Columbia Divest for Climate Justice has been talking, scheduling meetings, and going through the bureaucratic circles of hell that is Columbia for four years now without results. Now that they are trying a different approach, professor Suzanne Goldberg has not missed the chance to threaten them individually. There was nothing impartial about the way she spoke to those students: Their protest simply does not fall under what she considers to be “acceptable” activism.
Last year, when the University Senate rules committee drafted the current set of rules, it specifically stipulated that the current executive vice president for University Life should not serve as the rules administrator because of clear conflict of interest. This was a key stipulation requested by a number of student groups and representatives at the rules hearing last year. The senate executive committee reversed that decision over the summer.
I came to Columbia specifically because of its history of activism. I joined the Student Governing Board to engage in difficult conversations. However, I was always warned about advocating for causes that were too controversial—my parents said it could endanger my future in this country. As a result, I never took a stance for my more “controversial” beliefs.
I understood my parents’ concerns this year, during Israeli Apartheid Week. The Student Governing Board booked a table for the unrecognized student group Students Supporting Israel. However, we had to ask them to take down one of the installations they had set up (without approval) since it violated many safety regulations. It was not long before the entire Student Governing Board received email threats condemning them for “silencing” a group. One particular email included graphic images of Palestinians being beheaded—it also showed a man dragged across the street with his legs attached to a motorcycle. This incident was directly reported to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.
One month later, I received a particularly lengthy email from our rules administrator Suzanne Goldberg, defending these emails on the basis of freedom of speech. Professor Goldberg’s response demonstrated that those who threatened to chop my head off were free to do so, while I was forced to remain silent. Professor Goldberg seems to believe that freedom of speech necessarily applies only to specific people; it reminds me of the freedom that allowed the police to threaten to shoot me for promoting LGBT rights in Lebanon. It’s a freedom that gives some the power to force others to live in fear.
That is how I was first introduced to the infamous professor Suzanne Goldberg. Activists know her as the person who shows up at every protest with threats about rules investigations ready. They know her as the administrator who protects British Petroleum executives from nonviolent protesters because the freedom of speech of an executive is more important than that of a student. They know her as the administrator who protects University functions with her life, perhaps because canceled events are more important than an activist’s cause.
As chair of the Student Governing Board, I was invited to an April 15 workshop called Learn Do Share, run by the Office of University Life's Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion Task Force. This event focused on the inclusion of marginalized voices; throughout the workshop, the conversation naturally moved toward activism. After all, activism—specifically, confrontational activism—is part of our history and legacy as Columbia students. The 1968 protests and the 2007 hunger strike led to the inclusive campus and University that we have today.
Professor Mae Ngai was invited to share her experience and talked about her time on campus. She recalled that ethnic studies was established here only after students held a hunger strike in 1996. Direct action is often the only effective way to get anything done around here. Endless series of meetings have seldom been effective.
I was taken back by professor Ngai’s endorsement of direct action, which often violates the Rules of Conduct. But I was even more surprised by the fact that professor Goldberg herself was present at the workshop. During our small group discussion, professor Goldberg expressed her frustrations with radical approaches. I remember hearing her say that she considers it a waste of time for students—time better spent talking to administrators to develop solutions.
Ultimately, the Learn Do Share workshop asked us to think about a specific question: "How can we be a community where all students thrive?”
To start, we cannot have the administrator who claims to work alongside students to improve our campus be the same person who reports violations once she feels students have overstepped the boundaries she administers. We cannot have someone who has demonstrated her biases about the kinds of activism in which students choose to participate pretend to act as an impartial judge during the disciplinary process.
Professor Suzanne Goldberg has become the supreme ruler of Columbia University. Serving on the University Senate, as rules administrator, and as executive vice president of University Life, Goldberg influences the legislative, executive, and judicial powers at the University. Since reports of conflict of interest against the rules administrator go through the Office of University Life, it is professor Goldberg who reads reports about professor Goldberg. So where can we look to find accountability?
In her two years as executive vice president, professor Goldberg has also shown clear antagonism towards social justice protesters as well as disregard toward marginalized voices who cannot express themselves through the channels she deems appropriate. The senate rules committee was right in their concerns about conflicts of interest.
Now we must ask Goldberg to step down from her position as rules administrator. Until she does so, activists and organizers will not have a fair judicial process. Fairness should be a priority for professor Goldberg if she really wants to achieve the goals for which the Office of University Life was created.
The author is a Columbia College junior from Beirut, Lebanon majoring in philosophy with a concentration in mathematics. He is currently serving as the chair of the Student Governing Board.
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