Dean of Columbia College

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The Dean of Columbia College is the highest-ranking official in Columbia College and is the head of the administration for the College.[1]

The College is a sub-unit of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As such, the Dean reports to the Vice President for Arts and Sciences, who in turn reports to the Provost. The Dean of Columbia College therefore has more limited powers than his or her counterpart, the Dean of SEAS.

The current Dean of Columbia College is James Valentini, who took over as the sixteenth Dean of Columbia College in 2011, after Michele Moody-Adams resigned. Dean Valentini is also the Vice-President for Undergraduate Student Life and is a full member of the University Senate as well as the Columbia College Alumni Association.

History of the Deanship

The Deanship of the College was established for the first time in 1890 as part of a reorganization of the university, and long-time classics professor Henry Drisler was selected to hold this position with the title of Dean of the School of Arts. In 1894, John Howard Van Amringe was elected as Drisler's successor, and in 1896 his title became "Dean of Columbia College" when the Trustees voted to rename the School of Arts "Columbia College," at the same time that they renamed the entire school "Columbia University."

This confusing line of succession arises from the confusing history of the period when the undergraduate arts and sciences division of the institution had not yet inherited the title "Columbia College". For most of Columbia's first century of existence, Columbia the institution and Columbia the undergraduate school were one and the same, and so the President of Columbia was necessarily (and, really, only) the head of an undergraduate liberal arts college. Between 1860 and 1890, that changed with the opening of the School of Mines, the School of Architecture, the conversion of the College's "law department" into the School of Law, and the foundation of a Graduate School, and the re-affiliation of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Columbia became a university in all but name (as Dartmouth College remains today). In order to distinguish the undergraduate arts and sciences division within Columbia College, this division was first given its own title, the "School of Letters and Science" in 1865-1866. It's unclear at what exact point the President of Columbia College began delegating control of the undergraduate division to others prior to the formal establishment of a deanship. At some point a Board of the College, a body consisting the the President of Columbia, and all professors in a "sub-graduate" course of instruction with the power to try student offences, determine student standing, adjudge awards and punishments, and prescribing a course of study, came into existence.

In addition to the existence of the Board of the College, the restyling of the undergraduate liberal arts college as the "School of Letters and Science" coincided with the appointment of John Howard Van Amringe, then only an Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, as the "Secretary of the Faculty of Arts" in the 1865-1866 school year.[2] 1879-1880 Van Amringe's title became the Secretary of the Board of the College, and after the Deanship of the College was established, he acceded to the office of "Secretary of the School of Arts", which he resigned following his election as the second Dean. (He was succeeded by Professor Henry Peck in the office of Secretary.)

"First" Dean of the College

There is some confusion over who deserves the title of "First Dean" of the College. Conventional wisdom grants John Howard Van Amringe the place of honor. Columbia College's webpage listing past deans begins with Van Amringe and lists the beginning date of his tenure as 1896.[3] Similarly, in the online appendices to his 250th Anniversary history of Columbia, "Stand, Columbia", history Professor Robert McCaughey also begins his history of College deans with Van Amringe, though crediting 1894 as the beginning date of his tenure.[4]

However, historical records point instead towards Henry Drisler. When Columbia reorganized its schools and faculties in 1890 and created the office of the Dean, Drisler was the first occupant of the office.[5] Similarly, the record makes clear that Van Amringe succeeded Drisler.[6] Van Amringe did not change offices in 1896, but merely the precise wording of his title. This view is borne out in records such as the General Catalogue of Officers and Alumni of the University of 1900, printed 4 years after the name change, which provides only one list of College deans, beginning it with Drisler[7], or the Columbia Alumni News of February 1911, referring to Drisler as the "first Dean of Columbia College"[8], or the volume of the Bicentennial History of Columbia University dedicated to the history of the College, in which Lionel Trilling referred to Drisler as the "Dean of the College" and Van Amringe his successor.[9], or in a history of the Deanship published in the Spectator in 1967 which establishes similar facts. [10]

The one argument in favor of honoring Van Amringe with the title is that he eventually became Dean of "Columbia College" while Drisler only served as Dean of the "School of Arts." Of course, using similar reasoning, all Presidents of Columbia University before Seth Low should not be counted, since the school only adopted that name in 1896. Of course that would be nonsensical. It seems however at some point to have slipped into the preferred stylings of the Deans, as for example in a 1962 Spectator article which referred to Van Amringe as the "first Dean of Columbia College."[11] Similarly, in a timeline of Columbia 250 years, Columbia College Today noted that in 1894 "Mathematics Professor John Howard Van Amringe (Class of 1860) succeeds Henry Drisler as dean of the School of the Arts; in 1896, he becomes the first dean of the College." One final technical note in Van Amringe's favor is that he was elected to serve as acting dean during Drisler's absence towards the beginning of his tenure, if in fact it occurred at the very outset.[12]

List of Deans of Columbia College

List of Acting Deans


  2. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Columbia College 1865-1866 pgs. 6, 9-11
  3. Past Deans of Columbia College - Columbia College
  4. Appendix A 2.8 Deans of Columbia College, 1894 - 2003. McCaughey's appendices neatly encapsulate the confusion, as, ironically, in a timeline in another part of the appendix, he writes that in 1894 "John Howard Van Amringe (CC 1860) succeeds first Dean of Columbia College, Henry Drisler (CC 1839); to serve until 1910." Appendix F 11 The Columbia Core Curriculum, 1888-1959. In a third appendix timeline, he writes that in 1894 "Mathematics Professor John Howard Van Amringe (CC 1860) succeeds Henry Drisler as head of Columbia College and its first designated Dean of Columbia College; to serve until his retirement in 1910." Appendix F3 Early Columbia University Timeline, 1858 - 1901
  5. See generally, Drisler Jubilee - Columbia University Bulletin, July 1894, Vol. 8
  6. Notes from Board of Trustees Meeting of March 5, 1894 - Columbia University Bulletin, July 1894, Vol. 8, Pg. 4
  7. [1]
  8. Columbia Alumni News Vol. 2, 2 Feb 1911, pg 309
  9. A History of Columbia College on Morningside pg. 14
  10. The Deanship: 'New' Office in an Old College, Columbia Spectator, 10 Feb 1967
  11. Van Amringe Wrote First Report, Columbia Spectator, 19 Feb 1962
  12. Columbia University Bulletin, July 1890, Vol. 1, Pg. 19