Don’t ever let us say the school doesn’t respond to student demands. Last September, Dean Shollenberger sent the student body news that a new dean of community development and multicultural affairs had been appointed in direct response to student requests for “greater coordination of services that support cocurricular life and a desire to foster a greater sense of community.” Apparently that means she’s in charge of the Office of Student Development and Activities (OSDA), the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), the Office of Student Group Advising (OSGA), and the Office of Residential Programs. Sounds fun! But before we get all charged up about the new RezPro (bring this into circulation, people), let’s just check in with our favorite administration to make sure they’re not just slapping on another layer of bureaucracy to cover the cracks in the Columbia “community.”
So can a bureaucrat build a community? The announcement seemed well-intentioned, but our expectations for serious change are nonexistent. Perhaps the difference lies in how we define that community. According to the Student Affairs Web site, community programs are supposed to “foster environments that allow for the expression of individuality balanced with a shared sense of responsibility for the Columbia community.” Sounds fine, but notice that this is an office of programs. Unprogrammed fun has actually proved a bit much for the administration lately, looking threatening enough to warrant preemptive strikes. Admin may like to think of it as a conflict, or perhaps a defensive intervention, but we know it as the War on Fun. Every meeting of three students and a sixpack is imbued with a sense of deviance and danger in this climate.
Denied unoccupied space for student use (perhaps next season’s sit-in should take over Lerner 6), we gather in suite-style dorms with music at a nice, moderate volume in order to avoid having to justify our socializing to the secretive Dean’s Discipline panel. And it would be such a great step for admin-student relations if campus groups, where many students actually find community in the chaos of Columbia, weren’t subjected to extended rounds of questioning every time they wanted to tape some banners up on the Low Library walls. For god’s sake, they’re outside; the tape residue will come off.
But we all know that Columbia’s bureaucracy is where common sense goes to die. Therefore, we think that the very best way for the new dean to contribute to community life at Columbia would be to reign in bureaucratic interference in the lives of students, and let the students interfere a little in the bureaucracy. Listen to students and you will hear the same gripes about on-campus space, limited money for club projects and events, a Career Services focused only on finance, and a host of other issues. Facilitate solutions—trust students a bit. Run interference on the more insane impositions when we raise concerns.
Ideally we envision a school-wide community of students at Columbia that is based in mutual trust, egalitarianism, and cooperation. We would love to have an honor code constructed by students and taken seriously. That culture of trust could be built by real student representation at the trickiest flash points between students and administration. If we want the school run for the students, it should be run by the students to a much greater degree. But we also know that due to the daunting size of the University, one of the best things we can do is build our smaller communities, whether clubs or groups of friends. Students do this instinctively, and then we reach out. We host potlucks and parties, we plan advocacy, we form ties with other groups. At a school like Columbia, it is hard work to weave the disparate threads into a substantial community, but infinitely harder when it seems like the administration is always at the other end, absentmindedly unraveling your work. We hope that our new dean will help us build community by withdrawing the long arm of bureaucracy.
Sarah Leonard is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. Kate Redburn is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and African studies. Shock and Awe runs alternate Fridays. firstname.lastname@example.org