Is that the President on campus? From Columbia to the White House

A surprising number of future U.S. Presidents have visited Columbia on their way to the White House. From both Roosevelts to our current President-elect Joe Biden, Columbia has been honored to have these politicians on campus throughout the years.

Then-Senator Joe Biden delivers a lecture sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Europe, 2005. Photo by Eileen Barroso. Scan 4813. Office of Public Affairs Photographs, University Archives.

On April 4, 2005, then-Senator Joe Biden (in his role as a ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) delivered the Vera and Donald Blinken Lecture at Columbia’s Kellogg Center in the International Affairs Building. His lecture, “A View Across the Atlantic: America and Europe in a Changing World” was sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Europe and the School of International and Public Affairs.

Columbia University President Michael I. Sovern (center) and U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush (right), 1981. Scan #4801. Historical Photographs Collection, University Archives.

Another campus speaker who went on to the Oval Office was George H.W. Bush. On April 27, 1981, the then-U.S. Vice President delivered the W. Averell Harriman Address at the Business School’s fifth annual dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom to a sellout crowd of 1,400 people. Bush received a Business School leadership award for government. Later that same year, in November 1981, the American Assembly announced that Vice President Bush would receive one of its two annual Service to Democracy medals. (The American Assembly is a public policy institute founded in 1950 by Columbia University President Dwight D. Eisenhower.) Unfortunately, due to a shutdown of non-essential government services, Vice President Bush was unable to attend that ceremony.


U.S. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt (center, seated) and his Columbia Law School Class of 1907 classmates, 1933. Scan 4799. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a student at Columbia long before he moved to the White House. Roosevelt attended Columbia Law School from the fall of 1904 but left several months short of graduation with the Class of 1907. Despite leaving school early, he began practicing law after passing the New York State bar exam. Back in 1933, then President-elect Roosevelt celebrated his 51st birthday with his fellow members of the Law School’s Class of 1907 in Warm Springs, Georgia on January 30, 1933. About a month later, Roosevelt took his first Oath of Office on March 4, 1933.


Students listen to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech at Low Library, 1953. Scan 2926. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

The most immediate transition from Columbia to the White House belongs to former Columbia University President Dwight D. Eisenhower. On November 17, 1952, after winning the national election, Eisenhower submitted his resignation to the Board of Trustees to take effect on January 19, 1953, the day before he would take the Oath of Office. On Friday, January 16, 1953, President-elect Eisenhower delivered two farewell addresses: one to the faculty and one to students as his last official events as Columbia University President. Over 1,200 students crowded the Low Library Rotunda to hear President Eisenhower one last time. Eisenhower was presented with a key, a plaque signed by each trustee, and, from the students, a bronze lion. This small statue was modeled on the Columbia Lion sculpted by Frederick George Richard Roth on display at Baker Field, where Eisenhower attended many a football game during his tenure. Columbians were delighted when, just a few months later on October 13, 1953, the Columbia Lion appeared on a White House mantle. In the photograph below, President Eisenhower is shaking hands with Vice President Richard Nixon as the latter is about to go on a trip to East Asia, with the Columbia Lion right in the middle of the photograph.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Columbia Lion, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon at White House, 1953. Scan 4800. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.