Last night, President Bollinger emerged from his ivory tower to host his semesterly Fireside Chat. Alongside some incredibly bougie catering and fellow administrators (Associate Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg, Dean of Undergraduate Student Life for CC and SEAS Cristen Kromm, Acting Dean of Students for GS Ivonne Rojas, VP for Campus Services Scott Wright, and Director of Media Relations Caroline Adelman), our illustrious president took answered student questions about free speech, free speech, and…you guessed it, free speech!
After overcoming my initial disappointment that Fireside Chat would not, in fact, take place in front of a large, crackling fireplace, I settled into my seat alongside the cadre of students who scored a ticket to this event. Unfortunately, that disappointment was only a warm-up for the disappointment I would feel after an hour of answers that, while hitting on some important issues, were ultimately surface and incredibly repetitive.
The first question of the night, in which a student asked if PrezBo believed Columbia’s culture came from its students or from the top down, did a great job encapsulating what would ultimately emerge as the lesson of the night: Columbia’s commitment to creating an open and accepting community. PrezBo’s immediate response was that “no doubt it is not top-down” and the administration has “no influence on [our] attitudes what-so-ever.” He eventually meandered his way into a more nuanced answer (another theme of the night), boiling down to “you’re grownups” but “you sometimes listen to what we have to say.” Throughout the question, he very much seemed to be talking about the incident in which a student accosted a group of Black students outside Bulter and harassed them with racist rhetoric. This feeling was only heightened when Suzanne Goldberg stepped in to highlight upcoming events meant to have conversations about university culture, including a Let’s Talk discussion on issues of identity and an event with PEN America.
Continuing in the vein of community openness, in response to a later question from an international student regarding Columbia’s commitments to its American tradition versus its desire for global expansion, PrezBo highlighted the unstoppable forces of the internet and globalization and the changes the university has made as a result of this (and also made sure to plug his work establishing Columbia’s Global Centers).
We moved into the current events portion of the evening after a student hit PrezBo with a question about BDS. Bollinger repeated his strong opposition to the tactics of the movement, both as a free speech scholar and a University president. He pointed out that, in general, universities don’t take political positions and when they do, it requires some kind of campus consensus that does not currently exist for the BDS movement. A GS student then followed up with a question about fears voiced by some in the U.S. intelligence community that countries are taking advantage of the openness of American universities and sending spies to steal classified research and intellectual property belonging to the states. After expounding at length on the beauty of America’s open higher education system and laying out the issue for everyone else in the room, he once more found the most moderate position possible: perhaps universities could do more, but Columbia doesn’t do classified research (part of our commitment to openness) and it “has people” who are working hard to protect the university’s IP. Who those people are or what they’re doing…your guess is as good as mine.
We rounded out these not-quite-Columbia related questions a bit later with PrezBo’s response to Trump’s threat to defund universities that don’t protect free speech. Despite this being a Free Speech Campus™, he expressed his distaste for the threat, which he felt “springs from an anti-university, anti-intellectual” sentiment and plays into stereotypes about universities. However, Bollinger expressed a belief that there was probably “no policy content in the proposal…in a matter of hours [the Trump administration] will move onto something new.”
One of the most relevant questions to the student body right now explicitly referenced the incident outside of Butler; a third-year SEAS student involved with drafting the Black Student Organization’s statement condemning the action asked whether the tirade of hate speech was also free speech. After a very long excursion on the case law surrounding the issue, Bollinger pointed out that all of that actually doesn’t apply to private universities like Columbia (leaving me wondering why we wasted time talking about it when we used the time for more questions). But according to PrezBo, “all universities have embraced the First Amendment” so the hate speech outside of Butler, though incredibly harmful, would not only be protected by the Constitution but “under CU jurisprudence, it would be protected” as well. As such, the question of how the university will respond to the incident remains up in the air. Though the student disciplinary process is confidential, instead of giving us “a master class in free speech case law,” as Goldberg put it in her supplement to his answer, President Bollinger or any of the administrators in the room could have used some of that to time to lay out concrete steps that the University is taking to prevent incidents of hate in the future.
We closed out the night with the ever-pressing question of financial aid, and PrezBo noted that he believed CC and SEAS were doing a good job, but could give families who make slightly more money more aid. Schools like GS and School of the Arts, he noted, have real challenges and we’re “working this on all the time” but again, no one was able to say what administration was concretely doing to address those issues in particular. Dean Kromm highlighted some measures CC and SEAS have implemented, such as the Dean’s Assistance Fund, and VP Wright spoke of initiatives in the works to improve dining during winter break for food-insecure students and remove hidden costs for course materials. We ran out of time before Acting Dean Rojas could speak about her school; given the unique and pressing financial concerns facing GS students, it seems like we could have stuck around for another two minutes to see what she had to say.
In the Q&A, a student asked PrezBo how he felt he could still improve. He said that he’s looking for “one more thing I can do.” I suggest he consider giving us something a little more concrete when he deigns to speak to undergrads instead of just parroting every press release on Columbia’s website.