The School of General Studies’ class day ceremony was not rescheduled until last Monday because the scale of the security measures needed for President Barack Obama’s visit to campus was not fully realized until a week earlier, University President Lee Bollinger said.
Students were outraged to learn that GS Class Day—originally scheduled for May 14, the same morning that Obama, CC ’83, will speak at Barnard’s commencement—was pushed up a day so as not to force GS graduates and their guests to pass through extensive security. Many students expressed concern that the move was announced just last week, when Obama was announced as commencement speaker on March 3.
“There’s a very simple reason why it came out now, because it wasn’t until the past week that the White House advance team was in a position to confirm what the full logistical impact would be across campus in order to make a fully informed decision about what could be done on that day,” Bollinger said on Friday.
“In light of the requirements of the president of the United States and his security, we had to enter into a new discussion with GS about what to do,” he said. “Remain in the same location but have the inconvenience, move to an alternative location on the same day at the same time but not as traditional as the South Lawn site, or change the day and move to Low Plaza. The choice was to do that.”
Last week, Reina de Beer, GS ’12, said that it was “very surprising and so sudden” that the change of date came so close to Class Day, considering the announcement that Obama would be speaking was made weeks before. Many students responded similarly.
“The Obama security would have had to know about the measures. It just seems odd,” de Beer said.
Some students have criticized Bollinger and other administrators’ response to the controversy, a sentiment Bollinger said he understands.
“I try to avoid vague statements that are in the area of public relations talk,” he said. “But, on the other hand, people have to understand that, a lot of times, there are considerations that just can’t be included in a public statement.”
The date was switched after it became evident that GS students and their families would have to arrive as early as 5:30 a.m. in order to go through the necessary security due to Obama’s appearance—even though they would not be able to stay for his speech.
Only Barnard graduates and six of their guests, plus a small selection of non-seniors at Barnard who win a lottery for extra tickets, will be able to attend the commencement and hear Obama speak. Bollinger has tried without success to have Obama speak for a broader audience at Columbia.
“We have tried since this was first announced, tried a number of possibilities,” he said. “At the moment, none has emerged as a serious possibility, but it is certainly not for lack of trying. We’ve been told that this is a very discrete visit—he’ll be here for a very specific period of time, and that’s the most one can do.”
The General Studies Student Council is working to hold a reception off-campus during the time of the original Class Day, to accommodate families who will not be able to attend the rescheduled ceremony. This weekend, the Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, and Barnard’s Student Government Association announced that they would contribute $2,012 toward the reception.
The money will go toward “those graduates and their families who were not able to change their travel plans, pending further decisions about its funding from the administration,” a joint statement from the three councils said.
As of now, the four councils plan to fund the May 14 reception themselves because the administration has not yet established plans to do so.
Sammy Roth contributed reporting.