis

A fixture in the South Loop for more than a century, the college has produced movie stars, moguls, musicians, and artists of every stripe. Can it stay relevant in the face of plunging enrollment?

Above: Columbia College’s Media Production Center, on South State Street
Photo: Martha Williams

Columbia College may be Chicago’s most overlooked big deal. Over the course of its nearly 130-year history, this open-door school for the creative arts in the South Loop has turned out more than 100,000 alumni, many of whom have gone on to great things. Former Columbia students have garnered, by the school’s own count, six Oscars, two Grammys, 20 Emmys, two Tonys, and two Pulitzers. Many more have found rewarding careers in art, film, music, theater, television, radio, photojournalism, and, more recently, digital gaming and design. The current president of HBO Films went to Columbia, as did SNL cast member Aidy Bryant and rapper Common, to name just a few. When you count the more than 1,000 teachers who currently make up the part-time faculty, to say nothing of the paying audiences who have patronized the Chicago arts institutions that alumni have founded or energized, Columbia’s imprint on the city’s creative and economic life grows geometrically.

Then, too, there is Columbia’s physical footprint. Today the college owns 17 buildings in the South Loop: turn-of-the-century office towers, industrial lofts, former theaters, and more. Many of these properties were bought when the South Loop was shabby. Now, thanks in no small part to the school’s outsize presence, the neighborhood bustles with students and young professionals and is pushing skyward with new condo towers. Columbia College Chicago is the South Loop’s biggest property owner.

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All this represents a remarkable state of affairs for a place that started out as an oratory institute in 1890, turned itself into a small trade school for radio broadcasters, and then, in the 1960s, under the stewardship of pioneering president Mike Alexandroff, morphed into an idiosyncratic arts college with a reputation for welcoming low-income students, counterculture provocateurs, and all manner of self-styled misfits who had rejected, or been rejected by, mainstream schools. By 1992, when Alexandroff retired, Columbia had 7,000 students and was one of the great success stories in American higher education—a school that had evolved in tandem with the city as it shed its provincial industrial past and grew into a global hub for the service and creative industries.

Now Columbia has hit another, much sharper turning point—one that’s viewed by trustees as a long-overdue moment of reinvention and by some teachers and students as an existential threat. After peaking at 12,500 students in 2008, enrollment has been crashing. It now stands at slightly more than 8,000, having dropped by a staggering 2,000 in the past three years alone. Operating costs remain high, and competition from other arts schools is stiff. The flood of easy student loans and the pool of middle-class parents willing to give their children an arts education have both dried up in the wake of the Great Recession. Faced with tens of millions in lost tuition dollars, the administration has cut budgets, trimmed personnel, pared back academic programs, enlarged class sizes, and, in a risky gambit intended to attract new students, promised new facilities that will cost tens of millions more. Those moves have angered unionized faculty and staff. Tensions boiled over in 2012 when, at a State of the College address, then-president Warrick Carter told a protesting student to “shut up.” Within a year, Carter was gone.

Prospective students, and the cautious parents who support them, are increasingly wary of Columbia. The question trustees are grappling with is whether the damage can be contained, if not reversed. They’ve hired a new president and adopted a strategic plan that calls for making the school more selective (Columbia long had an open-admissions policy for applicants with high school diplomas) and for improving graduation rates, career prospects, and other crucial performance measures by which colleges soar or sink in national rankings.

The impending changes haven’t quelled unrest at the school; in 2015 some part-time faculty and students occupied the new president’s offices and had to be escorted out by campus security. And many faculty members question whether the turnaround, if it happens, will cost the college the quirky identity that has been its calling card for half a century.

 
Costumed performers at Manifest, the college’s annual arts festival, in 2015.  Photo: Alexis Ellers/Courtesy of Columbia College
Students attend a graduation celebration in 2015.

Columbia has always stressed creativity and hands-on instruction over academics. The school’s image as a last-chance option for students who do not find places at more prestigious institutions has generally been considered a point of pride by its leaders, an asset to be leveraged. For many years, Columbia’s academic year started later than most, which allowed students to enroll after being rejected elsewhere or fleeing from other campuses. Today, 35 percent of Columbia students come from the bottom half of their high school classes, and only 43 percent of students graduate within six years. For decades, that figure was closer to 25 percent.

Until Columbia’s recent troubles, those low graduation rates had never slowed the school’s growth. Columbia served students who wanted a real-world career in a creative industry but who could not, or would not, go to more exclusive arts schools and conservatories. With open admissions and a lower tuition than at most private colleges—it was roughly $6,000 in the early 1990s and hovers around $25,000 today, considerably less than the cost of DePaul University, a competitor—low- and middle-income students could afford to enroll. Many still can, often with the help of scholarships. Today around 40 percent of Columbia students are low-income Pell grant recipients.

In decades past, when student loans were more easily available and the job market for graduates was more robust, spending a year or two in an arts college felt for many students like a low-risk proposition. If it didn’t work out, they moved on.

Columbia’s chief selling point has long been its industry-savvy teachers, whose connections could provide entrée into the job market. Well before other schools learned to rely on adjunct faculty, Columbia sold its part-time instructors as a strength. Students in broadcasting learned from the pros at WGN, writers learned from published novelists, and future advertising execs learned from the creatives at Leo Burnett. Photographers studied with the heirs to the Bauhaus artists who’d settled in Chicago. Aspiring jazz musicians studied with working artists, such as local legend Bill Russo. Actors worked with Second City veterans. It wasn’t uncommon for students to drop out because they were already gigging regularly before they reached graduation. When CNN invented cable news, the fledgling network snapped up students from Columbia’s TV department.

“I went to Columbia College after watching the movie Scarecrow,” says Len Amato, the president of HBO Films. The 1973 Gene Hackman and Al Pacino vehicle made Amato want to write, direct, and act, so he enrolled. “The school wasn’t accredited yet and there was no campus, but it had this progressive edge. The film department was on two floors of a loft building on Lake Shore Drive. I got there and they stuck a Bolex [movie camera] in my hand, put me in front of a Moviola [editing machine], and I was off making movies.” Amato says the pros who taught there were role models because they were filmmakers first and teachers second. “They shared what they thought was realistic and told us that we could do it.”

 

Amato attended the school during President Mike Alexandroff’s heyday. Alexandroff had taken over from his father, Norman, in 1961. According to family lore, the younger Alexandroff had proposed merging with Roosevelt University, his alma mater, but was told by its president, Edward J. Sparling, that Alexandroff’s concept for arts and communication education had no place at a reputable institution of higher learning like Roosevelt. That, the story goes, made Alexandroff all the more determined to make Columbia a refuge for students unwanted elsewhere. Partly on this principle, but perhaps more so out of financial necessity, Alexandroff accepted all comers. He kept tuition cheap and, he once told an interviewer, learned to “attach a social view and a social philosophy to the idea of open admissions.” This ethic, in turn, attracted the politically and artistically progressive faculty that Amato and his classmates studied with in the 1970s.

Alexandroff ran a lean shop. Even as the school grew, it kept only a small core of administrators. Then, as now, tuition paid for nearly everything. (Virtually all of Columbia’s present endowment, around $143 million, is the product of retained earnings.) Enrollment continued to climb after Alexandroff retired in 1992. College loan money was plentiful, and the school benefited from the demographic surge created by the children of baby boomers.

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Columbia, which had been almost exclusively a commuter school, got a further boost in 2000 when Mayor Richard M. Daley urged the leaders of Columbia, DePaul, and Roosevelt to build a shared 18-story megadorm at the corner of Congress Parkway and State Street. Daley, who owned a townhouse in the South Loop, believed the project could spur economic development in the area. The City of Chicago sold the land to the schools for a dollar.

“Columbia’s share gave us 40 percent of the 1,700 beds,” recounts Warrick Carter, who was president at the time, “but because there was a pent-up demand from out-of-town students who wanted to come to Columbia, we ended up taking 60 percent of the beds.” Applicants from outside Chicago poured in. In 2004, an apartment tower at State and Eighth Streets was converted into a dorm, too. Columbia went from 500 residential students to more than 1,800. With more students, Columbia needed more classrooms, theaters, and studios. Under Carter, its portfolio of property in the South Loop grew to more than one million square feet.

As the school grew, its role in the creative ecosystem of the city expanded, too, creating a deep mutual dependence that has endured to the present. Columbia students fill the crews of Chicago’s burgeoning television production industry, working on shows such as Empire, The Exorcist, and the four Dick Wolf series. And in the newer fields of computer gaming and digital design, Columbia has become a go-to source for fresh talent. “Between our companies we’ve hired about 20 people from Columbia over the past five years,” says Allard Laban, chief creative officer at two of Chicago’s top digital firms, the communications software creator Jellyvision and the video game developer Jackbox Games.

Columbia staff and faculty protest austerity measures in 2013.
Columbia staff and faculty protest austerity measures in 2013.  Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

“Columbia is a human capital generator—it creates a particular kind of innovativeness, intelligence, and skill that is useful in creative industries,” says Lawrence Rothfield, cofounder of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. In addition to training performing artists, Columbia offers programs in audio engineering and arts management that produce students with the skills to fill essential behind-the-scenes roles in the city’s music industry. Rothfield goes on to cite Columbia’s wider role as a common connector across all the arts and its role in keeping a critical mass of professionals and students glued to the city. “The networks that keep people together in the arts,” says Rothfield, “also keep them from having to move away. Without that you could destroy a very fragile cultural economy.”

Columbia also appeals to artists and creative types in less tangible ways. Many students I spoke to during repeated visits to the campus praised the college’s diversity—economic, ethnic, racial, geographic—and the sense of camaraderie they felt. “I had no friends at Columbia before I got there,” says South Sider Lena Waithe, a 2006 grad and now a successful producer and actress—she worked as a producer of the hit indie film Dear White People and has a recurring role in the Netflix series Master of None. “When I got to Columbia, though, it was the place for me, full of TV nerds just like me. It all boiled down to the teachers and staff and a student body I loved, a different breed of people that was so passionate about the arts.”

 

So why is Columbia, a school with such a huge impact, losing so many students so quickly? Certainly, part of the problem owes to events out of the college’s control. After the financial crisis of 2008, Columbia’s endowment suffered $30 million in investment losses. The overall decline in home values during the recession left families with less equity to borrow against, closing off a significant source of funding to pay tuition.

At the same time, the college loan market contracted and the job market soured. Soon horror stories of the 42 million students in the U.S. saddled by debt became front-page news. One Columbia student, Maxwell Esposito, accumulated about $100,000 in debt while studying fashion photography from 2009 to 2014. Today Esposito says he has no money to pay anything back. “Did it need to cost $100,000?” he asks. Esposito’s is an extreme case—most students leave Columbia with debts closer to $25,000—but stories like his are commonplace enough to have a chilling effect.

In a widely circulated YouTube video, then-president Warrick Carter tells a student to “shut up” during a State of the College Address in 2012.

College rankings aren’t helping, either. Indeed, the numbers seem to affirm the misgivings of financially overextended students like Esposito. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website, which shows how much money students earn in their first years out of school, reveals that about half of Columbia alums earn less money six years after enrolling than an average high school graduate. In 2014, Washington Monthly ranked Columbia the 11th-worst college in the United States in terms of postgraduate income compared with tuition and student loan debts. According to PayScale, an aggregator and analyzer of salary data, Columbia ranks 1,144th among 1,343 schools for students’ return on investment. (DePaul came in at No. 340, Loyola at No. 650.) And while arts-centered schools can suffer in such comparisons—graduates often take low-paying or nonpaying jobs while they network their way into their fields—the credence parents place in such rankings has made it harder for Columbia to escape the occasional accusation of being financially unethical.

All these pressures pushed enrollment downward, and the college’s response made things worse. By 2010, Columbia was hemorrhaging millions in tuition revenue, and Carter suddenly found himself running a school where resources were shrinking but costs were not. Among the burdens were all the properties that Columbia had acquired while enrollment was booming. Carter began an austerity program that would go on to alienate students, staff, and faculty. Tensions were so high that he enlisted campus security to escort him to some meetings. After the “shut up” incident circulated widely on YouTube (above), Carter left, a year before his contract expired.

 
Columbia College's Kwang-Wu Kim
Columbia College president Kwang-Wu Kim, a classically trained pianist and a Yale graduate, intends to make the school more selective and more focused on students’ long-term career prospects.  Photo: Clayton Hauck

Columbia’s trustees have put the school’s turnaround in the hands of Carter’s successor, Kwang-Wu Kim, a classically trained concert pianist with an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Yale and a doctorate in music performance from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He was recruited from Arizona State University, where he was the dean of the arts school.

I spoke at length to Kim, a reserved 58-year-old with a bookish demeanor, in his spacious, newly remodeled office on the fifth floor of 600 South Michigan Avenue. A small piano stands near his desk.

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His Ivy League background and conservatory training notwithstanding, Kim told me that he sees himself as a good fit at Columbia. “The world of higher ed does not regard me as a traditional scholar and looks at me askance,” he said, adding that he relates to the “misfit that is drawn into creative practice”—in other words, the prototypical Columbia student. Kim said he was that student in high school and remains that person today. “I sometimes, in a loving way, will call our community ‘the revenge of the fringe.’ Students here go from the edge to being on the [cutting] edge.”

Kim’s academic bona fides and state-school professional experience attracted the trustees to him as much as his outsider status. They believe he can bring to Columbia the mainstream practices, pedagogic standards, and academic outcomes that they see as crucial to the school’s turnaround.

Among the undertakings outlined in Kim’s 40-page strategic plan, introduced in May 2015, is the adoption of more robust recruiting and fundraising programs. This would entail, among other things, building a stronger network of alumni and donors, as well as creating new marquee campus amenities. Kim has proposed building a giant student center and updating old performance spaces with technologically advanced stage gear. Perhaps most important, Kim wants to deepen the emphasis of Columbia’s curricula on pragmatic workplace skills that are applicable both in and out of the arts.

Kim also has had to address more nuanced issues since taking the job. “Everything was done ‘the Columbia way,’ ” he told me. “It wasn’t clear that we were a school with a goal of graduating students. Columbia often sounded more like a cultural institution … than like a school.”

Kim studied the college’s past growth and scratched his head, eventually coming to the conclusion that the peak enrollment years need to be seen as a bubble. “There are two kinds of rapid growth,” he said. “Planned and unplanned. Unplanned is exciting until the growth stops.” Adding new programs, he argued, was considered by past administrators to be an opportunity to add more students. Quantity before quality. “The idea was ‘bigger is better.’ ” In Kim’s view, the opposite can be true. It is possible, he thinks, for Columbia to be better off, both academically and financially, with fewer students, as long as they’re more likely to graduate and less likely to default on their loans.

 

Kim’s plans have encountered bumps. When he entered the executive offices for the first time, in 2013, he was struck by the locks and heavy doors—presumably a response to the sit-ins and unrest that had preceded his appointment. Kim remodeled the offices in a more open style, but for some on campus, renovating executive offices at a time of retrenchments hit the wrong chord. It was seen as a symbol of an administration out of touch with the historic spirit of Columbia and the pain that cuts were inflicting. “The building at 600 South Michigan is beautiful now, with offices for VPs and other positions that never existed,” says Diana Vallera, head of the part-time faculty union, whose members have seen their schedules reduced, class sizes expanded, and positions eliminated. “With so many faculty being forced out, this is the opposite of the mission of Columbia.”

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A May 2015 sit-in resulted in police being called. And labor conflicts have been simmering: Until a tentative agreement was reached in November, Columbia’s unionized operational staff—the people who keep the campus clean, plugged in, and organized—had been working without a contract for nearly two years.

What’s more, recent efforts to revamp curricula and programs have left some faculty and students confused and angry. Just before classes began in September, an email went out announcing the immediate end of the program for a bachelor of fine arts in fashion, despite the fact that many students had already done coursework for the degree. The program was ultimately retained, but faith had been shaken.

Equally fraught are the efforts to upgrade the campus in the midst of all the budget cuts. Much of the $50 million cost of the new 105,000-square-foot student center—which will cover 10 percent of the total surface area of the campus—is to be offset by the sale of the University Center, the dorm whose construction Daley orchestrated, to a private developer. At the same time, ongoing upgrades and routine maintenance for the rest of the school’s buildings cost more than $10 million a year, and efforts to rein in those expenditures may hinge on longer-term plans to consolidate the college’s South Loop real estate with the aim of creating a more cohesive campus. That will mean shedding some buildings—including the University Center and a still-empty office tower purchased while Carter was president—and acquiring others, heralding more turmoil in the short term for students, staff, and faculty.

Kim’s biggest bet may be on stabilizing enrollment. The strategic plan aims to stop the bleeding in the near term and projects increases by 2020. Kim believes, first and foremost, that attracting students begins with narrowing rather than widening admissions standards. Open admissions may have once been a lure, but in Kim’s estimation the market has changed, and parents increasingly want their kids surrounded by serious students who are focused on graduating. For now, selectivity remains a relative term—about 88 percent of applicants still get in—but the average ACT scores of incoming students are rising.

A TV broadcasting course in the 1940s  Photo: Courtesy of Columbia College

The plan is less clear on concrete changes to classroom instruction, curricula, and improving academic standards, though the feeling among members of Kim’s team is that the school can no longer make up its teaching track and coursework as it goes along. Kim’s plan stresses that a Columbia education must give arts students the training not only to get paying work after college but also to strike out independently and run their careers as private enterprises. That means courses in business and entrepreneurship, among other subjects, and a more streamlined teaching approach that falls in line with that of bigger universities. “There are a lot of smart people in higher education,” says Deborah Maue, a former higher-education consultant hired by Columbia in April 2015 as its vice president for strategic marketing and communications, “and they’ve developed a lot of best practices. Why shouldn’t we use them?”

Columbia will likely soon be marketed much like other schools are—with a focus as much on long-term outcomes as on campus experience. For some, that bodes ill for Columbia’s future. Says Vallera: “It’s selling to parents who want a degree to lead to jobs. Parents are buying into that, but it means that Columbia has a declining commitment to student learning that gives all the tools for critical thinking and works with students one-on-one to build their creative skills. This is a really unique school for Chicago, but it’s losing its heart and soul.”

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It may also risk losing some of its vaunted diversity. Columbia can try to lure high-performing minority students with scholarships, but in a tuition–supported school, scholarships have to be underwritten by affluent students who pay more for tuition. While Kim’s plan calls for attracting more foreign students, who tend to pay full fare, the changes he’s suggesting may mean raising the so-called rack-rate tuition most parents have to pay. Parents who pay more want more in return. If they feel they can’t get what they want at Columbia, they’ll take their tuition money elsewhere.

For now, Kim’s efforts are yielding modest results. In addition to the improved test scores of incoming students, the year-over-year student retention rate at Columbia has gone up marginally since Kim’s appointment. And though enrollment continues to decline, the school’s trustees have offered a show of faith. They’ve extended Kim’s term for another three years.

Meantime, the big question remains: Can a school like Columbia College go mainstream and still serve a student body that’s defiantly not?

 
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