In the days after the Student Governing Board voted to not comply with Barnard’s new restrictive fliering policy, people asked me two main questions: why now, and why this specific policy?
The question of timing required the simplest answer. All effective student activism involving the University must be subject to the limits of practicality and the relationships that we maintain with the administration. The SGB took the drastic and relatively unprecedented step of voting to not cooperate with a University policy only after working with Barnard’s Student Government Association, giving them time to convince the administration that the policy was foolhardy. When it became clear that the administration did not agree, we made the vote.
Any serious effort at student activism whose aims are to change something within the University, or really anywhere else, must involve a good-faith effort on the students’ parts to convince key stakeholders that they should change or improve a specific policy or situation.
The second question might be a bit harder to answer. Why did we pick this policy among numerous University policies to take a stand against? Though I can’t speak for the rest of my board, to me the policy represented such a derogation of student speech on campus that it needed to be opposed as quickly as possible.
Barnard’s new fliering policy, which the administration formed over the summer without any student input, required individual students and groups to get their fliers stamped by the administration before posting them anywhere on Barnard’s campus. This imposed a logistical burden on SGB groups, sure, but it also established prior administrative approval of speech on campus. The day that I fail to act while an administrative body at Columbia attempts to exert such restrictive control of student expression and speech on this campus is the day that I fail as both chair of the Student Governing Board and as a proud member of the Columbia University community.
The Barnard fliering policy was so simply wrong in my view that it was easy, after becoming assured that administrators insisted on leaving the policy unchanged until next semester, to publicly oppose it. Personal truth should lie at the center of all student activism. If you know what you believe to be true and good, then you should fight for it however you may. I learned this lesson from some exemplary friends, the arc of history, and of course, the Core.
Our generation has a problem, and that problem is that we fear controversy. We fear confrontation. We fear the absence of a job recommendation or the anger of an administrator or the ruining of friendships. But, the Core taught me that in the end—though that controversy might arise and though those consequences might come about—all is worth risking to fight for what you find right.
I could cite Hume or quote Berlin to prove my point, but the entirety of the Core Curriculum serves as better testament. All of the thinkers in Contemporary Civilization faced intractable societal problems, but instead of succumbing to what many saw as the inevitable or the impossible, they proposed their antidotes to those problems. Though their ideas may be imperfect, and though those problems might still exist today, they refused to give in to cynicism, to give up on the system of humanity altogether.
Columbia, at times, feels beset by entrenched, often intractable problems, but we should follow the example of the Core and learn to look inward toward our principles, set aside our fear, and do something about what we believe to be right.
If anything, this past semester has shown that students are beginning to realize this, and that to their credit, administrators are willing to listen, to respond to steadfast student opinions. From relatively minor things like the Barnard fliering issue, to larger structural questions like the way in which the University provides student health care, to the ongoing (and hopefully successful) fight to save CUArts, we are experiencing a renaissance in student activism.
We are waking up to the reality that undergraduate students are very much stakeholders within the wider University, that we hold power within our voices, and that administrators eventually must listen (many, many want to in the first place). Most importantly, our fear of action is thawing, and we are seeing the early fruits of student activists’ labors. Will you contribute?
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. He is chair of the Student Governing Board.