We waited in line for this

Britt Fossum and Taylor Grasdalen happily represented Bwog last night

Last night, we were invited to President Bollinger’s first undergraduate fireside chat of the semester. Editor in Chief Taylor Grasdalen attended, and reports back here. (Please note that Internal Editor Britt Fossum also went, having won a seat by submitting the question “Do you read Bwog?”)

I must acknowledge that this was not my first Fireside Chat, though it was my first amongst other undergraduates. That said, the questions asked of President Lee “Ask Me Anything” Bollinger were nearly identical to those that I’d heard from graduate students. This tells me that whatever your school or year within Columbia, whatever your area of study, we’re ultimately concerned with the same things.

Let’s get “right into the thick of it,” then, as the first student to raise a question began. He asked about the difficulties of receiving a good or service from elsewhere in the University, particularly for a club, and how “departments have a monopoly on their own service.” Not only are costs incredibly high, but there’s an irrational amount of administrative work required. Bollinger had no answers, “[knows] nothing about it,” but had plenty for the next student.

This young panderer asked about the role of transparency in free speech, politics, and western democracy. Bollinger was happy to respond: “Every society has to discuss this kind of balance.” How much information are you willing to allow the public, after all? He considered the press and the public’s own roles in government transparency; while the press may publish whatever it can “get its hands on” with full constitutional protection, the “leaker” (he used Edward Snowden in example) may be prosecuted and receives no First Amendment rights under the Espionage Act. He felt that there’s been a shift “in favor of too much openness,” though citizens — the press included — must too be charged with representing the best interests of the government, for the sake of the country. It’s not only the editors in chief of The New York Times and Washington Post who have information today, but too the likes of Julian Assange, who certainly has no interest in protecting the United States. And on that note, the original asker said, “I’ll just take your class.”

One woman asked about the Columbia Prison Divest group, and its “claims” about our investments in private prisons. Specifically, “Is this morally objectionable?” Bollinger offered “a word about the endowment,” that Columbia’s “fundamental objectives” are to research and to teach, and that there’s an unofficial policy of not having very strict rules about where we invest, though divestment here has been successful before: business in apartheid South Africa, tobacco companies, Sudanese businesses, and so on. He stated, “I’m not ready to take a position.” “There is a committee,” however, and there will be a resolution on both prison and fossil fuel divestment before the end of the semester.

Next came the issue of Manhattanville, and the role of Columbia University in Harlem — and as well, where we stand should the Obamas choose Columbia for the site of the new Presidential Library. He answered exactly as I’ve heard from him before, explaining how the expansion will not at all resemble the Morningside campus, that there will be a new public Columbia high school, that the Harlem residents would be “better off” with Columbia there. “How you live here is the test of whether we’ve got two communities or one community,” and it seems he’s angling for just one. No comment really on President Obama’s library, but “we’d welcome that.”

He had no answers for one General Studies Student Council leader asking about accessibility on campus. Her specific request was that there need to be more permanent accommodations, especially in Lerner.

Bollinger was then asked about the student environment on campus, and whether it has changed for the worse in recent years. As well and more generally, what does he like or dislike most about Columbia University? Right now, he dislikes “the weather.” But as far as the environment, he believes “it’s thriving.” “As a First Amendment person,” he likes the debate, the so-called controversy, and the sense of “perpetual improvement.” To quote him further, “It’s a spectacular time to be at Columbia . . . Globalization is your world . . . I’ll tell you something that is true about your lives: never, ever again will you read the great works of humanity or study the natural world [in the same way] again.” Though he did concede: “Universities need to change significantly to grapple with problems.”

Transparency, again! Asked about the “lack of transparency” and standardization within the Global Core, Bollinger replied that we will spend our entire lives trying to understand other civilizations, cultures, et cetera, and Columbia needs to prepare us for that. Columbia prepares it students “to think in the deepest possible ways.” Nearly dodging the issue of how few classes satisfy the requirements, he stated that to have “100 course options” would not allow that same, ahem, “depth.” I should note that at this question I began to tally his use of the word “global,” at the exclusion of use with the phrase “Global Core.” (Final count: 19.)

From the back of the room, he fielded a question from one SEAS student about the growing demand for more STEM and online courses, and a lessened interest in the humanities. Bollinger feels that the biggest questions we address in life are those addressed by the humanities. “I love the law,” he said, eyes bright. In fact, humanities equals life and meaning, which equals global power. “The idea that there is no role for the liberal arts education is clearly misguided.” But as for online options, he believes that “it will not undermine a Columbia” and will enable many more to be effectively and cheaply educated. “The press missed a change in the world” when they maintained that there would always be a demand for the physical newspaper; universities should not miss this same change.

President Bollinger then turned the line of questioning around, and asked of the room: how many seniors are here? How’s the job situation? “As somebody who doesn’t have a job,” one Columbia College student began, it feels like a “vicious cycle”; you’re at once seeking high pay to make up for high debt, ceding your interests to repay your loans.

“Do you feel like the academic world is open to you?” A collective “no.”

One CC junior, who worked in finance last summer: “I’m no longer interested in working in [finance].” He’s now “considering academia.” At the same time, it’s difficult when an entry level job required three years prior experience; it’s “confusing.”

President Bollinger asked for comment from Suzanne Goldberg (Executive Vice President for University Life; Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law; Director, Center for Gender and Sexuality Law) at this point. She told us that law school is full of people who were once or remain unsure of their career goals. “The world is so dynamic now.” The market is changing so quickly, we should never feels as if “fields are foreclosed to you.”

“Do you feel life is full of all kinds of things for you, or do your feel more permanent?” One GS student, studying philosophy and linguistics, offered, “I don’t know.” He said that there seems to be an “assembly line” of students at college: “Come here, get a degree, and die at some point.”

“Do you feel this is a great time of life, or are there a lot of anxieties?” Both.

He asked then for a show of hands, for how many have traveled to… China? India? South America? Kenya? South Africa? Is it a goal for us to visit every continent before we graduate? The “inertia of the organization” of Columbia allows our traveling the whole world, just from our school. “You’re not going to be in Kansas for the rest of your life.” Goldberg again: “Think about your curriculum more extensively.” Global experiences are so important, she stressed that you “be deliberate with your time.” Attend department and extracurricular events, half of them “even feed you!”

Insofar as we have already made it at Columbia, we should use our time here as best we can. Rely on your peers and this atmosphere of change and globalism, and don’t ever talk down the humanities.