Obama's Years at Columbia Are a Mystery
He Graduated Without Honors
By ROSS GOLDBERG, Special to the Sun | September 2, 2008
Senator Obama's life story, from his humble roots, to his rise to Harvard Law School, to his passion as a community organizer in Chicago, has been at the center of his presidential campaign. But one chapter of the tale remains a blank — his education at Columbia College, a place he rarely speaks about and where few people seem to remember him.
Contributing to the mystery is the fact that nobody knows just how well Mr. Obama, unlike Senator McCain and most other major candidates for the past two elections, performed as a student.
The Obama campaign has refused to release his college transcript, despite an academic career that led him to Harvard Law School and, later, to a lecturing position at the University of Chicago. The shroud surrounding his experience at Columbia contrasts with that of other major party nominees since 2000, all whom have eventually released information about their college performance or seen it leaked to the public.
For better or worse, voters have taken an interest in candidates' grades since 1999, when the New Yorker published President Bush's transcript at Yale and disclosed that he was a C student. Mr. Bush had never portrayed himself as a brain, but many were surprised to learn the next year that his opponent, Vice President Gore, did not do much better at Harvard despite his intellectual image. When Senator Kerry's transcript surfaced, reporters found that he actually had a slightly lower average at Yale than Mr. Bush did.
Some political observers cite such disclosures as proof that candidates' intelligence cannot be judged solely by their political careers or the schools they attended. Grades provide a rare measure of intellect that is immune to political spin, proponents say.
"We like to pretend IQ doesn't matter, but it really does with a lot of jobs, including the presidency," a professor at Smith College who studies the effects of human intelligence on the economy, James Miller, said. "We can't trust the information that candidates give us, so it's important to look for objective data that they can't falsify or distort."
Mr. Miller acknowledged that Mr. Obama displayed academic achievement at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude and led the Harvard Law Review. Still, Mr. Miller said, he would like to see information about how Mr. Obama performed in various subjects at Columbia.
That view is not shared by other election observers, including some who have themselves indulged the public's interest in candidates' academic records. One of them is Geoffrey Kabaservice, a political historian who in 2000 published Senator Bradley's relatively low score of 485 on the verbal SAT. Mr. Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar who was a star basketball player at Princeton, was running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"It's awfully hard to correlate anything, really, about a person on the basis of their grades," Mr. Kabaservice said, explaining that he published Mr. Bradley's score to highlight limitations in intelligence testing. He said he doubted that candidates' grades have affected the outcome of any recent presidential elections.
"For people who didn't like George W. Bush, for example, the grade aspect only confirmed what they thought about him," Mr. Kabaservice said. "And for everybody else, it made him more of a regular guy."
The Obama campaign declined to comment for this article and did not offer an explanation for why his transcript has not been released. But observers speculated that one reason might be the racially charged nature of the election. Mr. Obama has acknowledged benefiting from affirmative action in the past, and details about his academic performance might open him up to critics eager to accuse him, probably unfairly, of receiving a free ride, Mr. Kabaservice said.
"Anyone who is a minority and who's come up partially through the meritocracy — getting into good colleges, and subsequently good law schools — is going to come under suspicion that there was some kind of affirmative action boost," he said. "I suspect this is an area of discomfort for Obama."
In contrast with the rest of Mr. Obama's life story, little is known about his college experience. He attended Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years before transferring to Columbia in 1981. The move receives only a mention in Mr. Obama's 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," which instead devotes that chapter to his impressions of race and class struggles in New York.
An article in a Columbia University publication, Columbia College Today, reported that Mr. Obama has portrayed Columbia as a period of buckling down following a troubled adolescence. He did not socialize much, he has said, instead spending a lot of time in the library, "like a monk." He has also stated that he was involved to some extent with the Black Students Organization.
Federal law limits the information that Columbia can release about Mr. Obama's time there. A spokesman for the university, Brian Connolly, confirmed that Mr. Obama spent two years at Columbia College and graduated in 1983 with a major in political science. He did not receive honors, Mr. Connolly said, though specific information on his grades is sealed. A program from the 1983 graduation ceremony lists him as a graduate.
More is known about Mr. McCain's experience at the United States Naval Academy, where he was a self-described troublemaker and graduated in the bottom 1% of his class. The McCain campaign has declined to release his transcript, saying that his performance at the academy can only be viewed in the context of his larger military career.
"His record stands on its own," a McCain spokesman, Peter Feldman, said. "His time spent in college was part of the transformative years that made him who he was."