What became known as the Gibbs Affair was an incident in 1854 in which the Columbia trustees refused to hire chemist Oliver Wolcott Gibbs (CC Class of 1841), even though he was an alumnus and was the most qualified scientist in America. They were mostly annoyed that he was Unitarian, at a time when being such was considered practically atheist. Out of spite they hired some other guy who turned out to be a confederate spy during the Civil War. Oops. Gibbs went on to become one of America's great chemists - at Harvard.
The Gibbs Affair provided the impetus for trustee Samuel Ruggles to publish a 60-page pamphlet not only urging the trustees to reconsider their decision to turn away Gibbs, but to pursue the agenda of a modern, secular research university over that of a vaguely religious and classicist college, a direction which he was eventually successful in persuading Columbia to take. As such, the Gibbs Affair may have proven the high water mark of the old Columbia College and the beginnings of Columbia's rise as a graduate research institution in which the college was marginalized.