With Bacchanal ’16 disappearing fast in the rear-view and the future of Bacchanal up in the air as always, it seems an apt time to consider how Columbia’s yearly day as a party school came to be. Since the early 1900’s, the steps of Low Library have been used as a concert venue for various student groups looking to showcase their talents. These concerts, while popular and numerous, lacked the consistency and widespread appeal of our modern day Bacchanal.
As is generally the case at Columbia, the ever-present need for more bureaucracy encroached on this free spirited approach to concerts on the steps. In the early 1980’s, the precursor to Bacchanal, Columbia Fest, was established. Run by a student group and funded by Student Life fees, the event mainly consisted of a festival atmosphere and presentations by student groups—think of a mix between Glass House Rocks and the student activities fair. While the event was largely successful in entertaining stressed students for a week during the spring, it did not gain the same status that the modern day Bacchanal commands.
Bacchanal as we know it was first held in April 1998 as the culmination of “Naked Spring,” Columbia’s week long celebration of spring and the return of good weather. The first concert, featuring Busta Rhymes and Sonic Youth as its two main acts, was held on Low Steps, much like the Bacchanal we know today. In fact, the inclusion of headlining musicians (often from two different genres of music) is about the only thing that has stayed the same. Unlike our singular afternoon of debauchery featuring only one stage and a militarized campus, the first Bacchanal was replete with student groups peddling food and art. As this was in the pre-War on Fun years, the administration went as far as allowing a tattoo artist, a fortuneteller, and a ‘freak show’ to set up camp on college walk. More recent Bacchanals have seen revelers create their own freak shows, rebelling against the hyper regulated atmosphere with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.
The often forgotten Arthur Ross Greenhouse, which was built on Milbank Hall shortly after the founding of Barnard’s uptown campus, offers a necessary haven from the pollution and noise of the city. It houses a diverse collection of plants that can act as a reminder of home for some, or an escape to the tropical rain forest.
Nick Gershberg, the greenhouse coordinator, said of the structure, “Its beautiful aluminum and glass shell should last well into the 21st century. Largely, it is a conservatory, housing about 800 tropical and arid species. The collection is used to supplement class activities, and also provides a refuge for all who come visit. There is space for research, which we try to keep in use year round.”
A relatively recent addition to the greenhouse, the Giant Corpse Flower, obtained three years ago, is infamous in the botanical community for its putrid smell and massive inflorescence, or the complete flower head of a plant (stems, stalks, bracts, and flowers). Of the Giant Corpse Flower Amorphophallus titanum, Gershberg said, “While this plant mostly exists as Mgaloblishvilia tree-like single leaf, its tuber will eventually go dormant and re-emerge as the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence. Capable of standing over 10 feet, the inflorescence famously smells of rotting flesh.”
The Sensitive Plant, Mimos pudica, almost immediately attracts visitors’ attention. It recoils at the slightest touch, a reaction developed to protect its delicate leaves against desiccation. Gershberg refers to it as, “one of the few that display rapid movement in response to outside stimulus. Touch the leaves, and they close up almost instantaneously.”
The Living Stones, Lithops sp., in the cactus room, are a subtler oddity. They appear to be dully colored stones; one is tempted to pluck them from soil. “These curious looking plants live just above the soil surface, in the extremely hot and dry climate of southern Africa. Having no spines or chemical defenses, they’ve adapted to simply blend in with the surrounding pebbles and debris,” said Gershberg.
But perhaps, the most impressive specimens of the Barnard Greenhouse are the clean air, sunlight, and quiet—welcomed rarities to our crowded, stressful lives.
Before the establishment of Barnard College, women could not formally enroll at Columbia. Many however, sought to receive a higher education here through an 1884 University initiative called the “Plan for the Education of Women.” According to the 1884 Columbia Handbook, the “course of collegiate study… should be offered to such women as may desires to avail themselves of it.” Women over seventeen years old were eligible to apply, and needed to sit for an entrance exam of similar standards that the men had to pass to be admitted.
The women in the program were not permitted to study on the campus proper, however. The 1884 Handbook spins this exclusion as desirable independence, stating that the enrolled woman “shall be entirely free as to where and how to pursue her studies, whether in some school, private or public, or at home.”
The education these women received under the plan was far from the instruction men received in their classes at Columbia. A report on the status of Columbia from 1893, ten years after the program began, said, “Students enrolled in the Collegiate Course for Women were entitled to ask advice from the instructors at Columbia, but not to claim instruction, nor were they permitted to attend lectures at the college.”
Women enrolled in the plan therefore enjoyed few of the benefits of being a Columbia student and could complete the program without ever setting foot on campus. Despite this fact, the Trustees decided in 1886 that women enrolled in the plan would receive BA degrees rather than certificates of completion previously awarded.
This development was met with criticism by the female students and the men at Columbia, both of whom felt that women were not receiving adequate education to be awarded Columbia degrees. In 1889, Spectator reported that, “The need of an institution where the women of this city can receive a college education has been long felt, and popular sentiment has always declared that Columbia was the only college able to satisfy this want.” Barnard College was founded later that year in 1889.