University President Lee Bollinger discussed diversity, fossil fuel divestment, the First Amendment, and Columbia’s global presence at his first fireside chat of the semester on Tuesday.
Gerardo Romo, CC ’14, brought up one of the more controversial topics of the night when he said that students of color at Columbia felt “a lack of support” in a “predominantly white environment.”
“At least, maybe, a fifth of my friends have had to take medical leaves because of depression,” Romo said.
Bollinger, visibly taken aback by the question, said the administration was addressing these issues.
“We don’t like hearing things like that, at all,” he said. “We really don’t want that to be the situation here.”
“We’re actually doing a kind of study to try to understand questions like this,” Bollinger said. “What you’re saying is very important for us to know. ... I can say to you, categorically, that the motivation, the purpose, is certainly not to have statistics and so on,” in place of real change.
“I believe in diversity,” he added. “It should be something we all love to be part of.”
There was a long pause before the next question was asked.
Over the course of the night, Bollinger also fielded questions about the campus atmosphere from veteran students in the school of General Studies and ROTC, students with children, and Native American students.
Michael Greenberg, CC ’16, asked Bollinger to consider fossil fuel divestment for the University, noting Harvard University President Drew Faust’s recent decision against divesting in fossil fuels.
But Bollinger said the act of divesting is reserved for responding symbolically to social problems, such as cigarette use and apartheid in South Africa. He said he doesn’t think global warming falls into this category because “people are very aware of the problem of climate change.”
The discussion topics also ranged beyond the University. Bollinger, a renowned First Amendment scholar, discussed issues he had with WikiLeaks in response to a question from Diarra White, CC ’15.
Journalists have the right to publish confidential documents, Bollinger said, because “if we give them the right to publish, they will be very careful in how they exercise it.”
“Julian Assange of WikiLeaks—is he the modern equivalent entitled to First Amendment rights to publish?” he asked, later adding, “Like any good First Amendment law professor, I'm not going to answer.”
Bollinger also connected the First Amendment issue to anonymous comments on blogs.
“This anonymous blog post world is really very ugly, and that really concerns me a lot,” he said. “When I talk about the problem of these blog posts, and anonymity, and how corrupting that is to a culture, and how badly that makes people feel and terribly destructive that is—does that change the notion of anonymity and free speech?”
Throughout the evening, Bollinger turned back to one of his favorite topics—providing students with global education opportunities and using the University’s network of global centers.
When asked what he thinks distinguishes Columbia from other universities, he said it was Columbia’s “public international heritage.”
“How can you be an educated person and not have at least seen what is going on in China?” Bollinger asked. He said that before becoming president of the University, “I had not been to many countries, I hadn’t seen extreme poverty, I hadn’t walked around villages where people were living under conditions that we just could not imagine.”
“I realized I was ignorant. … So then I said, ‘This is what every student should have before they graduate,’” Bollinger said. “And out of that came the idea for global centers.”
But despite Bollinger’s belief that every student should have the opportunity to visit the global centers, only two students in attendance said they had actually visited any of the centers. One had gone to Mumbai and the other to Paris.
After the fireside chat, students had the most to say about Romo’s question regarding racial tensions. Romo said he was not satisfied with Bollinger’s response to his question, and other students agreed.
“It’s definitely an atmosphere thing in part,” Javonni Judd, CC ’14, said of the issues she faces as an African-American student. “In part, it’s a matter of not knowing who to reach out to—and I don’t even mean if something is necessarily wrong.”
“The point about racial tensions was pretty accurate in my opinion—the question. The answer was not an answer at all,” Alex Nguyen, CC ’17, said.
Others felt that the problem of depression on campus is one that Columbia is actively working to resolve.
“I think Columbia, in my experiences, is very good about making sure everyone has a place,” Maria Martinez, CC ’17, said. “I think the resources are there, but it’s still a hard environment. … I think that the faculty does try to address the issue with all these CPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] things, but the issue is always going to be there.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Romo said that black students at Columbia felt “a lack of support” in a “predominantly white environment.” Romo said that students of color at Columbia felt “a lack of support” in a “predominantly white environment.” Spectator regrets the error.