By Andrew Lyubarsky
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 19, 2007
The experience of the last two weeks has shown us, against the doubting words of many a naysayer, that the sleeping giant of student power has finally awoken. We have shown that the University is not an impenetrable monolith but rather a contested space in which students have the power to intervene if they have conviction and dedication. A $50-million commitment to the transformation of the Major Cultures requirement, a commitment to the expansion of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, a blue-ribbon panel to keep the administration accountable—these are all massive victories that will improve the experience of all students at Columbia. Yet, while we celebrate the substantial gains that have been made, we must not lose sight of the issue that the University stonewalled on—the proposed expansion into Manhattanville.
This is indicative of a deep moral crisis in the administration. Although they may not have agreed with all of our individual points, the academic administrators that formed the University’s negotiation team engaged in a good-faith effort to reach a compromise agreement that would be satisfactory to all parties. Understanding that a negotiation suggests that both sides be willing to move from their original position, they brought proposals to the table that would both deal with student demands and preserve the integrity of the processes that run the University.
University leaders in charge of the expansion, however, weren’t even willing to bring themselves to the table. Frustrated with the inability to secure a single substantive meeting by the sixth day of the hunger strike, we went directly to Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin’s office to demand a meeting immediately. In a 10-minute meeting, Mr. Kasdin said that he was personally concerned for the health of the strikers, but would be recusing himself from negotiations, although he was the most senior administrator involved with the expansion plans below President Lee Bollinger himself. When asked why he was unwilling to be present during this moment of crisis, he responded that although we had explicitly requested that he be present, he was delegating negotiations to Maxine Griffith, executive vice president for government and community affairs.
Negotiations with Ms. Griffith were completely unproductive. Similar to the way the University has treated community organizations in the past, Ms. Griffith treated the talks as an opportunity for an information session about the merits of the expansion plan and the nature of the city processes involved in the approval of the plan. When we presented seven points of compromise that would have enhanced the University’s commitments to mitigating its impact in the community and kept it accountable to local representatives, what we received in response was a mere clarification of the University’s position.
Disturbingly, a pattern of misrepresentation that bordered on outright falsehood emerged. Ms. Griffith maintained that through the public city review processes, constant negotiations with Community Board 9 representatives were ongoing, in an effort to deal with the 10 objections raised by the body in its 32-2 vote against the Columbia plan in August. She claimed that in calling for the withdrawal of the Columbia proposal, we were misinterpreting the community’s will, for apparently the community had been in productive talks with the University for months.
At our final meeting, we played a tape from CB9’s main consultant, Ron Shiffman, who stated that there had been absolutely no direct negotiations between the board and Columbia since August, and that both CB9 members and others in the Manhattanville community stand behind their own development plan and the August vote against the Columbia plan. This direct contradiction seemed not to faze Ms. Griffith, who proceeded into a lengthy monologue about the integrity of the review process and Columbia’s good intentions throughout it.
Even more disturbing was Ms. Griffith’s conduct towards Dr. Vicky Gholson, a community resident and member of CB9 who was sitting in on our final negotiation session. While our ground rules had permitted public observation, they were ambiguous on the presence of community representatives. Without addressing her by name or making eye contact, Ms. Griffith demanded over negotiators’ objections that all non-students leave the room. We find the fact that the administration cannot tolerate the presence of those directly affected by their proposed expansion as silent observers to be indicative of their attitude toward the community.
It became increasingly clear to us, CB9, and the Coalition to Preserve Community that the administration was simply willing to wait us out on the issue that affected its financial interests the most. The health of our peers was too precious to risk on a charade of dialogue. However, the end of the hunger strike does not mean that we are abandoning the struggle for justice in Manhattanville.
On the contrary, the question of Manhattanville is a fundamental question about the nature of our University. Is the University going to act as a dignified and self-reflective institution of higher learning that acts as a responsible neighbor and expands in a manner that respects the desires of the people of Harlem? Or is it going to pursue its current course, single-mindedly pursuing its most narrow self-interest? The rift between the business establishment and the academic leaders of our University has never been more glaring.
When we applied to study here, we were under the impression that we were attending a university, not a real-estate development agency. If President Bollinger, Mr. Kasdin, and Ms. Griffith have forgotten this, then it is our duty to remind them. The expansion is an existential issue for this institution, and as constituents of the school, we too have a voice. Let us make sure that it is loud enough to reverberate in the offices of Low Library.
The author is a Columbia College junior.
TAGS: Hunger Strike