Practicing for the U.S. Presidency: Dwight Eisenhower and Columbia University

Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is most known for his role as commanding general during World War II and as the 34th President of the United States. As President from 1953 to 1961, Eisenhower oversaw some of the most iconic American moments of the 20th century, including the end of the Korean War, the creation of NASA, and the desegregation effort of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas

However, between his time leading the Allied Forces and taking his seat in the Oval Office, Eisenhower held a different presidential position. From 1948 to 1953, Dwight Eisenhower acted as the 13th president of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College by King George III of England, this higher education institution is part of the Ivy League and is located in upper Manhattan in New York City. 

Much like the U.S. Presidency, a president of a university is tasked with the operation and maintenance of a large and diverse organization—the entire university framework. They are responsible for leading in times of trouble and good fortune, developing short-range and long-range plans, and coordinating many different departments. 

On October 12, 1948, Columbia University inaugurated Eisenhower in front of an audience of thousands of trustees, faculty, staff, students, and other university affiliates. The chairman of the University Trustees presented Eisenhower with the charter and keys of the university. As is tradition, Eisenhower then proceeded to give a short speech. 

Eisenhower described Columbia University as a “fruitful agent in the promotion of human knowledge and human welfare.” With the Cold War in full force, Eisenhower compared the importance of education to the importance of the military, both essential to maintaining the just society of the United States. Eisenhower also made allusions to the Soviet Union, referring to it not by name but rather as a “police state.” He overtly stated the importance of education institutions in preserving “democratic citizenship” alongside the importance of freedom, and even materialism, in the United States.

Installation of Dwight Eisenhower as the 13th President of Columbia University,
10/12/1948. (National Archives Identifier 21014)

While university president, Eisenhower was absent for many long periods of time with the most notable absence in 1951, when he left to become the first supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

As president, however, Eisenhower was able to make a number of contributions to the university. He founded the Columbia Center for Oral History Research and the Lamont Geological Observatory (now renamed the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory). Both of these subsidiary ventures are still active today. In addition, he was a noted presence at many of the Columbia University football games that took place at Baker Field. 

During Eisenhower’s university presidency, higher education held a complicated place in American society. In the face of the Red Scare, the collective societal hysteria over the perceived threat of communists, the federal government investigated and often punished many academics. During McCarthyism, academia became a perceived hotbed of communists and communist sympathizers. As the leader of a higher education institution, Eisenhower took a moderate position. The communist Polish government made a substantial donation to the university in order to create a department chair in Polish studies, which Eisenhower accepted. However, he supported the dismissal of a left-wing professor and helped publish a handbook that declared communists should be excluded from the teaching profession. 

Once Eisenhower became President of the United States in 1953, he resigned from his position at Columbia University and did not maintain much contact with the university thereafter. In all, he was an ambivalent university president, often away from his post in order to fulfill other duties or to run for the highest office in the nation. However, there can be no doubt that Eisenhower’s presidency at Columbia University remains a point of pride for the institution. Several memorials remain in honor of the 34th President, including a large portrait hanging in the library, the Eisenhower Leader Development Program, and the College Walk, the main pathway on campus.

Learn more about Eisenhower at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

One thought on “Practicing for the U.S. Presidency: Dwight Eisenhower and Columbia University

  1. An analogous story about a great WWII leader playing a role in post-war higher education is that of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the architect of naval victory over the Empire of Japan. After the war, Nimitz was appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of California at Berkeley, where he led efforts to institute a loyalty oath for faculty.

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