The mansion

The mansion

PrezBo held a Fireside Chat last night, complete with snacks and fancy outfits. Bwog’s Bollinger Buddy Britt Fossum went to chat by his fireside.

I was told that President Bollinger’s fireside chat would begin at 6:00 PM, and so I hurried out of my CC class fifteen minutes early, regretting my decision to exchange midterms sneakers for nice shoes as I stepped in several puddles on 116th. Upon arriving at his home and getting my press pass clipped on, I realized that I wasn’t the only one trying to make a good impression by dressing well. I saw suits, dresses, and even what appeared to be some kind of deconstructed tuxedo. Impressive for college students in the throes of exams. 6:00 was when the snacking and mingling began, not the chat itself. And so I snacked and mingled, and spoke with a friend who has so far won two fireside chat lotteries. She reassured me that the food was better last time, even though I was pretty impressed. They even had scotcheroos, a Midwestern delicacy. Besides the food, the night was relatively tame, the exception being the controversial questions students asked PrezBo. Student mental health, Manhattanville, prison divest, and sexual assault all came up but these discussions were mixed with digressions on Columbia’s Global Centers and Bollinger’s personal development.

At around 6:30 we were steered into a side room filled with rows of chairs and couches, with a single stool in the front awaiting PrezBo’s arrival. After everyone settled down, he entered quietly and took a seat. The other administrators present were announced: Dean Terry Martinez, University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, Media Relations Vice President Robert Hornsby, GS Dean of Students Tom Harford, and Facilities Vice President Joseph Ienuso. Bollinger then announced, as he always does at these chats, that he would answer any question we ask him unless he doesn’t want to.

At first, only one person raised her hand—a 3-2 student who raised the concern that during her time at Georgetown the school made student wellness and mental health high priorities, and that she did not see the same at Columbia. Bollinger was “surprised by this statement.” He handed the question over to Dean Martinez but not before saying that he firmly believes that students are happy at Columbia and “if you’re not, please tell me.” Dean Martinez mostly addressed the apparent lack of community by saying that despite the fact that there is no single central community, there are many smaller communities—“lots of micro-communities.” This is a resource that some larger schools do not have, where smaller side groups are excluded from a sense of community entirely if they don’t want to go to the football game.

In a similar vein of student community and care, a representative of the GS Alliance, an LGBT group, asked about why Columbia is so much less progressive than Barnard with inclusive bathrooms and how the college might change that with the Manhattanville expansion. Another student asked about graduate students with families. Bollinger handed the question over to Facility’s Ienuso saying, “I’ve got to be more progressive.” Ienuso said that facilities is working to change the bathroom situation at Columbia, but that “we’re not where we need to be.”

The next question was a bit more abstract—what changes would Bollinger like to see made at Columbia? He answered that he sees Manhattanville as a part of the great challenge Columbia faces: running out of space. The construction of NoCo was similarly a step in the right direction; previously Columbia hadn’t built new science facilities since the 1970s. He wants to continue managing resources and fundraising, and says that there are some resources that the school will never have—“competitors” Princeton and Stanford will always have more space. However, Columbia does have the city which he claims is “worth 20 billion in our endowment.” He also wants to continue fostering an intellectual community that is influential in current issues. “Americans are not as aware as we should be” about current international conflicts, and Columbia should be working to change that. Later questions dealt with outreach, which Bollinger saw as another opportunity to grow as a school by reaching out the community and working with Bloomberg to start a STEM-focused Columbia High school.

The discussion turned more personal: what PrezBo’s vision is for after he leaves Columbia. He notes that he has been working as a college administrator for nearly seventeen years and hopes to continue to work on his personal projects, even though he considers his time at Columbia to have been an intellectual and creative experience. He think he will stay at Columbia for several more years and then will perhaps have ten more years left for substantive work in the field of global free expression. He says that occasionally at Columbia “other opportunities come along” that tempt him, but it’s “hard to beat the life I have.” He transitioned into an explanation of where he comes from, a small and not well-educated town. During college, he “felt behind students like you” and always felt like he needed to catch up, which lead to him working hard all the way through law school and as a professor. He advised us all to find mentors like his close friend Joe Sachs who recently passed away, either other students or faculty. “It’s hard to tell what your talents are until you’re around people who draw them out of you.”

Sexual assault only came up once in the meeting, when a student asserted that by failing to issue public safety warnings about sexual assault, the school was in violation of federal law (the Clery Act) and engaging in racism and classism. PrezBo responded by saying that obviously sexual assault is intolerable, but that Columbia is complying with the law to the best of his knowledge. He mentioned the town halls scheduled for this week, and says that there will be a set of announcements from his advisory commission by the end of the semester.

Another controversial issue, prison divest, was dealt with by not really dealing with it at all. He said that he cannot state a position on the issue because the endowment is “kept separate from these kinds of questions.” He asked rhetorically if corporate America is corrupt for making cars, and said that in most cases the endowment is for making money and “is not a means of having policy debates.” Only in extreme cases such as apartheid in South Africa and cigarette companies would divest be considered as an option.

The rest of the night was spent on much lighter topics. On the war on fun: “I am generally in favor of fun.” On the issue of changing up the Core, he joked that “you don’t touch the Core without putting your armor on,” and noted that he really believes in the ideal of the Core Curriculum. He made sure to emphasize that even though schools like MIT are ahead of Columbia with putting technology to use in the classroom, we still have the Core.

Time ran out and PrezBo asked the students if they took advantage of the Global Centers. The answer was a resounding no. He encouraged us all to try, even if only for a week during the semester; using it for cool projects is “the dream.” Chaplain Davis has apparently visited every Global Center.

I waited after hoping to ask him my own question, but unfortunately he only had time for a picture. I refrained from filling up a take-out box with fancy cheese and waved goodbye to his dogs playing in the garden. To be honest, I was more disappointed with the questions that were raised than I expected to be. Why was the only question on sexual assault couched in such an accusatory manner? Why was the sexual assault town hall scheduled for the Thursday evening before spring break? As an expert on free speech, could he tell us if Barnard was in violation of the first amendment by taking down the SJP banner? What about the decision to eliminate internship credits? Most of the responses would still have been predictable, but at least there might have been discussion.