Emotions ran high at a town hall meeting hosted by the Muslim Student Association on Wednesday, where students discussed reports revealing that the New York Police Department had monitored the MSA’s website as recently as 2007.
A panel that included MSA Vice President Maliha Tariq, BC ’13, expressed disappointment and shock, saying that surveillance of this nature was an infringement of their intellectual freedom and basic civil rights.
But those in attendance took aim mostly at University President Lee Bollinger, criticizing his lack of a University-wide response to the allegations.
In a statement, Bollinger said that Columbia “did not know or condone the surveillance of publicly accessible websites by the NYPD.”
“We are deeply concerned about any government activity that would chill the freedom of thought or intrude upon student privacy, both of which are so essential to our academic community,” Bollinger said.
University spokesperson Robert Hornsby said that the statement was “being provided to student leaders.”
The consensus at the town hall was that Bollinger’s statement was inadequate and should have been issued to all University affiliates. Many members of the group felt that the statement trivialized the scale of the allegations.
“My official reaction is that I’m glad there was a response,” Kahlil Abdur-Rashid, Columbia’s Muslim religious life advisor, said. But at the same time, he said, “We’re being bullied by the NYPD. We need someone to step up and say, ‘Stop bullying our kids.’”
The Associated Press published a report on Saturday stating that officers from the NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence unit patrolled the websites of various Muslim student groups, including Columbia’s, as part of a “daily routine.”
Abdur-Rashid called on Bollinger to demand an explanation of city officials and investigate how deeply embedded police officers were in Columbia student life.
“President Bollinger, I need you to pick up the phone and call Commissioner Kelly and call Mayor Bloomberg,” he said.
The panelists praised Barnard College Debora Spar and Yale University President Richard Levin for making public statements.
“The College is firmly committed to protecting the civil liberties of our students and stands by the Muslim Students Association in its concerns about the actions of the NYPD and its calls for further explanation,” Spar wrote an email to all Barnard students on Tuesday.
Many of the speakers emphasized the traumatic effect that this news has had on Muslim students on campus. Some expressed fear of going to and speaking in class, in case they were recorded on a laptop or cell phone. Others stated that they were being more cautious about whom they spoke to, what they talked about in regular conversation, and what they searched for on the Internet.
Abdur-Rashid was disturbed by the fact that students with whom he previously had close relationships were now too intimidated to enter his office and have an honest conversation. The fear of being watched, he said, has prevented certain Muslim students on this campus from confiding in someone they used to trust.
Numerous student groups and organizations were represented at the meeting, with attendees showing their support for MSA and all Muslim students on campus. Representatives from student organizations including Occupy Columbia University, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Student Governing Board made statements expressing their support for MSA.
Barry Weinberg, CC ’12 and SGB chair, said that the message of the meeting was that the University administration needed to do more to publicly support Muslim students and advocate on their behalf when dealing with external forces.
“There were no upper-level administrators from the University. One of their duties is to handle external issues with the University. They needed to be there because this is their role in the community,” he said. “They haven’t been public in how they’re going about carrying out that duty, which is just as bad because of the lack of transparency.”
Administrators at the meeting included Barnard College Dean Avis Hinkson, Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger, Barnard College Vice President for Community Development Vivian Taylor, and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Carlos Alonso. Rabbi Yonah Hain of Hillel was also present.
After the meeting, Hinkson told Spectator, “Certainly we will continue to engage students, continue to have open doors for students to come in and talk.”
“The emotional feelings of the students are critical to us and we want them to continue to feel that they can come and express their concerns,” she said.
Shollenberger said he did not want to comment on behalf of the University.
“I was just really here to listen and be supportive of the students, and I’m certainly going to follow up with some of the student leaders about what they had to say, but beyond that I’m not prepared to say much more,” he said.
For Abdur-Rashid, nothing is more frustrating than inaction from administrators. “This is not conducive to an academic environment. Saying ‘They’ll be OK, that’s fine, we’re handling this’ … what a condescending thing to say.”