Columbia’s radical history fondly revisited

By Alexandra Kukulka

“F–k it, I’m going to be a writer.” That’s what Shawn Shiflett, associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department, recalls telling himself while eating a Big Mac, two large fries and a soda at a McDonalds in the early 1970s after losing the chance to follow his other passion, baseball.

Shiflett, who shared this memory on Feb. 28 with Columbia students, alumni and faculty, described himself as an average student who wanted to play professional baseball. He tried Columbia for a semester after graduating from high school because his mother, Betty Shiflett, taught in the Fiction Writing Department, meaning he would have lower tuition. (She is still at Columbia today.)

After his first semester, Shiflett went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to try out as a walk-on for the baseball team.

“I had to get that out of my system,” he said.

When he didn’t make the team, Shiflett returned to Columbia to pursue writing.

These were the types of stories 19 faculty members told during the Celebrating Columbia’s Radical History event at the Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. Louis Silverstein, professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, arranged the event to celebrate Columbia’s past through the eyes of those speaking.

“I’ve brought together a representative collection of people who have been here over a number of years to talk about what Columbia was when they came here, why they joined the Columbia family, why they have continued to stay here and what we can learn from their experiences in terms of present-day Columbia,” Silverstein said.

Silverstein came to Columbia as a teacher in 1969. He said he remembers a time when Columbia’s main location in the Loop was an industrial building of which the college owned three floors. All departments were located in this building except for Dance and Music.

The panel of speakers told similar stories of fond memories of the college. They agreed that they came to Columbia because of the radical ideas it embodied, such as its open admissions policy.

Most of the speakers also shared stories of choosing Columbia because other universities didn’t offer their curriculum in a creative way.

Chap Freeman, professor in the Film and Video Department, arrived at Columbia after attending Columbia University in New York and the University of Iowa as a creative writing student. He said he learned that his short stories were no good during his time in Iowa City and therefore took took up film.

He moved to Chicago to search for a job and worked at various studios making commercials before applying to Columbia.

“There was still a problem,” Freeman told the audience. “No one in the Chicago film industry talked about movies as art forms. I was pining desperately for a place to talk about movies as art.”

A few weeks later, he met Bob Evans, chair of the Film and Video Department at the time, who gave him a job. Freeman said his favorite part of Columbia is that he college speaks of film as an art form.

The overall theme of the night was about pride in Columbia’s radical history. Everyone agreed that when moving forward, it is important to never forget the college’s history.

“The college has always been about change,” said Eric May, associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department. “That is why Columbia is one of the great success stories of American education, and we can’t lose that.”

The event ended with a Q&A session between the panel and the audience. Three Columbia students and two alumni asked questions and thanked the speakers for sharing their stories.

Maddie Hite, sophomore double major in the Fiction Writing and Arts, Entertainment and Media Management departments, expressed gratitude for the stories the faculty told and said Columbia means just as much to her because it has saved her life.

As a student who is struggling financially—so much so that she may not return next year because of the tuition increase—Hite thanked the panel for raising her spirits about Columbia again and reminding her why she came here in the first place.

“I think it is really important to hear this story and really understand that it’s about us,” Hite said. “Just hearing who has really built Columbia and knowing I can be a part of that still boosts energy and faith in it all.”