On Bias and the Brownstone Committee
Written by Bwog Staff
Earlier this evening, KevSho sent out an email to the student body. Touching on Student Life Fees, the yet-unallocated convent, and the Brownstone Review Committee, it used agreeable language to address student dissent.
Some of what he wrote on that last point—the 114th brownstones—didn’t line up to Bwog.
KevSho began by avowing to “value discussion at every level,” “particularly where it relates to topics on community building.” This, despite the exclusion of community discussion or input in the Brownstone Review Committee.
Further down in the email, he writes that “We selected students who would support a fair process and could set aside their own bias and group affiliations.”
This contradicts what he told Spec, which was that Student Affairs had actively looked for Greek members for the committee. He said,
“We did purposely ask students who were part of Greek life because I wanted to honor that, historically, those brownstones have gone to Greek organizations,” Shollenberger said.
There, KevSho admits that adding more Greek students to the committee would affect their judgement—and that their biases would be valued as such. Student Affairs cannot have their cake and eat it, too—if they openly admitted that the committee should weight Greek interest more heavily, that would be defensible. However, they cannot both claim freedom from bias while at the same time acknowledging that they sought that specific bias.
Take the case of Daniel O’Leary III, who was actually a founding member of an applying fraternity. Once his affiliation was disclosed by Bwog, he admirably resigned. However, his conflict of interest brings into question the rest of the committee members, whose biases might not be so cleanly dealt with.
Bwog met with Dean Martinez a few weeks ago and inquired about this ongoing issue. When asked why the 114th brownstones wouldn’t have the same type of selection process that the 113th convent will—that is, an open one—she said that she didn’t “see what that would achieve.” She maintained that if the community as a whole were allowed input, its biases would get in the way. On the Brownstone Review Committee, Martinez, “would argue that there is not a bias.” She did not explain why these select students have the superhuman ability to set aside their biases or why the community as a whole lacks that capacity. Why does the convent—a similar space which may be allocated to SICs—merit a town hall and personal meetings with student government, when the brownstones do not?
Last week, in a meeting with KevSho himself—who will make the ultimate call—Bwog was told that the committee for the brownstones was deliberating seriously, and that Pike and AEPi were chosen as finalists because they had proved their moral rectitude and worth to the community. According to Shollenberger, Greek alumni and national organizations provided support and input to applying organizations. For other applicants, external support of no kind was allowed, whether from non-existent alumni or national bodies or from the community that they intended to serve.
In short, the idea that individuals can just set aside their biases is highly dubious, especially regarding such a divisive issue, such as Greek life at Columbia. Democracy is the system by which, to the highest degree possible, communities can define themselves, either washing out or codifying their biases. That system acknowledges bias as a signifier of a community’s unique character. The decision-making process for the convent looks to be pretty good, and Bwog doesn’t understand why is isn’t reduplicated in the brownstones. On this campus, where space is so, so scarce, any one group earning space affects the entire community. Perhaps in such instances, the entire community does deserve input.
In recent months, there have been a few student issues related to how resources are allocated to enhance the undergraduate experience. I have worked closely with student leaders to describe, in some detail, the processes that were used by the various offices and organizations involved to gather information, provide feedback, and make decisions. Answering questions posed by student leaders and relying on the student press and the councils of both Columbia College and SEAS to share information with their constituents, I have sought to keep students apprised of the progress being made on each of these topics.
Open dialogue in a community like ours is healthy and important. I value discussion at every level, but particularly where it relates to topics on community building and student services. Your ideas and opinions factor into the decisions that are made. Because there are ongoing conversations and questions around topics in student life, it is important for me to share with the CC and SEAS undergraduate community the information that I provided to various leadership groups.
Student Life Fee
The Student Life Fee supports many services and programs for students, including information technology, printing services, residential programming, student services and operations, career services, student activities, intercollegiate athletics, and physical education. A portion of the fee is given directly to the student councils of Columbia College and SEAS for distribution among the governing boards.
Details about the categories listed above and examples of how the Student Life Fee was distributed in the 2011-12 academic year are available online .
The decision not to release the financial breakdown of the student fees in past years was collectively made by the term bill committee. This committee is chaired by the provost and includes representatives from the Central Budget Office, Administrative and Student Services, Arts & Science, and the three undergraduate school deans. As a result of feedback from the student councils in 2008, a summary of how the fees were used is now given to the councils and student press every spring. In addition, I engage the council presidents each year to solicit their input, which I then take to the term bill committee. After reviewing the recommendations of the term bill committee, the University Trustees make the final decision.
After the councils requested the release of the student life fee this year, I once again brought the issue back to the provost and deans. Although similar requests had been made in the past, Provost Coatsworth, Deans Valentini and Goldfarb, and I felt that there were sound arguments for releasing the financial breakdown.
We hope the release of this information will help us continue discussions around how we can best enhance student services and programs.
Construction on 113th Street
Columbia acquired the brownstones—at 619, 621, and 623 West 113th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive—from St. Hilda’s House convent in 2009. This is a space with program areas, dining facilities, and other wonderful features that give us a unique opportunity to create a new and different residential community.
Student Affairs held a Community Forum on the topic of the “Creation of a New Residence Hall” on Thursday, October 11, which, unfortunately, was not heavily attended. We will continue to solicit feedback from students groups on how to utilize the space through meetings with Residential Advisers, student councils, special interest communities, and other key leaders.
The goal is to have the space available for student housing beginning in fall 2013. Therefore, we will align the application process with the existing Special Interest Community housing application process: Applications are due by mid-December, with decisions made by February. Look for more information to be released in the coming weeks.
Brownstone Selection Process
There are currently three vacant brownstones on West 114th Street. Last year, a process was developed in order to fairly allocate the space in a way that strengthens student organizations and enhances student life. A Brownstone Review Committee was assembled with student and staff representation. Recommendations from the committee will factor into my final decision on space allocation.
Applications to serve on the review committee were open to all students. Only 21 students applied, and most of these 21 applicants were affiliated with Greek organizations. We selected students who would support a fair process and could set aside their own bias and group affiliations.
On July 24, applications for the brownstone selection process were released to the entire community with a submission deadline of October 5. Thirteen applications were submitted from the student community, and each application received careful consideration from the Brownstone Review Committee. After much dialogue and deliberation, a decision was made to extend an invitation to six organizations to return for the presentation phase of the review process.
The six organizations returning for the presentation phase include:
Alpha Chi Omega
Alpha Epsilon Pi
Lamda Phi Epsilon
Manhattan House by NAC
Pi Kappa Alpha
Each of these organizations presented their case on Friday, November 9. Applicants were asked specific questions regarding their anticipated plans for group sustainability, partnership with Residential Programs, group accountability, and anticipated communication with the surrounding community, among other questions.
Your involvement and feedback are much appreciated as we work together to serve the needs of our student community and enhance student life on campus. Your voice is an important one, and I look forward to our continued dialogue.
Image via DNAinfo