Seth Low: First President of Columbia University

This New Yorker used his skills of diplomacy to clean out corruption and make Columbia great.
Seth Low: First President of Columbia University
Panoramic view of Columbia University with Low Memorial Library at the center. (Public Domain)

Known as the “Great Harmonizer” due to his stellar negotiation skills, Seth Low was a successful politician who revamped how city governments were managed. He was dedicated to leading with honesty and implementing much-needed reform within the post-consolidation city governments of Brooklyn and New York City.

Low was born in 1850 to a wealthy family in Brooklyn, New York, that operated a successful tea and silk trading company. He joined the family business after he graduated as valedictorian from Columbia College in 1870.

A portrait of Seth Low, 1901, by Theodore C. Marceau. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
A portrait of Seth Low, 1901, by Theodore C. Marceau. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

His father was a Unitarian and his mother was an Episcopalian; when he turned 22, Low joined the Episcopal Church.

Guided by his faith, Low worked hard to give to the poor, and his philanthropy eventually drew him into politics.

Low was a Republican who leaned independent. In 1881, Low won the Republican nomination for mayor of Brooklyn. The former mayor, Hugh McLaughlin, was corrupt and declined to seek reelection. Low defeated Democrat James Howell by nearly 5,000 votes. He then got to work fixing the city’s broken political system.

While mayor, Low turned Brooklyn from a state-controlled city into a self-sufficient metropolis. He integrated all of the city’s schools and provided free textbooks to all students, not just those who had taken a pauper’s oath, a sworn statement saying one is destitute.  He also played a major role in building the Brooklyn Bridge.

Low served two terms as mayor before his popularity waned, which prompted him to forego a third term. Yet, he continued to be a prominent figure in the city, which led to a new role as president of Columbia College.

Low’s dreams for Columbia were sky-high. He eventually moved the college from the crowded city blocks of Midtown Manhattan to a property in Morningside Heights, which had formerly housed an insane asylum.

He officially changed the name of the institution to Columbia University after he consolidated other colleges under the university. To show his dedication to the effort, Low donated $1 million to construct the university’s first library, named Low Memorial Library after Low’s father.

In 1897, the five boroughs that make up today’s New York City were consolidated. Low ran for the office of the city’s first mayor. He failed in his first attempt but then soon garnered more support on his second. In 1901, Low stepped down as Columbia University president to run for mayor of New York City on a “fusion” ticket, as he had gained support from both the Citizens’ Union and the Republican Party. Once he started campaigning, Low received some unexpected help from famous author and humorist Mark Twain. The two once made an appearance together, which drew a crowd of over 2,000 people.

Low promised that life in New York City would improve if he was elected. “The great city can teach something that no university by itself can altogether impart: a vivid sense of the largeness of human brotherhood, a vivid sense of man’s increasing obligation to man; a vivid sense of our absolute dependence on one another,” Low said, according to the Columbia University website.

Low Memorial Library. (Public Domain)
Low Memorial Library. (Public Domain)

As the second mayor of New York, Low quickly got to work implementing changes. His first action was to introduce a merit system to hire municipal employees. Other accomplishments included lowering taxes, eliminating police department corruption, and improving the city’s education system.

Low lost his bid for re-election in 1903, but he stayed involved in the educational community. In 1907, Low accepted the position of chairman of Tuskegee University in Alabama, a position he held until he passed away in 1916.

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For about 20 years, Trevor Phipps worked in the restaurant industry as a chef, bartender, and manager until he decided to make a career change. For the last several years, he has been a freelance journalist specializing in crime, sports, and history.
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