With a Nod to the Past, Columbia Ponders the Millenium

By The Columbia Chronicle

Leon Tripplett

Focus Editor

If Columbia College President John Duff needs any confirmation that the school is growing, he has only to step outside of his fifth-floor executive suite and round the corner to see lines of registering students stretched up and down five flights of stairs, spilling outside onto Harrison Street.

Last week, that’s just what he did.

He pumped hands with some students and asked the majors of others, pausing occasionally for photo-ops. His tall frame leaned rather gently against the trove of students hoping to end the registration process and, as if convincing himself, said, “This is why we need to expand — this is why we must continue to build.”

The number of students flocking to Columbia this semester alone show that the facilities the college now occupies are hardly enough to meet the demands of a growing student body, now inching upwards to 10,000, a 5 percent increase from last year.

“We expected that there would be some kind of slowdown in growth…but it hasn’t happened. The years that we didn’t expect growth, we still grew.”

Since Duff has been president, the college has acquired seven facilities: The Residence Center at 731 S. Plymouth Ct.; The Audio Technology Center at 676 N. LaSalle St.; The Center for Book and Paper Arts at 218 S. Wabash; Columbia 2 at 540 S. Michigan Ave., used for continuing education students; 1415 S. Wabash, used by film and theater students; 1014 S. Michigan, used by the music department, and the 33 E. Congress Building, which houses a learning center, radio/sound facilities, and both the english, and educational studies departments.

“We buy almost everything that comes up,” Duff said nonchalantly in an interview with The Chronicle late last week. “We have enough space to last us until the year 2000, but that’s not a long way off.”

And, as the millennium fast approaches, so does a considerable problem that the college will have to grapple with: What to do with a ballooning student population.

The population factor dogging the college had its roots in the late 60s when the school actively sought out real estate throughout the city. The goal was to carry the gospels of arts and arts education directly to the community.

“It was a fine idea at the time. The problem was that the College was getting bigger and enrollment was growing. We were trying to manage things that were so disparate the time, when Provost Gall was a Columbia student, tuition was a mere $500, the main campus was a rented warehouse at 540 N. Lake Shore Drive, and student enrollment had risen since the 50s from a fledgling 200 to 700.

In the 60s the school’s presence was felt throughout the city, although its physical structures were not clearly defined. Wherever an ailing, inexpensive structure could be morphed into a campus, Columbia showed the money. A midtown hotel became the dance center, a north side loft became the poetry cradle, a rented church became the theater department.

As the college was flexing its muscles by gobbling up as much property as it could afford, it was also absorbing the curriculum that the anti-war demonstrations and Civil Rights Movement were teaching.

“We tended to be on the cutting edge of youth culture and the progressive issues that were coming out of the 60s and 70s,” said Gall, who played a role in many of the demonstrations. “They used to say that 68 percent of all the picket signs came out of some darkroom or art studio at Columbia College.”

It was Mike Alexandroff, who preceeded Duff as president of the school, and his “insightful vision” that hoisted the ubiquitous college into a major arts school and social force in the riotous city. His grand ideas for the college often outpaced the money he had in his purse.

The faculty Alexandroff corralled were often plucked from the grass roots. They were writers, poets, composers — artists who were actively involved in the community and had stellar resumes to boot.

One man who was making a lot of noise at many of the mass demonstrations heard the clarion call from President Alexandroff, and cast his lot with Columbia.

“Mike hired me to come and join the the college, but the college couldn’t pay for my transportation from England,” said Bill Russo, who Alexandroff credited for putting Columbia on the map. Russo made his own way to Columbia, and Gall remembers him teaching rock and anti-war operas that played to thousands of people.

“I wrote a rock n’ roll piece called “The Civil War” about racial justice and the parallels of the Vietnam War and the Civil War. We only had a small band and a small chorus,” said Russo.

It was in Lincoln Park, where Russo was sounding the alarm for solidarity during the first nights of the 1968 Democratic Convention, that the first tear gassing took place and flying police batons battered down on protestors. The park and the bedlam provided a stage for Russo and his performances, which became an immediate attraction to hundreds of eager students who wanted to be a part of Columbia’s growing family.

It was also the first hint that Columbia College would have to stable itself in one location.

By the late 1970s and early 80s, the college secured footing on the edge of downtown Chicago and began to make its home in the sleepy, rundown South Loop area. The college had considerable real estate and was in the market to buy more. By 1976, Columbia College had purchased the former Fairbanks Morse Building at 600 S. Michigan Avenue — its first permanent home.

The building was soon populated with eager students from all over the country, who aspired to be artists and broadcasters of some sort.

In just over two decades the college has gone from 175,000 to 1 million square feet, and student enrollment has mushroomed from 2,000 to close to 9,000, with revenues of nearly $70 million a year.

And the brakes have yet to be applied.

“We’re in a market where more and more people are considering what we’re teaching. We can’t go to our students and say ‘there’s only so many jobs in this field, don’t come, we’re not going to teach them to you,’” said Duff

At the rate student enrollment is speeding, even more property is going to be ne house hunt for more property, perhaps stretching Columbia’s presence through the entire South Loop area.

“I’m always looking to buy more property. We have to continue this pattern of developing the campus by trying to get appropriate buildings as close to the campus as possible,” said Gall. “We’re in this cycle of acquire it, clean it up, and fill it up.”