PrezBo’s Defense of Affirmative Action and Discussion of Columbia’s Racial Policy
At the beginning of Friday’s University Senate plenary, PrezBo gave a long speech about racism and the university’s role therein. His speech was historical in nature, starting with the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. The Board of Education, which struck down segregated public schooling as unconstitutional. After that decision, PrezBo said, “basically” every college in the US embraced affirmative action policies, as well as corporations and the government.
However, PrezBo went on, in the late 1980’s these ideas began to be attacked under the Reagan administration, and a challenge to the University of Texas’s Law School’s affirmative action policies succeeded in the Supreme Court. Later, Proposition 209 to California’s constitution got rid of affirmative action, and, according to PrezBo, the University of California is now 2.5% African-American (it was higher before Prop 209, he said).
When PrezBo was the president of the University of Michigan, the school was sued for its affirmative action program, and PrezBo oversaw a large-scale legal defense of the policies, which were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003. However, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that she hoped affirmative action policies would be required for only 25 more years. PrezBo noted that he knew of no other constitutional precedent with that sort of time limit.
PrezBo then discussed the University of Texas’s current admission policy of letting in the top 10% of every school in the state, a policy which he said only worked as affirmative action because Texas’s schools are “defacto segregated.” He then stated that scholarship on affirmative action for those of low socio-economic status has shown it does not produce racial diversity.
PrezBo concluded his defense of affirmative action by citing a court decision saying that colleges could only implement affirmative action for educational reasons, not to make up for past discrimination. PrezBo said this forces school administrators to talk in “vague, general, almost vacuous statements.”
As for Columbia’s role in race and racism today, PrezBo has appointed history professor Eric Foner to review Columbia’s past with regards to slavery and discrimination. “This university has its share of implication in the deeply unjust systems of this country,” he said of Foner’s research while noting it is still ongoing.
PrezBo finished by bringing up the $80 million the university has spent towards hiring a more diverse faculty and its efforts to increase financial aid.
Title IX in the Classroom and Academic Freedom
Letty Moss-Salentijn, Co-Chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee (FAC), addressed the senate on Friday about concerns that Title IX investigations may impact freedom of exchange in classrooms.
The FAC suggested four actions:
According to Moss-Salentijn, the Provost’s Office suggested that “without fear of creating a hostile environment that triggers Title IX investigations” should be eliminated from point one, that point 3 should be re-worded to “reaffirming” such anonymous comments “do not constitute grounds” for a Title IX investigation. The Provost’s Office also proposed a fifth point, for a link from CourseWorks for students to make complaints confidentially.
James Applegate, an Astronomy Professor on the Executive Committee rejected the Provost’s changes to the suggestions. He said that Title IX complaints needed to be confidential (the complainant is known to the investigators but not the faculty member complained about), not anonymous (where the investigators do not even know the identity of the complaining student).
PrezBo asked if these proposals have been reviewed by Columbia’s legal counsel. Applegate said no.
“We deeply, deeply are committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression, especially in the classroom. But in the sense that we know that many things can be said that people take offense to or regard as wrong or whatever, and we really need to make sure that that’s not the basis for denying or punishing faculty or punishing students,” said PrezBo. “On the other hand, we also know that there are federal laws and recognized exceptions to academic freedom, where speech that constitutes hostile environment is not protected and can be punished. The problem is how do we get that line.”
As for the prohibition on investigations on anonymous comments, PrezBo had worries. “If you fail to recognize a claim as hostile because you have foreclosed a method of becoming aware of it, that is something that the law does not permit you to do,” said PrezBo, although he admitted he didn’t know enough about discrimination law to say for sure.
A senator from FAC said that on legal questions the university’s counsel should work towards what the faculty wants, rather than the reverse. He also said there was a larger discussion about protecting academic freedom, saying that what’s taught should not cause a hostile environment investigation.
“I can be completely confident in saying that general counsel will look at this with an eye to strongly embracing academic freedom,” said PrezBo.
One senator said he’s stopped reading course evaluations because doesn’t want to report any anonymous comments he might see.
The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) rejected the request by Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ) for Columbia to divest itself of all of the top 200 fossil fuel companies. No Ivy League institution has accepted such a proposal, but Penn undergraduates approved a proposal in favor of divestment in February, 2015. Penn’s proposal still needs to go through several steps before it goes into effect.
At the plenary, ACSRI said it will continue to work on a “targeted divestment proposal” for companies that deny climate science directly or through their action.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Peter Platt, a faculty senator from Barnard, spoke about viewing course evaluations. He did not speak about that subject at the Senate’s plenary.
Fossil fuel scene via Shutterstock