Once a semester, a small group of students are selected to attend a Q&A at PrezBo’s house. They are treated to blintzes, fancy soda, and lots of very evasive answers. New Bwogger Yaniv Goren found this semester’s talk uncharacteristically dull, but not without highlights.
Last night, President Bollinger held this academic year’s first Fireside Chat. Accompanying him were the usual Columbia administration suspects: among them, Cristen Kromm, the dean of undergraduate student life; Suzanne Goldberg, the executive vice president for university life; and Scott Wright, the vice president for campus services.
Fireside Chats, held once a semester in PrezBo’s 60 Morningside Drive residence, can be quite contentious. This is unsurprising: give a handful of students the opportunity to confront powerful campus administrators about Columbia’s latest controversies, and you’d expect some Tiffany Pollard-level antics.
But this semester’s Fireside Chat was characterized by relatively tame questions. PrezBo used this hour of serenity to espouse political beliefs, utter platitudes about the Core, and distance himself from accountability for the manifold problems facing students.
For example, one sophomore from CC attempted to gauge PrezBo’s attitude towards frats. She seized upon the current political moment, referencing a New York Times article that called the current Kavanaugh hearings “a referendum on frat culture” and pointing out that fraternities often serve to preserve privilege. But all PrezBo did was compliment her rhetoric and offer a vague statement about Columbia’s responsibilities to its students. Then, he reiterated that he had little control over the funding mechanisms of frats– that if frats engendered socio-economic inequality, this was no fault of his.
Another student asked about the state of disrepair of undergraduate facilities at Columbia. PrezBo responded by assuring her that undergraduates were a top priority among administrators. Various administrators across the room then stood up and rattled off a succession of recent student-led changes, like lounge reform and storage repurposing. Notably absent was any mention of campus’ most high-profile undergraduate issues: toxic mold in EC or the mental health crisis, for example.
In fact, instead of wrangling campus controversies, PrezBo preached to the choir. Fielding questions about the importance of the Core and Sino-American relations, he made some well-received jabs against Trump. What was supposed to be a discussion felt, at times, like a PoliSci lecture, as though PrezBo was showcasing his First Amendment class instead of his actions as President. If students spent 30 seconds making their points, PrezBo often responded with comments that ran over 10 minutes.
Administration did take this semester’s Fireside Chat as an opportunity to promote its global centers. And in the same vein, PrezBo spoke of Columbians as citizens of the world and reaffirmed our duty towards our neighbors and peers across the globe. This is a noble talking-point, I’ll admit.
But Columbia’s role in society at large is an uncontroversial issue – one students can consult brochures and websites if they want to learn about. What they can’t easily do, however, is directly challenge PrezBo: extend a benign conversation about the global community into a constructive discussion about gentrification or funding streams. Although, as he emphatically pointed out early in the discussion, PrezBo reserves the right to refuse to answer students’ questions.
Entering PrezBo’s house, students were greeted by Columbia staff and escorted up a flight of grandiose marble stairs. They were treated like foreign dignitaries, regaled with fine dining and attentive service. But the main entrée of the night – the conversation – left much to be desired. Hopefully, this spring’s Fireside Chat will bring a more profitable and nuanced discussion.
Photo via WikiCU