Still Presidential: Former Presidents at Columbia

Columbia has hosted future Presidents and sitting Presidents. Here, we focus on a few other former Presidents who came to the University. Can you guess which former president served as a featured speaker at an engineering school fundraiser, as a guest lecturer at the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, and who sat in an undergraduate class on the American Presidency?

Former President Herbert Hoover shakes hands with Columbia University President Grayson Kirk, 1951. Scan 4802, Historic Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Former President of the United States Herbert Hoover was the guest speaker at fundraising dinner for the Columbia University Engineering Center Development Fund in November 7, 1951. This was not his first visit to Columbia. Hoover received an honorary degree in 1920 for his work as a federal food administrator and Chair of the Commission of Relief in Belgium CRB, which arranged to supply food to German-occupied Belgium during WWI. A former student of geology at Stanford and a mining engineer, Hoover had also once given lectures as a “non-resident engineering professor” at Columbia. In his 1951 speech in at the engineering fundraiser, he recalled that the lectures “had all the wit of calculus, the humor of a trilobite and the joyousness of thermo-dynamics.” His remarks on the engineering profession were widely broadcasted (see the numerous microphones), including via the campus radio station WKCR. The Trustees later printed his remarks simply titled, “Engineers,” available at the University Archives, call number CK H769. 


Former President Gerald Ford sits in on Professor Henry Graff’s American Presidency class, 1989. Scan 4814. Photo by Joe Pineiro. Office of Public Affairs Photographs, University Archives.

On January 24, 1989, former President Gerald R. Ford met with the 12 students in history professor Henry Graff’ “Seminar on the Presidency,” one of the most popular classes on campus. Prof. Graff knew that Ford came to New York every month because he was on the board of the American Express Corporation. A noted scholar of the presidency, Graff was able to persuade Ford to visit the seminar. Ford spent more than an hour in conversation with the students. Not only did Ford address the pardon of President Nixon, but he also tackled another campus rumor: was it true that he had turned down the job to coach Columbia football? Ford, a former assistant football coach at Yale, set the record straight: he was never offered the job. Ford was not the first President to visit Graff’s seminar; former President Harry S. Truman had also visited in 1959.


Former President William J. Clinton (left) and Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger (right) at the Brown vs. Board of Education Lecture, 2004. Image ph12. Photo by Eileen Barroso. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

On February 10, 2004, close to 500 people filled the Low Library Rotunda to hear former President Bill Clinton deliver an address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. This speech, his first time speaking at Columbia, was part of the Law School’s year-long celebration of the landmark case and part of a series cosponsored by Columbia and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Clinton was joined by University President Lee Bollinger, also a constitutional scholar, in discussing the landmark ruling that barred state-imposed racial segregation in schools.