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Fireside Chat: Graduate Students, Policy, and Expansion

Fire walk with me

Fire walk with me

Last night, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger held a chat for graduate students at his Morningside Drive mansion house. Barnard College sophomore and Bwog staff member Taylor Grasdalen visited on our behalf to keep up with the non-undergraduate community and PrezBo’s many global thoughts.

I hardly expected to be the first to arrive for President Bollinger’s Fireside Chat, but there I was, alone in his library, at a quarter to six. Name tag affixed, I admired the curated bookshelves and felt well too underdressed for the environment. The steady stream of men in suits—whose name tags denoted their school affiliations, many from the Law School or graduate students studying Computer Science or some form of Engineering—only made this worse, but most of the other women were similarly dressed down. It didn’t matter too much when we all were ultimately invited upstairs to a catered buffet; the act of stuffing oneself with free hors d’oeuvres and drinks is rather democratizing.



When the whole thing settled down around 6:30, at least fifty students piled into one very tiny room, Bollinger made his way in and onto the stool in the center of the room, “fireside.” Where’s the fire? I wondered. I was told there would be a fire. 

I’ve never seen him in person. I’ve encountered my college’s President Debora Spar many times on campus, but never Bollinger. I underestimated his daintily-feathered hair and age. He appeared uncomfortable on the stool to which he’d been assigned for the hour, his suit jacket bunched up around the shoulders and his hands folded in front of him. He played with the top of his San Pellegrino bottle for much of the chat; the fidgeting was non-stop.

The first question he received after announcing that the crowd could “ask [him] anything” came from the young woman perched immediately in front of him. Her question was three- or four-pronged and seemed a little disjointed, but she was confident. It was about sexual assault policy, as one might have anticipated. The room smelled of the sandwiches from the reception. Dishware clattered as we waited to hear from him.

Well, “it’s great,” he told us, “It’s interesting to hear from you and how you think about this.” He called it a very unfortunate thing, the “sense of vulnerability that many women feel,” and “how they feel treated.” He compared briefly the single-investigator model—“insufficient”—against the panel model of assessing gender-based misconduct cases. He would like more focus on training of staff, and believes that the deans should be responsible for handling the cases. He is adamant that public relations and Columbia’s image will not play a role in policy changes. He soon deferred to Suzanne Goldberg (one of the several introduced administrators present), Law School professor, Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and adviser to Bollinger on the issue of sexual assault.

Goldberg is a petite woman, short-haired and large-eyed, earnest. She discussed the policy Columbia has presently intact and went on to ask of the crowd: “Who here has read Columbia University’s policy [on sexual assault]?” Approximately a quarter of the audience raised their hands (myself included), and she was impressed; she said maybe one hand was raised among the undergraduate students who’d been to some previous Chat. She reiterated the point several times that “ours is a national model,” our policy on gender-based misconduct, that is, perhaps the best in the country. She provided a laundry list of all the ways we could seek help for assault, and asked several times as well that everyone please “read the policy.” There is an email address given on the first page of the policy PDF to which we can write complaints! “Ours is a national model.”

He could not comment on any cases. The follow-up question on deans’ bias in these cases and one specific example was then rebuffed by Bollinger. He believes in the deans’ characters and “personal integrity.” Goldberg popped up a few more times to commend the strength of Columbia’s policy, and ask again that we all read it. They agreed that it’s not only the administration’s responsibility here, but a “collective effort” (Goldberg’s words) in which we all participate and present our ideas, that we get “creative.”

This is the point where the subject digressed. A SIPA student raised concern with the assertion that we must be so creative and helpful to the University, for the University: How is this submission possible when students are already preoccupied with tracking down funds for schooling, finding internships, suffering from international visa problems, or, God forbid, studying? As well, how are we supposed to be fostering community—a real problem between graduate schools, or the oft-raised issue of Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion—when there are present so many immediate, separate concerns?

Bollinger escaped a lot of those points, and “will not accept criticism” that Columbia has been unresponsive to qualms with Manhattanville. He says there is a lot of support for the project as it unfolds in its ten thousand stages over the next five hundred thousand years. He talked of how “responsible” and what a “good neighbor” Columbia will be toward the community.

The term “community” led to some miscommunication here. Bollinger’s meaning was ambiguous as he used it to mean, alternately, the internal Columbia community and that of the actual Manhattanville area. Whether Columbia will be a very good neighbor to Harlem is yet to be known. He let himself consider the importance of expansion for some time and often forayed into globalization territory, but no one wants to get into that. After all, “How do you live in today’s world and not go to China? India? These are basic experiences.” He laughed. He touted these things as if they were very attainable and necessary to our—the students’—advancement, and this was not received all too well. At least, he conceded, “This is your world.”

There were miscellaneous questions on the status of the adjunct professor, employment, and our future. At one point he asked of the crowd whether they felt confident in their post-graduate job prospects, which received some laughs and sheepish hands of Business School and Science students.

I went into the President’s House unsure of my opinions on President Lee C. Bollinger. I am still unsure of his honesty or how genuine he really may be, but I do know that I enjoyed my free chocolate macaron.

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  • Might as well get into it... says:

    @Might as well get into it... … agreed that there was way too much going on that would be better for a light lifestyle piece than anything resembling Real News. We know what everyone’s wore and what snacks were laid out before Show & Tell now. I don’t feel better-informed. Less about hairdos, next time, please. And the ‘where’s the fire’ thing… kinda lightweight for what is presumably a real article. Last on this point, “…ten thousand stages over the next five hundred thousand years…” was downright childish, like the sugar-rush from the food crashed, and the writer’s attention span gave out.

    It seems like very few questions were actually asked (not counting the ‘miscellaneous’ ones that we don’t really hear about), but it might have been that there were too many details to keep track of. No way of knowing. (The questioners all wore name tags, but none were ID’d, for example, but that’s where the details go off for a drink or something.)

    Would’ve liked a bit more about the single-investigator vs panel model. Good background to fill out. Can’t say I’ve heard Bwog mention it before.

    SIPA student raises a fair point- saying ‘we’re all in this’ foists the responsibility off onto the people with the least time to spare. It’s like saying the NYFD and average citizens share responsibility for the city not burning down. Rhetorically true, but who gets paid, trained and given resources? Not us.

    I feel a transcript taken by a voice-recognition app might have been more informative, overall. Not a bad start, but way too much faffing around with hair, clothes, food and other miscellaneous shiny distracting objects.

    BTW, this is what being taken seriously is like. Real news gets real scrutiny.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “How do you live in today’s world and not go to China? India? These are basic experiences.” In Bollinger’s view, buying an airline ticket is the sine qua non of sophistication. Nonsense! You can lead a life of high intellectual adventure without ever leaving your desk.

  • poo pooo says:

    @poo pooo pooo pooo poooooooooooooooooooooooooo pooooo poooooooo poooo haha lol pooooooooooooooooo

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Still talkin’ s****, huh? ;)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous This was terribly written. She talked more about his hair and clothes and the food than the actual content of the talk and the questions. I learned nothing by reading this. Absolutely terrible.

  • Be Better bwog says:

    @Be Better bwog This is article is very poorly written and disappointing. Rather than entering into any detail on what appear to be well thought out questions (even referring to some as being **miscellaneous**) the article resorts to quickly glossing over and making vague summaries. The same goes for the Presidents’ response. If the president was really unwilling to respond to criticisms about the expansion, I think that’s very telling and it makes me extremely curious what criticisms were being raised in the question.

    Furthermore, given the amount of data currently being produced by No Red Tape, Coalition Against Gentrification, and Columbia Prison Divest on the way Columbia’s administration has acted with deep cynicism, Bwog should try to contextualize these criticism and perhaps consider the questions other students are raising. Rather than asking the tough questions or **gasp** actually criticizing Prezbo for his disingenuousness, Bwog neglected to include the most important aspects of this fireside chat and reserved criticism in order to what, appear unbiased? Facts are facts, and the very least facts being presented by students indicate that the Columbia Administration is unafraid of lying to us and has, in the case of expansion, engaged in some degree of corruption.

    To briefly recapitulate some points on the Manhattanville expansion, I would submit the following: If CU is such a good neighbor, why be complicit in the Manhattanville raids rather than following up on its promises to get some of these youth employed or answer to community requests that it build some kind of community center given the lack of recreational space for the youth in the two housing projects? If CU is such a good neighbor, why would West Harlem residents actively boo him at a public meeting with community board 9? If CU is such a good neighbor, why would their case for eminent domain, citing the neighborhoods blightedness (in part by simply saying it wasn’t visible, wtf) be referred to by one New York Supreme Court Justice as “pure sophistry”?

    Whatever questions these students were asking, it sounded like they were good ones and I wish I had been able to hear them. Instead I got coverage that failed to address the obvious dishonesty of Prezbo’s response.

    Bwog, I expect better of you. It’s not necessary that you submit student criticisms as your own (though that would make sense since you are a body representing not the administration but THE STUDENTS), but it most certainly is necessary that you consider what we say as part of any news on these subjects. There are students dedicating a lot of time to these issues and neglecting to make their voices heard, whether or not you agree with them, seems to be a failure of living up to your own journalistic values.

    1. Um says:

      @Um “Poorly written”? The reporter was just covering the talk. Don’t complain about how all the statistics aren’t in one place for your convenience after something as lame as one of these fireside q&as. And for what it’s worth, it’s actually written pretty decently

      1. Be better bwog says:

        @Be better bwog Yes poorly written! it fails to recognize that the most important part of these chats is not about what the environment is like but rather what is being said. The fact that ms. grasdalen didn’t think that the concerns students were raising were worth more than passing reference indicates nothing less than a poor understanding of what journalism is supposed to be.

        I’d also note that she is also the favorite for editor in chief of bwog starting next semester. Clearly if her concerns with respect to the expansion, or rather her knowledge OF said concerns, are limited only to the fact that it’s going to take a long time and will open in a multi step process, ms grasdalen is not adequately prepared to report on news that students are ACTUALLY interested in. On top of that, bwogs failure to take seriously issues that are being raised by a group of primarily students of color reflects how out of touch it is with a large section of the school’s population.

        Ms grasdalen, should you become editor I would hope you’d make it your business to understand as deeply as possible the challenges to and concerns being raised against the administration.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Yeah Bwog probably wrote a bad article because it’s racist. That’s constructive criticism right there.

  • * says:

    @* morningside drive

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