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Master of His Domain
By Alex Jung
Issue date: 2/22/07 Section: Opinion
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In his heyday, University President Lee Bollinger, the public intellectual, waxed on about diversity, setting the stage for his landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger. He came to Columbia and staked his tenure, ironically, on grabbing the land north of 125th Street populated by an ethnically diverse community. It seems that Bollinger assimilated into the culture of Columbia rather than shifting the institution. His recent writing parallels his move up through academic echelons and focuses more on a vague "general good" that the University contributes to the global, scientific, and economic spheres. The President Bollinger of Columbia University, who earns over $500,000 and lives in a ready-made mini-mansion, has forgotten that his actions could force people out of their homes above 125th Street and accelerate the gentrification the University has already started. As Bollinger admitted in an opinion piece on Grutter, "Personally, I have never experienced systematic discrimination." Apparently now he is perpetuating it.
Regarding Harlem, Bollinger told the New York Observer that he chose it for expansion because it was a place of "great magic" and "mystique" and close to the current campus. Now it has been decided that the magical land may be blighted-a condition that if the state determines to be true would pave the way for the use of eminent domain and obliterate its allegedly cherished character.
Bollinger maintains that it would be "irresponsible" for the University to take eminent domain off the table. But it does not excuse the University actively hiding information, and consequently power, from the community whose land it wants to take. Spectator used the Freedom of Information Act twice to uncover shady moves by the University: first when it reported that Columbia paid hundreds of thousands to the Empire State Development Corporation to "pay certain costs" that would declare Manhattanville blighted, and recently to provide for its use in the General Project Plan, which assumes the area to be blighted. Eminent domain casts a dark pall over the negotiations with the community and is, in effect, a bullying tactic demonstrating who wields the power. It's not the history of the 1968 expansion that lingers in people's minds, but current misdeeds that indicate Columbia has learned little from the past.
To exercise eminent domain, Columbia has to prove that the area in question is "blighted" and that its presence there will contribute to the public good. Blight, ambiguously defined as "substandard" or "unsanitary," is simply one of the methods Columbia utilizes to further its intentions. The supposedly blighted land is in fact Columbia-owned. An article in the New York Times almost two years ago describes how Columbia is attempting to turn the neighborhood-of which it owns the majority-into a tax-free wasteland of miscellaneous objects. The University has not renewed its leases, thus preventing an influx of new people. For its part, Columbia has nurtured the "unsanitary" conditions that denote "blight," like feeding bleach to a healthy body only to pretend to save it later.
The other factor that allows for the legal exercise of eminent domain, as detailed by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London, is that the seized land must have a "public purpose." The court allowed the private company Pfizer to build a plant because it would create jobs and pay taxes that would benefit the community. Columbia, a nonprofit, does not pay property tax, and instead Bollinger is attempting to argue the economic benefits the University generates for the city. This January in the New York Daily News, Bollinger wrote that the proposed expansion would create an additional 6,000 jobs. Whether these jobs would be unionized or living wage or would even be guaranteed for community residents are concerns that evidently are irrelevant to the University's quest for land.
"Public" good has also been reformulated to mean the world. Bollinger has repeatedly espoused the need for Columbia to become an international institution. But mulling questions over how to pull the Global South up by its bootstraps becomes a convenient diversion from Columbia's behavior toward West Harlem. The subtext beneath the dialectic of "pro-" and "anti-" created in the expansion debate is one that casts the residents as impeding upon the freedom of an academic institution to contribute to the global marketplace of ideas. But by creating the appearance of blight and articulating the overall goodness Columbia will contribute to the world, the University (and, it hopes, the state) can callously ignore the livelihood of a diverse community including blacks and Hispanics.
On-campus worries over the absence of people of color in the administration and faculty are inherently related to the way expansion occurs. The dissolution of Bollinger's Student Advisory Committee on Diversity (remember that?) after one rocky year is part and parcel of an attitude that has consistently brushed off the concerns of marginalized people. Race, as hard as Bollinger may try to forget, is a telling dynamic in this conversation, especially considering that the gap between him and Harlem residents has shrunk little since 1968.
Back in April 1998, in an editorial titled "The Educational Importance of Race," Bollinger argued that black and white Americans lived in "racial isolation" for too long-a separation that perpetuated "unfounding images and stereotypes." As he further lamented, "There were no countervailing institutions to perform the function of education and understanding. By design, we did not know each other." What huge strides we've made.