Bwog Editor-In-Chief Britt Fossum had the fortunate opportunity to attend one of PrezBo’s intimate “fireside chats,” bringing a junior staffer along as her escort. The pair report back about the exclusive event to you here–lucky you!
Another year, another fireside chat. Milling about in a crowd of freshmen and administrators, I felt like an expert at this kind of thing. I explained how many bottles of water President Bollinger typically drinks, the posture he adopts as he awkwardly perches on his tiny stool, and–to the wonder of the junior staff writer accompanying me–showed where the unopened texts from the Lit Hum and CC syllabi are kept in the Presidential Library. It is heartening to meet and interact with our campus administrators, and while they certainly speak candidly, the fireside chat is not the place to hear any major announcement or deep confession.
That being said, Monday’s chat touched on a much wider scope of topics than any chat I had attended before, and Bollinger took more time to engage with the students by asking questions of us and passing questions on to other administrators. Additionally, many of the attendees were first-years and chose to ask less serious questions. One such freshman asked what alumni usually regret about attending Columbia, to which Bollinger replied, “the feeling that people always express is too much pressure, not enough community” but added the caveat that “the overriding sense is that people are happy.” He mentioned that alumni from the 70s and 80s in particular struggled with attending Columbia due to the inhospitable social climate of NYC during that time.
Bollinger then turned the question back to the student, asking what he likes about Columbia. The student admitted he had been discouraged by the “bitterness” he noticed reading campus blogs and newspapers after his early decision admission but that so far he is enjoying it. Another student took the floor to compliment his Contemporary Civilizations professor, an associate professor, as working hard to introduce diversity with regard to conversations in the classroom. This was the only time during the fireside chat that the issue of adjunct and associate professors used to supplement full-time professors was raised at all, which was surprising.
In response to the question: “what would you do if you had to stick your consciousness in a freshman and go through four years at Columbia,” Bollinger launched into the requisite PSA about the Global Centers. He did manage to tie this into a discussion of the increasing influence of global communications, which he compared to how as a young Bollinger he watched his father’s newspaper expand to national coverage.
There was a question about what the administrators are doing to help improve the financial struggles of students at Columbia, including how the University has worked with FLIP. Bollinger focused his response on improvements to financial aid for GS and international students before passing the question on to Suzanne Goldberg and Cristen Kromm who work more closely with student groups to improve emergency funds. Dean Hartford spoke up on the issues facing General Studies, a younger school with a much smaller endowment, to provide financial aid especially as it has much higher percentages of first generation students, military veterans, and students with families. Hartford added that of all the struggles GS faces, this one “keeps us up at night.”
Another serious question asked about the new Columbia Psychological Services updates this semester, which Bollinger again passed on to the other administrators. Scott Wright from CU Health spoke at length on the need to expand diversity of the staff, mentioning that new staff members hired this year include people of color and a trans psychologist. They are continuing to work on this issue as they expand staff. Additionally CPS has added extra drop-in hours at the office in the IRC as they have seen an increased demand for services in that office.
The conversation lightened up when a student asked why Bollinger continues to teach his free speech class to which he replied that he has three reasons: he loves the subject, he knows he’ll get “kicked out of this job” at some point and should have a back-up, and that he really does have a passion for teaching undergraduates. He dislikes the “professionalization of knowledge” and disagrees with the idea that an education in law should only begin in law school. To a CC student asking about activism and protest he stated: “As a free speech person I love dissent. As a president of the University, I love dissent.” To a student asking about how the Obamas will be involved at Columbia in the future, he made no comment.
The next question asked about the role of online education, which Bollinger does not see as a threat to Columbia’s existence as an educational institution. When he asked the room for a show of hands on whether they use online classes, almost no one raised their hand. Bollinger believes that people will continue privileging the experience of Columbia and the unique “conveyance of knowledge” that occurs in an immersive environment. He again brought up the global centers, this time in order to mention that perhaps they will serve as a way to introduce the Columbia experience into other places and threw some shade at NYU by insisting that CU will never dilute its power by “opening branch campuses in Abu Dhabi.”
The talk ended with a student mentioning the struggle of working a job while attending Columbia, prompting Bollinger to call on other students in the crowd to provide input and a final question about whether the administration should do more to “empower conservative voices.” Bollinger said what the whole audience was thinking: “I feel uncomfortable with the University trying to influence advocacy. The critique of universities as being liberal places I think is a stereotype. There is still such a thing as a taste for debate.”
With that, the event ended promptly at 7:30. Bollinger encouraged us all to fill up the provided takeaway boxes: “Please take home the food. You look hungry.” He did not stay for additional questions or the photograph I had promised my escort he would get to take.
Fireside Heaven via Shutterstock