News | Student Life

Columbia Controversies: Barack Obama comes to campus, May 2012

This story is part of our Orientation 2012 special issue. Check out our complete guide to life at Columbia here.

President Barack Obama, CC ’83, returned to the steps of his alma mater in May to speak at Barnard’s commencement, but controversy tempered many students’ excitement.

Obama’s decision to speak to Barnard students sparked a wave of sexist comments online, and the security measures necessitated by his presence on campus forced the School of General Studies to reschedule its graduation ceremony on short notice.

Hundreds of students attacked Obama’s decision to speak at Barnard, rather than at Columbia College, by writing misogynistic online comments critical of Barnard students. University President Lee Bollinger and Barnard President Debora Spar both condemned the comments, but some students felt that Bollinger and Spar did not go far enough, prompting the creation of a Facebook group and a petition calling for university-wide support of Barnard students.

The stringent security surrounding Obama’s appearance—the entirety of Lower Campus was locked down for more than half a day, among other measures—also resulted in administrators’ decision to reschedule GS’s graduation ceremony, which was previously scheduled to take place just before Barnard’s.

The last-minute switch, which forced some GS families to change their travel plans on short notice or miss the ceremony entirely, drew widespread criticism from students across all four undergraduate schools. Administrators responded by starting a small fund to help pay for families’ travel expenses, and two Engineering Student Council members created a website where students could offer their couches to guests who had to change their travel plans.

For editorial comment, see “Obama’s best reason for choosing Barnard” by Derek Turner from March 7, 2012.

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