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.