Here’s a meaningless statement: I am a member of the Columbia College and School of General Studies Committee on Instruction. Most students have no inkling of what it is or does—myself included. The first I heard of the COI was when I submitted an application for it, having found the link hidden in the subpoint of a Columbia College Student Council email—not exactly the best way to reach and inform students.
There is no good reason why a body like the COI should be opaque. On the contrary, we should know that students (theoretically) have a voice in a group that has decision-making power over the most important aspect of college: academics. We should know that it has the power to approve or reject classes, majors, and entire programs of study. And we should also know that the student representatives (e.g., me) are unelected, and, in practice, have no accountability to CCSC or anyone else.
I write about the COI because it’s what I’m familiar with, but it is just one of many acronyms in the uncurated mess that is our academic bureaucracy. Have an issue with Frontiers of Science? It’s up for review before the COSI (Committee on Science Instruction) this year. Unhappy with the Global Core course offerings? The COGC (Committee on the Global Core) is constantly developing reforms. Think that it’s unfair that international admissions are now need-aware? Take it up with the CAFA (Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid).
The point is that Columbia has organs that can and do address most of the pressing and perennial issues facing students—only, they are not much use to us if we don’t know they exist. It becomes impossible to air grievances or float important reforms in any sort of productive manner, given the obscurity under which much of the University’s machinery operates. Take, for instance, our ambivalence towards many aspects of the Core. I do not think I am too far off the mark in saying that we value it and want it to thrive, which is why we, year in and year out, have discussions on how to improve it and keep it relevant. There have been town halls, meetings with individual administrators, and of course late-night conversations in dorm hallways, out of which have come some interesting and promising proposals.
We have spoken of removing the Global Core in favor of integrating non-Western texts in an extended version of Contemporary Civilization, of replacing Frontiers with a more rigorous and field-specific introductory science course, of exchanging the current chronological approach to texts for a thematic one. These are all ideas worth further exploration by the community—students, faculty, administration, alumni—yet the furthest they ever seem to get is a quickly-forgotten Bwog post or a note in the minutes of CCSC, for the simple reason that we do not know how to approach those who actually have the power to make these changes. Precisely because it is not clear how our opinions are to be heard, when the administration rolls out policies affecting student life, we can only complain that decisions are made unilaterally, with little thought for us. Whether this is actually the case or not, that we are able to make the assumption in the first place speaks to a dearth of trust between students and the University, hindering productive dialogue and leaving a sour taste in more than a few jaded students’ mouths.
The whole Columbia community would benefit from increased transparency on the part of the University. There is certainly no shortage of student interest in participating in the discussions that will make Columbia better, but we need to be given the information and tools to do so. The number of applications for a spot on the newly-formed Educational Policy and Planning Committee (over 60) are indicative in more ways than one, given that we know almost nothing about its real scope or powers besides what faculty, who are themselves unsure, tell us. The operations of any “committee” or “task force” that could potentially impact student affairs should be made public to students, even if we have no direct representation on the body. Clearly defined roles for advisory and executive committees, greater student involvement in the decision-making process, and public minutes would all improve the tone of discourse—and allow everyone to get more done. The University must make a real effort to engage students in matters relevant to their well-being.
There will always be legitimate reasons to keep some things confidential. The onus, however, should be on the administration to prove why the information should be kept secret, not on the students to prove why they should have access to it. If Columbia is serious about involving all members of its community in academic policy, it should be as transparent as possible. Anything less degrades students’ perception of administrators, and makes it impossible to have an intelligent and constructive dialogue.
Bob Sun is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and biology. He is a member of the Committee on Instruction. Terms of Engagement runs alternate Thursdays.