Alexander Hamiltonius, Alumni Defender of Orgo Night

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People, like salmon, naturally return to the locations of their forefathers.

We all remember the drama surrounding the Administration’s restriction of Orgo Night last Fall, as student outrage poured over Spectator op-ed columns and Columbia Buy/Sell Memes. Following this “act of censorship,” as some students and alumni believe, a group of alumni began cooperating upon a pro-Orgo Night pamphlet to be released under the pen name Alexander Hamiltonius. In this piece, new writer Ufon Umanah discusses his interviewer with Hamiltonius organizer and CUMB alumnus Kevin Chapman. 

Last semester, as pre-inauguration blues led into a stress-inducing reading week, the administration ordered the Columbia University Marching Band to keep their semesterly Orgo Night out of Butler. As CUMB prepared to perform outside the library in chilling weather, they declared in a statement that they, “in conjunction with our Alumni network, vow to keep fighting the good fight against the War on Fun.” At the University Senate plenary set for December 15th, the day of Orgo Night, faculty and administrators alike seemed unconcerned by the mounting student outrage. But already in the midst of the winter season, the alumni response was rising.

In the early hours of December 15th, the Columbia Daily Spectator released five op-eds relating to Orgo Night, one written by the Editorial Board, one written by this writer, and one written by Kevin G. Chapman CC ’83. One might call the Dow-Jones employee the ideal Columbia alumnus. With a son currently enrolled as a member of CUMB, Chapman at the time served as the Head of the New Jersey Alumni Representative Committee, which helps “the Office of Undergraduate Admissions by interviewing applicants, representing Columbia at local college fairs and hosting regional programs for admitted students.” In his op-ed titled “Suppression of expression does not become Columbia,” he argued “there seems to be no good explanation other than implicit censorship for the administration seeking to ban the traditional Orgo Night performance by the Columbia University Marching Band from its usual location in Butler 209.”

For most students, attention to the marching band and Orgo Night dissipated after finals, but for Chapman, it was only the beginning. Bwog reported January 18th, 9:15 PM that over the winter break Chapman had emailed his fellow alumni in his Alumni Representative Committee that he had resigned from his position as Head, citing the “heavy-handed administrative diktat” for his decision. While subsequent coverage involved conversations about conflicts of interest (as Chapman’s son was also a staff member at Bwog), one thing in retrospect stood out in his email. He wrote, “If you wish to join with me and other alumni in communicating with the university administration on this subject, please send me a note and I will put you on the activist email list.”

Only nine hours earlier, a new website was born. Its name; In Defense of Orgo Night. Its signature; Hamiltonius.

The writings of Alexander Hamiltonius are a group effort by more than 30 alumni with further support and cooperation from the Columbia University Band Alumni Association in response to what Hamiltonius calls an “ambush” on the marching band. The plan is to publish a “series of pamphlets” to prove that “the university’s stated reasons for taking this sudden action are false and not supported” and the suspected true reason, the censorship of the band, is unacceptable.

When I interviewed Hamiltonius, it was during the men’s basketball game against Harvard. At one point Hamiltonius wrote “Lions down 15-4 early at Harvard. Boo!” That night, a collection of alumni had gathered together over a group call to fulfill the role of Hamiltonius, with Chapman summarizing the conversation. I asked what made Orgo Night stand out for Hamiltonius, and for the alumni behind Hamiltonius that day, what stood out was a memory posted for Columbia’s 250th anniversary, where Tamir Simon CC ’03 reported that at the Spring 2000 Orgo Night, “there were hundreds of students clogging the entrances and pushing their way into the main room. Students were everywhere: on top of every shelf, every windowsill, every table, and every copy machine. The reserves desk was inundated with students jumping over the desk and clobbering each other to reach the door to the reading room.” In his perspective, “the show of school spirit was unmatched in the years following at all other Orgo Nights I attended.” He ended his piece by writing “Cheers to Columbia and its passionate students who continue to fight for our school’s age-old traditions.” Hamiltonius had echoed such sentiments in writing that “Orgo Night is more than merely a tradition.”

This was, however, in contrast with the view of the university and some of its students. In response to the greatest showing of school spirit in its time, Columbia “heighten[ed] security and limit[ed] the number of people allowed to enter the reading room for Orgo Night to 200.” This was presumably also because more than 200 violated the fire safety codes, but the restrictions became also as traditional as the night itself, and not always because of safety. In 2012, the then Dean of Student Affairs, Kevin Shollenberger, scolded the marching band for comparing the Gaza Strip to a stripper. Two years later, two students would write an op-ed titled “If you go to Orgo Night, you’re part of the problem,” where they reported students had called for Orgo Night’s cancellation. The same year, Orgo Night was no longer guaranteed entrance into Barnard’s campus. The following year, during a first-year training module coordinated by students and administrators, Orgo Night would be referred to as “a semesterly comedy routine and campus ‘tradition,’ [in which] a student organization consistently mocks issues surrounding race, gender, queerness, and other identities, marginalizing many members of the community.” This exact description was repeated last year.

Hamiltonius argues that without data on the existence of those who desire Butler as a silent space, it is only reasonable to believe that ulterior motives are afoot. At which point, Hamiltonius notes that the University President’s own words would condemn this practice. He quotes Bollinger from the December Senate Plenary saying “routinely something horrible is said that is really hurtful to some group on campus. We think that’s bad, but we’re not going to censor the speech.”

I tried to push further on the specific content of recent Orgo Nights. Hamiltonius responded by saying “we do not think the Orgo Night show was ever violent, nor advocating violence against any group or any person.” He further argues that the current band has been on their best behavior since the old days and “that the university took no action against the Band after that show, but only before the fall 2016 show, when there was a very different group of leaders, which makes no sense.” Our conversation on the topic ended when he stated that “when President Bollinger admits that he is trying to suppress the Band’s speech because he, or others, find some of it to be not to their liking, then we can have a discussion of whether punishing the band (or any other group) for that conduct is appropriate or not,” with little discussion on the individual offensiveness of individual jokes.

Towards the tail-end of our conversation, men’s basketball was barely holding on. I asked how far Hamiltonius and the associated alumni were willing to go for Orgo Night. He responded with “We will urge alumni to withhold support for the university, both financially and in volunteer time. We will continue to expose the hypocrisy of the administration. We will support efforts by current students to demonstrate and show their feelings on the issue.” It was the makings of a movement not seen in the alumni at-large since the movement against sexual assault swept Columbia. “The administration has struck a nerve,” Hamiltonius says, “This action has cut into [our] love of Columbia deeply and we cannot stand by and just watch while one of the few remaining Columbia traditions is thrown to the curb — particularly when it appears… so totally contrary to what we think Columbia stands for,” freedom of speech. Their names, as of now, are unknown; planned for release when the last of the Hamiltonius papers are written. As Columbia loses to Harvard, Chapman writes as Hamiltonius, “We just want President Bollinger to do the right thing. He knows what that is.”

The real question: will the students agree?

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1 Comment

  1. The last quote

    from Chapman says it all: Prezbo sure does know what's right. He's dishonestly choosing what he thinks is the safer way through the conflict: counting on pro-Orgo students to be a weaker opponent than those who say the shows offend their comfort zone. He should do better.

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