Interview: Strike negotiator Andrew Lyubarsky
Written by Bwog Staff
If you’ve got a question about Manhattanville, and you’re looking for an answer that won’t make Columbia look great, talk to Andrew Lyubarsky. The CC junior led the talks with Executive Vice President Maxine Griffith over six “points of compromise” on expansion that, in a Spec op-ed, he characterized as “completely unproductive.” Bwog sat down with Lyubarsky to ask a few questions about how it all happened. Refer to our Manhattanville Decoder for help with the jargon.
Bwog: The strike obviously began a long time before two weeks ago, laying the groundwork for what you would demand from Columbia. What went into formulating the six points that you eventually presented to Maxine Griffith?
Andrew: The six points were come up with by the negotiators in conjunction with community members, some of whom were on the community board, some of which were on the local development corporation. Students on the expansion issue at least were never acting autonomously of the community’s desires. The original demands on the expansion basically came up both through the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification and its work with the community, as well as the series of town halls that occurred this semester and last semester in response to the race incidents on campus. Expansion was an issue that was constantly brought up in those forums.
The original plan, that the only way to be representative of the community is to pull the 197c plan, came out of the community board’s 32-2 vote in August. It rejected Columbia’s plan unless it met the 10 conditions of the 197a plan. Throughout this entire movement, we wanted to make sure we were representative of the community’s desires and didn’t go off on our own thing.
So then I’m puzzled, because of the e-mail [CB9 chairman] Jordi Reyes-Montblanc sent out on November 7, asking you not to strike. How is that being representative of the community?
Well, the first thing—and this is what I told Jordi—is that the strike wasn’t purely about the expansion, that there were curricular issues involved, and that the strike would go on without the expansion. And the second thing is that basically we didn’t have a tactical agreement with the chairman of the community board, there were other community members that were supportive of us, there were activist groups that were supportive of us, there were members of the LDC that were supportive of us, and even Jordi in his e-mail said he was supportive of our goals.
So you’re saying he was not being representative of the community board’s decision in asking you to withdraw your demand.
There was no community board meeting on the strike, this was his personal opinion.
So he was going against what his community board wanted by doing that.
There was no discussion of the strike with the community board, but we consulted with community board members in formulating our demands and our points of compromise. But there was no formal meeting or formal decision made by the community board, so community board members are free to make their own decisions, including the chairman.
Did you inform them that you were intending to use these tactics to achieve these demands that you’d agreed on?
Once again, there was no formal meeting of the community board, but we informed members of the community board, including obviously Jordi, because he sent us that e-mail. We informed all the relevant community leaders that this was going on, and some were supportive, and some believed it wasn’t the right tactic.
One thing I’m curious about is a lack of an environmental point in what you asked for, since I do think it’s a large concern of some students on this campus, how the development is going to look in terms of energy and sustainability. Was that every thought about?
Well, the original demand is to withdraw the 197c plan and revise it along the 10 points presented by Community Board 9, some of which deal with environmental issues, such as the biotech lab. The points of compromise were basically what we believed the administration would compromise on within the limited time frame of the hunger strike. We basically thought that the administration had committed so many resources to the project that trying to get them to say up their buildings from LEEDs silver to LEEDs platinum would be something that could not heave been achievable.
What we didn’t understand was how recalcitrant the university would be—they literally would not yield on any single one of our points. But our fundamental position, and we let the administration know in every meeting, even where we presented our points of compromise, is that they really should withdraw their plan and revise it with the assumptions of the 197a plan and the ten points presented in August, which do have environmental components.
Considering that the University has at several points made conscious decisions to go ahead with this plan, and not conform it to the community’s delineated points, what made you think that students and five people going hungry could make that happen? Was that a realistic assumption? Did you consider that an achievable goal from the start?
We had reasons to not have good faith in the administration, but basically we were aware that a hunger strike was a dramatic escalation of prior tactics, and we hoped that there would be some leverage with the expansion administrators. Basically they drew a Chinese wall between expansion and the academic administrators, and while the academic administrators did engage in the process—that could be described as a negotiation process—and were receptive to the concerns we were bringing forth, the expansion team was simply not. This doesn’t end with the hunger strike, this continues, and we’ll have to see where we go from here.
One of the things I heard during the negotiations is how Maxine Griffith is bound by the process, she can’t make concessions to an outside group, when these things are being negotiated currently with the LDC. Would you have expected the administration to go outside of these legal restrictions?
No, no, we’re fully aware of what the LDC process is and we respect that, but we also feel that students are constituents of the university, through its expansion process, and we feel that as constituents of the university, we can demand that they bring certain things to the table. If you look carefully at the points we presented that had to do with the LDC, only a couple, the ones dealing with education and housing, we were demanding that the university come to the table with certain things. We weren’t demanding that the negotiations be public, we were simply demanding that the university represent our position in these negotiations [with the LDC], which is certainly within the legal process.
You speak of students as a constituency. I know this question was asked by Nina Bell and answered by Bryan Mercer [post pending], but how can you lay claim to representing the entire school, or even a significant percentage of the students, when there was no vote taken, and I know there were town halls, which maybe 50 people showed up to—
We don’t really claim to represent a majority of the school, but I feel that no organization can. Honestly, I think that I’d prefer to refer you to Bryan’s e-mail, I think he explained it very well.
The Manhattanville issue is such a technical issue, it basically requires a specialized and specialist knowledge for students to be active and involved. And as such, it’s not an issue that you can really get a deep level of involvement from vast sectors of the campus unless they’re mobilized by a smaller group. So specifically on the Manhattanville issue, but also in general, there is no group that can claim to represent all students.
Not even an elected student council?
I don’t feel even a student council necessarily can do that.
But at least a student council is something that’s set up to represent the students, right?
I mean yes, but—
Do you feel that it doesn’t? If so, why?
I don’t want to get into this discussion.
OK. Was the student council ever reached out to, in terms of getting buy-in on this?
Yes, of course, CCSC supported us in most of our demands.
On, like, the eighth day of the strike. And they didn’t take a position on expansion.
That’s true, that’s their own internal decision, but they were reached out to from the very first day.
In what way?
Conversations with CCSC members.
Were they not receptive to specifically the expansion element?
We allowed them to make their own decision. They have their own committee on the expansion, they’re allowed to make their own decisions.
Some of the things that were asked—were you aware of them being in the works already? Things like students in the community having access to Columbia resources—hasn’t the university already been working on that?
Anything out of that demand would have required a lot more negotiation, and basically the administration’s position is that they wouldn’t commit to anything, that they would just go through the LDC process. One of the things that we were asking for in the education demand is that there be a specialized program set up for students in the community that would be able to access course auditing privileges and library access and things of that nature. We were hoping that would go beyond Columbia-administered schools and Columbia-administered programs to something broader. But again, negotiations on that didn’t really happen.
She basically said she didn’t have the power to commit to that in this meeting.
She basically said that negotiations on that were ongoing with the LDC and that it was not her place to negotiate with students, even though as constituents of the university we have a role in determining what the University should bring to the table in such negotiations.
What power do you think that Griffith actually has in granting these requests?
She has rather significant power. She’s not the only one; she correctly characterized that there was a team involving herself, Robert Kasdin, and Lee Bollinger, but I believe she is a full member of that team with power. We would have liked to have other people at the table, like Robert Kasdin, as well, but Maxine Griffith has legitimate power in this University, or at least she has direct access to those that do.
So you’ve characterized the negotiations as being entirely unproductive. Was there anything good that came out of them?
An understanding of how recalcitrant the university is on this issue, despite the fact that the university was in a situation of heightened tension, they were still unwilling to negotiate with students. They treated it like an information session.
Is there perhaps merit to the argument that the planning process is so far advanced that it would be backtracking to change the elements of that?
If you look at the six points of compromise, they’re filly accomodatable within the process. Our whole argument is not that Columbia shouldn’t expand, it’s that Columbia should be receptive and considerate of the local concerns of the expansion.
Housing was part of the six points, wasn’t it?
Yes, basically we argued that the dollar amount of the housing set up in their separate agreement with Scott Stringer set a ridiculously low floor for what should be negotiated with the Local Development Corporation, I’ve heard that out of the mouths of people involved in the process. So one of our points was that the floor should be set a lot higher.
So what about news coverage that says the number is getting a lot higher?
The argument is that separate agreements cut with politicians such as Scott Stringer undermin the LDC’s bargaining position, that was one of our points, that Columbia should not seek such agreements in the future, but rather should negotiate directly with the LDC. The fact that they’re able to reach this agreement with Stringer set an artificially low floor to begin with. We’re not under the impression that that is necessarily the number that will stand in the end, but we think that the base point of negotiations should be a lot higher than that.
Do you think that Griffith or anyone else would have been willing to make it more of a negotiation had there been some sort of demonstration of broader student support?
Based on my experience, there actually is a broad level of support for demands surrounding Manhattanville. I say this out of canvassing dorms with the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, and finding that if you actually talk to students about the problems with the plan, they’re generally supportive. So I really think the University is really entrenched in its mindset, and it would take a lot to change that.
So where from here?
That’s not an answer that I have. We’re going to debrief and decide that later. What I do know is that we’re not going to just go quietly and forget about all this, but where from here, I can’t speculate.
Cool. Anything else that needs to be said?
Well I think that one of the most important things that came out of this was a sense of really strong social cohesion and solidarity among the people that were planning these. People really came together, and I think that no matter what happens in the future, that’s one of the most positive things that will come out of this. The sense of frustration that we saw in the Town Halls coalesced, and I think that we can keep that going after the strike.
Do you feel like the general student body is pretty up on these issue?
I think we need to do a lot more outreach, and we plan to do that. We don’t want to close off anyone from conversation, and I don’t believe we’ve ever willingly demonized anyone who disagrees with us as a racist or anything like that.
Why do you think people get that impression?
I think there was a backlash that among strike organizers at a lot of the insensitive comments that occurred on the Bwog and other publications, which I think that could legitimately be characterized as racist, and our frustration with those comments was overplayed to reflect a frustration with the broader student body that simply wasn’t there…but we want to remain open to conversation, and we want students to be up on this issue.
Interview by Lydia DePillis
Photos courtesy of David Zhou