Opinion | Staff Editorials

Weighing in on the Columbia Divest for Climate Justice sit-in

On April 14, 16 members of Columbia Divest for Climate Justice began a sit-in inside Low Library to urge President Bollinger to recommend full divestment from fossil fuel companies. Throughout the eight days of the sit-in, Rules Administrator Suzanne Goldberg and various presidential delegates continually warned the activists, both in person and Goldberg also in writing, about their potential violations of the Rules of University Conduct.

After Goldberg wrote in an email last week that she anticipates suspension being the “most relevant” sanction for the University Judicial Board to consider for the CDCJ protesters, whose actions in Low potentially constituted serious violations, councils and student groups across the University released statements urging the UJB to take suspension and expulsion off the table for their deliberations.

If you’re lost, here’s your crash course in the Rules of University Conduct:

The rules identify two distinct types of violations: simple and serious. Only the latter can incur suspension or expulsion. When a student violates the Rules of University Conduct, the UJB bears the responsibility of deliberating upon and delivering sanctions—not Goldberg. Thus, Goldberg’s warning to the CDCJ protesters, ominous as it was, does not constitute an official sanctioning verdict.

The rules include suspension and expulsion as possible sanctions because violations obviously vary in severity. It’s not impossible to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which expulsion would be a reasonable punishment. In our view, the option to expel rests behind a thick layer of glass meant to be broken only in case of emergency.

But should the UJB consider last week’s CDCJ sit-in an emergency?

Although we recognize that, as explicitly stated in the rules, suspension and expulsion will be considered viable disciplinary options by the members of the UJB, we urge them to consider the big picture in what is sure to be a landmark case for rules investigations in our community.

When it comes to the CDCJ sit-in, it is clear that University rules, as written, were broken—a letter written by Goldberg to the protesters indicates that the protesters may have committed at least four serious violations last week: continuously impeding use of a University facility, remaining in a University facility after hours, occupying a private office, and disrupting a University function. And, according to Goldberg, the severity of these violations may have been exacerbated by the protesters’ marked indifference to the continuous warnings they received while occupying Low.

When it comes to the Rules of Conduct, there’s no denying that the CDCJ case is far from black and white. The CDCJ sit-in did technically disrupt University function: For example, it took place in part during Days on Campus, and was credited with forcing over a dozen events planned to take place inside Low, some with over 300 expected guests, to be moved elsewhere in the building. Furthermore, we can understand why University administrators would feel mistrustful of students in active violation of the rules.

At the same time, however, it’s unclear if a handful of students sitting peacefully in the Low Rotunda were really all that disruptive. While the CDCJ protesters clearly broke University rules, they were also respectful of their surroundings during the sit-in. Throughout the eight days of the sit-in, arguably no significant chaos erupted inside Low. No threats were exchanged. By the end of the sit-in, Spectator’s live blog was populated with more posts about sleep than civil disobedience.

We’ve chosen to approach the CDCJ conundrum in the most meaningful way we can: as proud Columbia students. The protesters are active participants in a community—our community—that has a long history of activism and civil disobedience. Their fellowships, scholarships, and futures are on the line. While the Rules of Conduct may permit the UJB to consider suspending or expelling the activists who sat inside Low last week, we’re unsure if such grave punishments fit the crime.

Suspension and expulsion, of course, remain behind the glass. The UJB holds the only hammer in the room. Before taking aim, however, we ask them to carefully consider if the disruptions to University functions caused by the CDCJ sit-in are worth the trouble of picking up the pieces.

The authors are members of Spectator’s 140th editorial board. Catie Edmondson and J. Clara Chan recused themselves from contributing to this editorial due to their continued coverage of the CDCJ sit-in and its aftermath.

To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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