Administrators and students spoke out against the hateful online comments exchanged between Columbia College and Barnard students on Tuesday, with over 1,500 students joining a Facebook group uniting against the animosity as of early Wednesday morning.
After the announcement that President Barack Obama, CC ’83, would be speaking at Barnard’s commencement, some CC students took to Spectator and Bwog to criticize their peers across the street. While their initial complaints were directed at Obama for coming to Morningside Heights but not speaking at his alma mater, their anger led to many misogynistic comments challenging Barnard students’ intellect.
Barnard President Debora Spar and University President Lee Bollinger issued a joint statement Tuesday emphasizing that the nature of the comments was not representative of Columbia students.
“We understand that, for some, there’s an entirely natural disappointment that today finds a convenient outlet in online comments, but we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community,” Bollinger and Spar said. “Our collective undergraduate student body takes justifiable pride in the uniqueness of their individual schools even as they share so many of their collegiate experiences.”
In a statement, Columbia College Interim Dean James Valentini, said that he can "only reaffirm what President Bollinger and President Spar have said," and that, "We are all excited that Barack Obama ... will return to campus to deliver a 2012 commencement address."
"As Dean of Columbia College, I can sympathize with College students who are disappointed that it is not their Class Day at which the President will speak, but we are after all, all part of one University, and can all share in this event," he said.
Dean of Community Development and Multicultural Affairs Terry Martinez called the comments “sour grapes chatter” on her Twitter on Tuesday and urged Columbia students to “be happy for your friends and neighbors and just chill.”
The Columbia College Student Council released a statement early Wednesday morning denouncing the comments. “We are outraged by the comments made by members of all associations and are embarrassed by our peers who hide behind a computer and use the internet as a forum for malicious comments,” the statement read. “We are all members of the same university community.”
A statement from Barnard’s Student Government Association was not available by press time.
Many students took further activism to the Internet on Tuesday night. Caroline Kim, BC ’13, created a Change.org petition on Tuesday condemning the sexist comments that had been posted on the original articles. It had over 700 signatures early Wednesday morning.
“These blatant demonstrations of sexism and misogyny are unacceptable and point to the undeniable importance of bringing women’s issues to the forefront of the national debate and the Barnard-Columbia community,” Kim wrote on the petition’s description.
Studying abroad in London, Kim said in an email that she was happy with the reaction the petition had received so far.
“I created this petition without any expectation or goal in terms of signatures, but I’m really happy with how many people—men, women, students, family members, and alumni—have taken the minute or so of their time to support this cause,” she said. “But it’s the onus of the students on campus to make noise and demand attention to this issue.”
National media outlets have certainly brought attention to the issue. A New York Times article about the tension expressed in the comments ran lead in Tuesday’s Metro section, and the blog Jezebel wrote a lengthy post highlighting some of the nastiest comments.
Spar told the Times on Monday that the comments were probably the product of “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning,” and Bollinger said that, while the comments “reflect the views of hardly more than just a few people,” feelings of disappointment from CC students were “completely understandable.”
Kim said she felt that Spar just “shrugged off the matter” in her comments to the New York Times on Monday and that Bollinger only attempted to justify the comments.
“It may not look good in the short-run for either college presidents to formally acknowledge that these issues of sexism exist, but with all this media coverage, people are very aware of them now, and they certainly aren’t not going to just go away if they continue to brush them off,” Kim said. “I’ve been really disappointed in how President Spar and President Bollinger have handled the situation so far.”
Leah Greenbaum, CC ’12 and a former Spectator news editor, created a Facebook group calling for “students from CC, GS, SEAS, BC, JTS, etc. to take a stand against the anonymous mud-slinging.” It had over 1,500 members by early Wednesday morning.
“We wanted to create a group because we really had faith in this community that people would come forward and talk about how much they love and respect our peers at all of our schools,” Greenbaum said.
Derek Turner, CC ’12 and a Spectator columnist, came up with the idea for the group with Greenbaum. He said he respected the administration but wanted to promote a more positive attitude among students.
“What the Facebook group represents is collaboration and interaction on a purely student level, so there’s more understanding, more personal connection, more friendships being made,” Turner said. “The hate we see on Bwog is not due to a lack of administrative interaction but of real student connection.”
The fact that every comment made in the group is attached to a real person—unlike the vast majority of anonymous comments made on the Spectator and Bwog articles—was crucial, Turner said.
Students said on Tuesday night they were hopeful to see more come of the petition.
Kassy Lee, CC ’13, said “flash-in-the-pan” petitions are not worthwhile unless they lead to concrete institutional change. Heben Nigatu, CC ’13, agreed with Lee, although she appreciated the petition’s sentiment.
“It’s hard to change campus culture with a petition, but it does mean a lot that in one night 1,300 people have seen this and are feeling the same way that I’m feeling,” Nigatu said.
Felicia Bishop, CC ’12, was also disappointed with Bollinger’s response and said she expected him to “step up after a few days and say this is an embarrassment.”
“There is a time and place where you act like a president, and you do stuff to lead your campus,” Bishop said. “This is not leadership. This is a weird masking and obscuring of things that are going on.”
Uchechi Iteogu, CC ’15, commented on the original Spectator story announcing that Obama would be speaking at Barnard, writing, “My issue with Barnard students is their ‘Suck it, Columbia!’ attitude whenever something awesome happens for them. It’s pathetic.”
Iteogu said in an email that she realized her original reaction was “unnecessarily aggressive” and believes that these kinds of “intense reactions” reflect poorly on Columbia’s students. She thinks Bollinger should host a forum explaining the Barnard-Columbia relationship and explain his views on the situation.
Bollinger and Spar emphasized the unity of the Columbia community at the end of their statement.
“The larger point here, one we are confident will define the Columbia community’s view of the President’s return to Morningside Heights, is that the first Columbia graduate elected President of the United States will be addressing not only Barnard’s graduates, but the entire nation, from our campus,” Bollinger and Spar said. “That is something that every part of the university can and should celebrate.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Columbia College Interim Dean James Valentini declined to comment. Spectator regrets the error.