In the new issue of your favorite magazine The Blue and White, on campus later this week, you’ll read about the denial of tenure to a favorite Barnard professor, get some insight into CUSH’s split from the IRC, and hear from the wisest cabbie in New York City. Whet your appetite with this piece by senior editor Torsten Odland, CC ’15, on Operation Ivy League and how quickly institutional memory fades at Columbia.
In the early hours of December 7, 2010, the following students were awoken and arrested for drug dealing by NYPD officers: Harrison David, SEAS ’12; Chris Coles, CC ’12; Stephan/Jose Vincenzo/Perez, CC ’12; Michael Wymbs, CC, ’11; and Adam Klein, CC ’12. Specifically, they’d sold: marijuana, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, and Adderall. The bust was the culmination of a five month long investigation of the students, from whom undercover NYPD officers bought $11,000 worth of drugs over the course of 31 deals.
In the Office of Special Narcotics’ original press release, they referred to the sting as “Operation Ivy League.” Though Police Commissioner Ray Kelly denies ever using it, it is the name that stuck.
Students from 2010 remember “OIL” as a “big deal.” Operation Ivy League united the Columbia community in confusion; the atmosphere on campus in the days after the arrests was described to me as a “collective daze”—OIL was “shocking” and “upsetting” and everyone was talking about it.
The responses to “Five Students Arrested in Drug Bust, ‘Operation Ivy League,’ ” Bwog’s first article covering the story, demonstrate how intensely Columbia students felt about the issue: “My thoughts go out to the countless individuals in the Greek community who fight everyday to show the truly positive side of their fraternity or sorority, only to have actions like this essentially reset the process. It’s an absolute shame”; “My heart goes out to the desperately poor people from third-world countries who risk their lives smuggling drugs inside their bodies because they have no other option. My heart does NOT go out to Ivy Leaguers who got caught.”
For the Columbia students who were there, OIL was an unforgettable event, about which many still feel strongly, both in support of or in disgust with the arrested. It’s remained campus news for two years–—Bwog published updates about each of the accused’s court cases, and still keeps campus posted when Jose Perez appears on network news to talk about the dangers of Adderall.
Two years from now, almost all of the undergrads who remember the atmosphere on campus in the days after the arrests will have graduated. Which begs the question: Does Operation Ivy League matter to Columbia students anymore? Let me put it this way: In Columbia history, can we put Op. Ivy League in the same category as “that time Snoop Dogg played Bacchanal?” Did it permanently impact the lives of Columbia students, or is it another “legendary moment” that ultimately amounts to a memory?
The answer is complicated. The arrests did have one immediate effect on life at Columbia that has persevered: Operation Ivy League made it a lot harder to buy drugs. I met with a student (and self-professed drug enthusiast) who, on condition of anonymity, explained that “the Five” were neither the highest nor lowest figures on the Columbia drug distribution chain—only the most well known. The student laughed when I asked if they’d ever heard the five names in connection with each other before the bust: “They were ‘the campus drug dealers.’ Everyone knew… [Perez] used to put what he had for sale on his Facebook statuses.” The network of dealers used to include many students selling out of their dorms on a small-time basis, and though the bust only took five players out of that network, it sent a message to everyone else: you’re taking on a serious risk. “Everyone got scared. Multiple friends of mine—I had just been picking up from friends—stopped dealing after [the Five] got arrested.”
This infrastructure has yet to be reestablished. “It’s still harder to buy weed,” the student sighed. Much easier, they allowed, than immediately after the bust, when entirely new lines of distribution had to be formed. Instead of business with off-campus distributors being confined to a few student dealers, the users themselves had to search for new hook-ups. This often meant venturing into unknown, “sketchy” parts of the city. “I went from going next door [in my dorm], to picking up in public restrooms, where you had to knock a certain amount of times,” the student elaborated, “or getting into cars with people I didn’t know. Once I had an experience with like, fake police. [Picking up weed] got a lot scarier.”
But demand for drugs remained constant. Thus, more reliable connections were slowly built with off-campus dealers, and, for marijuana at least, this arrangement remains most typical at Columbia. There are a handful of campus dealers, but, of the pot smokers with whom I spoke, the majority buys from adults in the Morningside Heights area–a profitable new domain for a limited number of non-affiliated dealers who capitalized on the new market after OIL. Less standard drugs, like LSD, are more difficult to come by; if there are reliable dealers, they don’t seem to be very well known among the student body. Still, over the last two years Columbia’s drug economy has returned to stability.
Operation Ivy League’s other major impact was internal. Because Jose Perez, Harrison David, and Adam Klein were members of Pi Kappa Alpha, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and Psi Upsilon, respectively, and dealt out of their fraternity houses, Columbia stripped the three chapters of their brownstones. The buildings were reserved for transfer students in ’11-’12, and became part of general housing for ’12-’13. Next year the brownstones will once again be reserved for specific communities. Last November Student Affairs awarded them to Alpha Chi Omega, a sorority; Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian-interest fraternity; and Q House, a special interest group dedicated to creating a safe living space for members of the LGBTQA community.
For the then-current members of Pike, AEPi, and Psi U, Operation Ivy League obviously had an enormous impact on social life at Columbia. They lost their communal homes, they vacated “frat row.” And though the substance of their “fraternal bonds” may not have changed, it’s difficult to separate the character of a fraternity from its “house”—something that, in the cases of these three frats, will mean something very different for all of their future members. But the impact isn’t strictly limited to Greek Life participants: “frat row” means something very different than it did in 2010. The number of fraternity houses on 114th (including ADP) dropped from 6 to 3 in 2011.
The classes of ’13 and ’14 underwent their formative years (and their NSOPs) in a different environment, and ’15 and ’16 are about to go through the same process in reverse, as the brownstones revert from general student housing to “communities.”
OIL evidently does have a residual presence in our lives at Columbia, but though our neighborhood and drug culture may be objectively different, it’s a difference that’s easily absorbed by the system. We buy drugs from different people, but at its worst this arrangement is just an annoyance—Columbia students still buy and use drugs as they did before OIL. Granted, 114th has fewer parties, but second- and first-years have only ever known it that way, and now there’s 113th St. Besides, Greek life still exists; in fact, since the bust Columbia’s recognized two new sororities (AOII and Gamma Phi Beta) and one fraternity (SAE). The number of students going Greek is at an all time high, and has in fact increased 19.2 percent since the spring of 2011, immediately after Operation Ivy League. Though our environment was reconfigured, our lives have returned to a (new) normalcy.
For that reason, it’s difficult for first- and second-years to imagine how much of a “big deal” the arrests seemed for students at the time. The Bwog article “Everything Thing You Need to Know About Operation Ivy League” (meant as a kind of primer for new students) has a heading titled “Is this why my parents were worried when I said I was applying to Columbia?” But this way of putting it confused me— my parents weren’t terribly surprised by the news of the arrests, and I applied in 2010. OIL didn’t have any impact on Craig Ruzika’s, CC ’16, application process either, he assured me. “It was only when I was working over the summer that I learned about the bust,” he said. “Didn’t worry me. It probably won’t affect my life.” He only knew OIL as “a drug bust”; when I stopped Craig outside of Carman to ask if I could talked to him about Operation Ivy League, he replied, “I’ve never heard of it.”
For those of us who weren’t students at the time of the arrests, I think it’s safe to say that the whole thing seems pretty banal. Surely it should come as no surprise to anyone that Columbia is host to drug dealers—there are certainly drug users—nor that drug dealers often get caught. The mass confusion felt on campus hardly seems like a reaction to the case itself and its minimal impact on Columbia’s social ecosystem.The confusion was likely a reaction to the fact that the NYPD seemingly targeted and certainly publicized the bust as a crackdown on “Columbia frat boys”—and then across the country, instantaneously, the news media had a collective orgasm.
Though not all outlets gloried in the class stereotypes inherent in the story as blatantly as the New York Post (e.g. “five students at the prestigious college—some from wealthy families—made stacks of cash by peddling a wide range of narcotics”), one is hard-pressed to understand why a paper like the Las Vegas Sun would cover something so insignificant as college kids slinging dope beyond the fact that the story was a perfect storm of privilege. Suddenly, Columbia’s identity was thrown into the national news spotlight. The arrested weren’t just drug dealers; they were “Columbia student drug dealers.”
Many Bwog and Spectator comments focus on Columbia’s reputation, some asserting that the arrests will devalue our diplomas in some way. The media made the bust indissoluble from the image of “Columbia University.” So it’s not hard to see why students seemed to react to the news so personally—it had to do with our identity as Columbians. To cite an extreme case, on the Columbia Daily Spectator’s article “Five students in custody after drug bust” one comment (which tops 1,562 words) begins, “I consider myself, for all intents and purpose, a typical Columbia student…I have used, and probably will continue to use, weed, adderall, LSD, MDMA, cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, DMT, and a tons of other drugs.” But Columbia’s identity hasn’t changed. At least the perceived value of a CU degree hasn’t—admissions in the three years after the arrests has been more competitive than ever before.
Operation Ivy League still matters, but not in a way that’s as monumental as it seemed to in 2010. Its effects are subtle unless you go out of your way to take a look at the history. The nature of change in a college setting is such that within four years the new becomes the normal. The class of ’17 will know the brownstones as belonging to AXO, LPE, and Q House; fifteen years from now the people living there will mostly likely never learn that their brownstone experience is all thanks to three unfortunate student drug dealers; and who knows who lived in the houses before Pike, PsiU, and AEPi. But of course, all of us live amidst thousands of small institutional adjustments, many of which can be traced to individual events in the University’s history. Operation Ivy League matters, but only as much as the countless events that went into shaping our current experiences at Columbia—often invisible and soon forgotten.