As I write this, a tropical storm is ravaging the city we live in while I’m safely holed up in a close friend’s Hogan living room. It’s a question that’s been on my mind for a while, so I ask my friends: How do you feel about student activism? As a result, there are a lot of big words being hurled across the room. Words like “change” and “responsibility” and “citizenship.” Words that, depending on who says them, mean entirely different things. So we talk about that for a bit.
Over the next five hours, visitors drop in and out of our conversation. We take turns leaving to call our parents to let them know we’re OK. Every so often, we check Twitter for the latest #Sandy updates. We are distraught about the damage that’s being dealt to our city. We hear about power outages and evacuated hospitals and we feel helpless. Our phones go off telling us to seek shelter, to go indoors. We have no control over the things that are happening to our home and, although we are safe and sound, it drives us crazy. We are used to having a say in things.
So we keep coming back to a place where we do perceive ourselves as having a say, our Columbia community, and we keep trying to unravel it. We talk about ABC, SGB, CCSC, ESC, and SGA. We talk about the brownstones. We talk about Barnard’s fliering policy. We talk about Barnard’s finances and the need for transparency. We talk about the struggle for University-wide abortion coverage, Students Support Barnard Workers, and the Save the Barnard Pool Campaign. We talk, talk, talk, and talk for hours on end, about administrative policies and decisions that affect our daily lives at Columbia. We talk because we are Columbia students and, whether it’s because of self-selection, the Nine Ways, or the Core Curriculum, we digest the world by talking about it.
Having examined these issues until the wee hours—having opined and pontificated and deliberated and discussed—most of us left the room feeling like we did our part. A few of us will post anonymous comments on Spectator or on Bwog. Maybe one of us (i.e., yours truly) will write a column about it. Some rare and particularly admirable Columbians will actually question administrators, rally governing boards, or otherwise act on the opinions they’ve expressed. The rest of us, in all likelihood, will never think about them again. This isn’t OK.
This isn’t OK because, as a result, the things that disgruntle us usually end up never changing or, at best, changing very slowly. When our words aren’t backed by any real action, we are written off as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning,” and our conversations, comments, and op-eds amount to nothing.
In 1968, when Columbia students’ interests were at odds with Columbia University’s actions, those students had no way to adequately express their discontent but to join forces and assemble on Low Steps in the thousands, armed with protest-signs and good intentions. In 1968, when Columbia students were dissatisfied with Columbia University, they couldn’t just whip out their smartphones, post “lol prezbo can suck my dick lol” on Bwog, and walk away from the conflict in good conscience. Yes, those protests were violent, and I am not condoning violence as a means to effect change. I’m also not suggesting that words are useless (come on, guys, I’m a columnist). However, there’s one very important lesson that’s been lost in the 44 years since 1968 and it is this: We can talk all we want, but the decision-makers aren’t going to listen unless we give them no other choice.
So, what role should students play in Columbia’s administrative policy? We should play the same roles we play already. The roles of critics, sounding boards, and, when necessary, dissenters. But it’s no good when we play those roles in the privacy of our dorm rooms, in the safety of conversations with our best friends, and under the foolproof banner of anonymity. In order to make Columbia a school we are all happy to go to, we need to start playing those roles in direct emails to administrators, in various deans’ office hours, and in rallying cries issued to our fellow Columbians. We need to play those roles at a volume high enough so that decision-makers will have no choice but to pay attention.
Rega Jha is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. She contributes regularly to The Canon.