It was recently reported that, in a sudden change, Columbia College and SEAS students who live off campus are now barred from gaining swipe access to Columbia’s undergraduate dorms. This decision has already been widely criticized for its abruptness and the additional difficulty it brings to commuter students in Columbia’s undergraduate community. It may be worthwhile, however, to examine the administration’s public justification in a bit more depth.
Assistant Dean for Community Development and Residential Programs Cristen Kromm told Spectator that the change was motivated solely by a desire for consistency in policy. The old policy was seen as inconsistent with the absence of swipe access for Barnard, GS, JTS, and graduate students. Let us, for now, take Kromm at her word, and consider why one should or would care about consistency.
As a rough approximation, we could say that a group of rules is consistent if each treats similar things in similar ways. Before we even begin, it is not immediately clear that CC and SEAS commuters are similar in all relevant respects to the other groups lacking swipe access. I myself am not inclined to argue strenuously for their dissimilarity, as I would support extension of swipe access to many of these groups, but the fact that the administration itself distinguishes CC and SEAS undergraduates from others in various bureaucratic structures would suggest that this premise is nontrivial.
We will assume for the moment, though, that these groups are similar enough for consistency to be a reasonable concern. We will begin by further positing that—Residential Programs administration being an unlikely hotbed for pure mathematicians—the desire for consistency in this case is not simply aesthetic. A more plausible motive would be the belief that inconsistent rules impose undeserved inequalities and are thus unfair, in this case, to those who have always been denied swipe access.
An unfair outcome, however, is not automatically a bad one, as fairness may conflict with other important values. Restricting swipe access for off-campus students does not make Barnard or GS students better off in any substantive way—they are just as disadvantaged as they have always been—while imposing new obstacles on students living off-campus. Moreover, if the administration is undertaking this change merely for the sake of these disadvantaged groups, it might make sense to consult them first, to ascertain whether they would truly be comforted by the imposition of their disadvantage on others. Alternatively, one might claim that the inconsistency is unfair to on-campus residents, who must pay for amenities enjoyed by others, but there is similarly a need to produce evidence that such residents were particularly perturbed by the status quo.
I suspect that the more probable motive is not fairness but efficiency. The more distinctions and exceptions embedded in one’s set of rules, the more time and effort must be expended by one’s system of administration. To accept this justification, however, is to prioritize the interests of a particular corner of the University bureaucracy over those of the University as a whole. Efficiency as a criterion of policy choice is most straightforwardly applied in institutions—corporations, in theory, being the paradigm case—with a single, unified, readily quantifiable set of ultimate objectives. I might suggest, however, that a university ought to respond to a more complicated set of interests.
The above discussion might appear to belabor a relatively minor point, as the change affects a limited number of students and its real explanation may well have more to do with the insurance and security considerations Kromm disclaims than with consistency. Nonetheless, the University’s public explanation is itself significant, and remains difficult to understand, except as an attempt to cloak narrow bureaucratic interests in vague normative rhetoric.
The University is fond of claiming for its decisions the sort of moral authority typically claimed by institutions such as states. If this claim is to be tenable, however, the University must avoid falling back on the sort of minimalist conception of obligations characteristic of a corporation. Katherine Cutler, director of communications for Student Affairs, told The Lion that “access to the undergraduate residence halls is a paid privilege.” The implicit contrast here is with rights. Privileges are usually conceived as essentially arbitrary, enjoying none of the recognition and legitimacy accorded to rights. The use of “privilege” here reduces the University’s relationship to its students—whether they live on campus or off—to a purely contractual one, in which it has no obligation to consider their interests beyond those imposed by prior explicit promises. Presumably the University leadership would not wish to commit to such a view in full generality. If such confusion is to be avoided, however, Columbia must expect from its administrators, in their public communications, the same standards of justification expected in its classrooms.
Henry Willson is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy. He is secretary general of CMUNNY 8 and a former photo editor for Spectator. Willful Meandering usually runs alternate Tuesdays.
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