Mike Alexandroff, a Columbia radical

By Contributing Writer

by Norman Alexandroff

Director of Student Communications

Radicals create change. They see the world not as it is, but as it should be. By the sheer force of vision, will and personality, a radical can lead a revolution.

My father, Mike Alexandroff, was a radical who started a revolution in higher education and helped build a world in which the fields of art and communication are open to everyone willing to work hard to make their dreams a reality.

When Mike became president of Columbia in 1961, there were fewer than 250 students, no full-time faculty and the college was losing money hand over fist. His father, Norman, had restarted Columbia College in 1944 but left to start Columbia College Mexico City and then Columbia College Los Angeles.

Columbia’s prospects were so dim that Mike almost took a job at Syracuse University in 1963 that surely would have meant the end of Columbia. He decided against leaving Chicago, and in 1963 approached Roosevelt University to explore the possibility of Roosevelt absorbing Columbia’s arts and communications curriculums. He was quickly dismissed by Roosevelt’s president, who told him in no uncertain terms that the arts and communications have no place in higher education.

Walking outside Roosevelt, Mike had an epiphany for creating “a progressive educational vessel” that would offer a clear alternative to more traditional colleges. He happened to run into his friend and artist Harry Bouras, and together they went to Miller’s Pub to drink martinis and hammer out a new vision for Columbia.

Mike’s big idea was to offer college- aged people, including those of lower and middle incomes, minorities and those who lacked class rank and high SAT scores, a chance to study the arts and communications. He reasoned that these fields should not be the sole province of the privileged or open only to those who did well in high school.

Before Columbia, there were no colleges or universities focusing on the arts and communications fields that were grounded in the liberal arts. Only the most selective universities offered classes in fine, performing or visual arts.

The new vision for Columbia focused on the following:

1. Making admissions open and tuition affordable for students.

2. Working professionals who taught what they did as their life work.

3. Hands-on education, small class sizes and a “learn-by-doing” approach.

4. Immediate access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.

5.Making the city of Chicago the campus.

6. Teaching the liberal arts through the arts.

7. Education with a career outcome.

This new vision of higher education stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing educational practices of the time. The idea of working professionals, hands-on teaching and career consequences were unheard of in higher education. Colleges were bastions of pomp and circumstance and rigid liberal arts curriculums.

Not only did Columbia draw in a new breed of students, it also attracted a new kind of faculty and staff who introduced innovative new ways of teaching the arts, communications and liberal arts to nontraditional students.

This list of Columbia radicals include Al Parker (radio); Bill Russo (music); Thaine Lyman and Ed Morris (TV); Barry Burlison, Ernie Whitworth and John Mulvany (art); Jim Newberry (photography); Robert Edmonds and Tony Loeb (film); Lucille Strauss, Al Peters and Sheldon Patinkin (theatre); Joel Lipman (poetry); John Schultz (fiction writing); Shirley Mordine (dance); Louis Silverstein and John Wagner (liberal arts); Fred Fine (arts management); Darryl Feldmeier and Nat Lehrman (journalism); Zafra Lerman (science); John Tarini (marketing); Suzanne Cohan-Lange (interdisciplinary arts); Bert Gall and Lya Rosenblum (administration); and countless others.

The radicals who helped build the modern Columbia shared a revolutionary zeal to make it an instrument for building a better world. Columbia became an intellectual home of sorts for the anti-war, civil rights, black arts, women’s liberation, gay rights, counterculture and free speech movements in Chicago.

Columbia also became an important center for new forms of creative expression through the establishment of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Dance Center and Free Street Theater.

Columbia’s student body was generally older and reflected the social, political and cultural movements that were transforming 1960s society.

The burst of new ideas, students, faculty and teaching that coalesced at this remarkable moment in history made Columbia the most exciting and vibrant college in the country.

Columbia stood for something distinctive and vital in the world of higher education that profoundly connected with students. While protests were erupting on every college campus, Columbia administrators were marching in demonstrations with students and faculty.

Faculty had the freedom to develop new approaches to teaching to connect nontraditional students to the classroom. They were wildly successful in their efforts, as was evidenced by the fact that many students were getting jobs in their fields long before they graduated.

Because Columbia had absolutely no competition in the marketplace and tuition was very affordable, student support services, recruitment and retention efforts were virtually nonexistent. Columbia’s mission was to open the doors to higher education, and it was left to the students to take advantage of those opportunities.

As the college continued to grow by leaps and bounds, new concentrations and buildings were added, and Columbia was accredited as a four-year liberal arts college. After a while, other colleges began to copy Columbia’s model for success. Columbia no longer had the arts and media market cornered, so important new approaches to recruitment, retention, marketing, fundraising and student support were introduced.

At a certain point, my father realized that he was no longer leading a revolution so much as he was managing a multi-million dollar enterprise with its own set of challenges.

By the time my father retired in 1992, Columbia had approximately 7,500 students, 1,500 faculty and staff, six buildings and a budget of almost $50 million. His epiphany for a radical new vision of higher education seems to have worked out remarkably well.

Columbia is an incredible success story, and it has helped change the face of higher education nationally. When my father died in 2001, he had every reason to believe that the college’s mission and core values would live on.

In the classic 1952 film “Viva Zapata,” the revolution is a success and Brando rides triumphantly into Mexico City. Brando walks into the administration building and sees rows of revolutionaries sitting at desks pounding at their typewriters. He turns around and rides off into the sunset.