Three weeks after a Ferguson grand jury’s decision sparked national outcry about police brutality, Columbia and Barnard administrators held forums this week to discuss the trauma some students have felt in light of recent events.
But after the two discussions this week, students criticized the time between the start of the national protests and Columbia’s response to the issue.
Limited response from the colleges
Between the days immediately following the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case and the announcements of the two discussions, response from undergraduate administrators was limited to one email sent on Nov. 25 to all students in Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science, and two additional emails to an Office of Multicultural Affairs student listserv on Dec. 3 and Dec. 8, which included a list of resources including open hours in the Intercultural Resource Center and in the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
The Nov. 25 email, which was sent by the Undergraduate Student Life office, announced a conversation to be held that evening focused on the personal impact of the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case.
That meeting, which was scheduled at the same time as dozens of Columbia students joined the citywide protests, was attended by about 10 students. Attendees made posters with colored paper and pipe cleaners with headings like “#blacklivesmatter” and “How are you feeling?”
Law students take action
Students at the Law School were among the first to reach out to their school’s administrators to request concrete responses to the grand jury decisions and ensuing activism.
Last week, the Columbia Law School Coalition of Concerned Students of Color sent a letter asking Law School administrators to offer exam extensions to students dealing with trauma related to the recent grand jury decisions.
“In being asked to prepare for and take our exams in this moment, we are being asked to perform incredible acts of disassociation that have led us to question our place in this school community and the legal community at large,” the letter said.
Law School administrators ultimately informed students on Saturday that they could make accommodations to take their exams at a later date in light of recent events. The Law School also brought in a trauma specialist to speak with students, and announced that they were planning an open forum about the issues.
After seeing the Law School’s response, Columbia College Student Council members reached out to Columbia College Dean James Valentini on Dec. 8 to advocate that similar resources be made available for students.
“I think it’s overwhelming for people to be taking finals when they’re going through some extreme pain, so we spoke to Valentini, and said pretty unequivocally that we believe the accommodations made at the Law School needed to be provided here,” CCSC Vice President of Policy Sejal Singh, CC ’15, said. “There needs to be community discussions about these issues, accommodations of those issues.”
Singh said that she had been contacted by members of the Black Students Organization about how thankful students were for the resources Columbia offered after the death of Joshua Villa, a Columbia College first-year.
“They were also saying a lot of those resources were very much needed after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases,” Singh said. “Many students of color obviously needed those resources, and I think it was telling the University didn’t provide them.”
"Many students of color obviously needed those resources, and I think it was telling the University didn't provide them."
— Sejal Singh, CC ’15
Organizing open forums
The community discussions came this week, starting with an open forum on Monday evening hosted by Barnard’s Student Government Association and attended by Barnard President Debora Spar, Provost Linda Bell, and Dean Avis Hinkson, BC ’84, TC ’87.
Spar sent an email on Dec. 8 to invite students to the forum, which she credited as a Barnard SGA event. She cited the grand jury decisions—as well as the emotions students have been feeling as a result—as the primary reasons to hold the forum.
The email further commended students for participating in the recent protests.
“We recognize that the college experience is one that must speak to the whole student—that the conversations and events that take place outside the classroom are as vital to your Barnard education as a lecture or paper assignment,” the email read.
Still, some students at the SGA forum criticized the delay between the grand jury decisions and the administration’s response.
“The conversation happened too late. It is not everything,” SGA President Julia Qian, BC ’15, said at the conclusion of the forum on Monday. “It is something that we could start with.”
A similar meeting for students in Columbia Columbia, SEAS, and the School of General Studies took place on Dec. 10, and was attended by Columbia College Dean James Valentini, SEAS Dean Mary Boyce, and General Studies Dean Peter Awn.
Some students voiced concerns about how the meeting for CC, GS, and SEAS students was announced—in an email sent by the Undergraduate Student Life office on Tuesday.
The email, which was signed by Valentini, Boyce, and Awn, announcing the community forum also encouraged students to contact their advisers to arrange academic accommodations if students feel that their work was affected by the decision. It also said that Counseling and Psychological Services would host extended hours and OMA would hold drop-in hours at the Intercultural Resource Center throughout the week.
Damon Xavier, CC ’17, said that he was one of a group of several students from BSO and the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters who sent a letter to administrators on Monday asking “that safe spaces and open dialogue be created between administration, faculty, and students," among other demands.
Xavier felt that the student efforts to organize the forum were not sufficiently acknowledged by the deans, and he called the language of the email announcing the forum “vague and depoliticized.”
“Describing this as, ‘what has been happening in the nation, in our city, and on our campus in recent weeks’ does not accurately represent the purpose of this meeting and, in part, continues to refuse acknowledgement of what actually is going on,” Xavier wrote in an email to Spectator.
A spokesperson said in a statement on behalf of the three undergraduate deans that Wednesday’s event was held “because students have expressed frustration with and concern around the recent grand jury decisions,” and that the timing of the event was designed to “maximize opportunity for students to participate.”
The deans’ statement did not directly respond to questions about whether the students’ letter had had an impact upon the scheduling of the event.
At the meeting in Earl Hall Auditorium on Wednesday night, students brought up a number of concerns about the current campus climate—from microaggressions that students of color felt were directed at them in class, to their disappointment that University President Lee Bollinger did not choose to attend the meeting.
Approximately 40 students attended the meeting, many of them students of color. The meeting, intended as a safe space for students, was off the record. Students and administrators sat in a circle and passed around a microphone to speak.
Students, at times tearfully and in raised voices, expressed feelings of alienation at Columbia, frustration with the curriculum of Core classes, and anger at being asked to supply the answers that they felt are the deans’ job to supply.
Both students and administrators said after the forum that they would have wanted to see more students come to engage with these issues.
“What I feel is missing here is more presence of your peers who are not in underrepresented groups,” Boyce said.
“I am disappointed that President Bollinger, along with the majority of student council, failed to attend,” Xavier said of the meeting. “I am also disappointed that more of my undergraduate peers did not attend because I believe issues discussed during the meeting were issues that the entire student body should care about.”
María Muratalla Maes, CC ’17, said that for many students, attending the forum would have been unhealthy due to personal trauma related to the issues discussed. But for others, absence represented a chosen lack of engagement.
“It’s not like we don’t have studying to do, too,” she said. “They chose to be silent and to be passive, and in that passivity they are condoning that violence that this event was supposed to confront.”
Many students also demanded a written apology from administrators for the presence of New York Police Department officers at a die-in during the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony last week, in which students of color laid peacefully on the ground to protest the recent grand jury decisions.
“It’s not an us-versus-them issue,” Muratalla Maes said. “We are all a community, and we should be able to feel protected.”
A University spokesperson said in an email to Spectator, “The NYPD was not requested nor present for the tree lighting ceremony or the demonstration that took place during the tree lighting ceremony.”
However, six NYPD vans were on 114th Street during the protest.
After it ended, around 200 students marched down Broadway to the Intercultural Resource Center, on 114th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, which Public Safety defines as “off campus.”
As students marched past, additional police cars pulled up and parked at the intersection. Students toward the back of the protest had to pass through the police to get to the IRC, and officers remained after the protesters dispersed.
At Thursday’s University Senate plenary, Executive Committee Chair Sharyn O’Halloran said that whenever there is an event or protest on campus, Public Safety notifies the NYPD, adding that it does not always mean the police will come to campus.
O’Halloran explained that when the NYPD is brought in for a campus demonstration, University regulations must be followed, including a vote from a majority of a panel established by the USenate executive committee to determine “that a demonstration poses a clear and present danger to persons, property, or the substantial functioning of any division of the University.”
Business as usual
At Wednesday’s meeting, some students also voiced concerns about Orgo Night and what they characterized as racist language in the band’s past performances.
In response, Dean of Advising Monique Rinere and Interim Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Todd Smith-Bergollo met with Columbia University Marching Band members on Thursday afternoon to ask that they to cancel the event.
“The decision whether or not to cancel Orgo Night lies with the CUMB student leaders, as this is student event that is not school-sponsored," a statement from the Undergraduate Student Life office, sent to Spectator on Thursday, said.
Ultimately, CUMB decided to not cancel the performance, leading some students to call upon other students to boycott Orgo Night.
“We understand that this is a really sensitive time in which many of our fellow students are hurting, and it is for this reason that we feel, more than ever, students need an outlet for their anger and pain,” CUMB said in a statement sent to Spectator on Thursday. “We look forward to putting on the best show we possibly can and hope to see you there.”
However, at Barnard’s Midnight Breakfast, more than 60 students staged a silent sit-in, holding a large sign that said “#Business as usual,” and smaller signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “End Police Brutality.” Student protesters said they felt that administrators had not responded adequately.
“It is essential that we maintain a campus environment where all voices can be heard and ideas exchanged, and over the course of the past week my colleagues and I have been proud to see Barnard students taking this seriously,” Hinkson said in an email to Spectator. Hinkson declined to comment at the event itself, asking Spectator to follow up in an email. “I’m often asking students to sit and listen, but last night I was able to do the same for them.”
Barnard administrators closed the main campus gates on Thursday night and required that students show their CUIDs in order to enter, and in order to prevent CUMB from performing in the Barnard quad—a typical stop along CUMB’s post-Orgo Night route. CUMB never ultimately showed up to Barnard’s campus on Thursday night.
“We needed the administrators to hear our voices, because there is a problem when a dean is emailing us three weeks after an event about trauma,” Nissy Aya, CC ’15, said after Wednesday’s meeting.
Moving forward, students at Wednesday night’s forum said that they hoped administrators would be held accountable for the commitments discussed.
“I want them to actually address the issues and not just say they’re going to,” Rosalyn Ransaw, CC ’17, said. “I just want them to be transparent.”
Aaron Fisher, Emma Goss, and Clara Chan contributed reporting.
Photos by Kiera Wood (NYPD vans), Elizabeth Sedran (protest) and Angela Bentley (Barnard sit-in). Graphic by Emma Volk and Jenna Beers.