In a previous post, we talked about some of the future U.S. Presidents who spent time at Columbia, as students, lecturers, award recipients and even a university president, on their way to the White House. Here, we recall the sitting Presidents who have made official visits to the University.
The first U.S. President to officially visit Columbia, then King’s College, was the first U.S. President George Washington. The new President attended Commencement in 1789 to receive an honorary degree. It had only been one month since President Washington had taken the Oath of Office, which was administered by the Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert R. Livingston, King’s College Class of 1765. []
On April 18, 1902, sitting President (and former Columbia Law student) Theodore Roosevelt attended the installation of Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler. Theodore Roosevelt enrolled in the Columbia Law School in 1880 but his interests in politics led him out of the classroom. On November 9, 1881, the 23-year-old law student was up for election to represent the Twenty-first District in the New York State Assembly. According to the legend, “the better part of the Columbia football team took up positions at the polls and stood ready to tackle any potential trouble-makers who might try to upset” their fellow student []. The young Roosevelt won the election easily and soon left Columbia. He would have graduated after one more semester, in 1882, as the law school curriculum was only two years long at that time. Years later, as Governor of New York State, Roosevelt received an honorary degree in 1899 and, as part of the Law School’s 150th anniversary celebration, he was awarded a posthumous law degree on September 25, 2008.
President Roosevelt made his official visit to the Morningside Heights campus in 1902, following a memorable entrance to the Presidential Inauguration proceedings. According to the Spec, the cavalry could be heard “from the direction of Morningside Avenue.” The President’s carriage, escorted by Squadron A, came to a standstill in front of the Library. After the luncheon at the Library (now Low Library), Roosevelt joined the rear of the academic procession as they marched from the Library to the gymnasium where the ceremony was held. President Roosevelt was accompanied by Chair of the Trustees William Schermerhorn and former Columbia President Seth Low.
In March 1952, sitting President Harry S. Truman made a less official visit to Columbia. In fact, the President was officially on vacation in Key West, Florida, when he came to New York to address the 28th annual Columbia Scholastic Press Association convention. President Truman spoke to over 3,000 high school student newspaper editors at a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria. In a short 15-minute address which was mostly apolitical and well received, President Truman revealed that he had also been a high school editor of the newspaper GLEAM. President Truman visited campus many times after his term in the White House, including his attendance at a School of Journalism conference in 1957 captured here.
Most recently, Columbia College Class of 1983 alum and sitting President Barack Obama was the speaker at the Barnard College commencement in 2012, his first appearance at Columbia since his own graduation. Obama acknowledged the controversy of his speaking at the Barnard (and not the College’s) graduation by describing the “sibling rivalry” between two schools. He spoke about marriage equality and the gender gap while encouraging graduates to “fight for a seat at the head of the table.” But the presidential visit came with heightened security from the Secret Service: all dorms on the South Lawn had to be vacated the day before, lower campus was on lockdown, and there were snipers posted on the roofs of Butler and Low Libraries.
[] President Abraham Lincoln was awarded an honorary degree in July 1961 but he did not receive the award on campus.
[] Columbia News Office press release, November 1, 1957. Historical Biographical Files (Box 267), University Archives.