Opinion | The Canon

A complex question

In the last Canon, we discussed giving back. I talked about the endowment as insurance, cultural and intellectual capital, which ensures high standards of higher education here at Columbia. 

Those are the ends, at least. But need we justify the means? In other words, however Columbia uses, spends, invests, or channels that money, so that the University gets a bigger stack of cash to help improve itself—should we care? Should we have a say in the matter, as students who grow that endowment with tuition, donations, grants, prizes, and esteem?

Only those of us uninterested in nuance would respond with simply “yes” or “no.” Still, though, those two camps reveal a lot about the kinds of students—even the kinds of citizens—we want to be.

People who respond with a solid “yes” must have an incredibly radical, if not utterly unrealistic, view of what the ideal university looks like. Think about it: The aim of wanting this level of transparency is, ultimately, to force the school to invest in ethical companies and projects. That is what “political statements” really means, under the thin film of jargon—statements we can ideologically disagree with, charged by the political environment. Consider Columbia’s investments in companies that supported the apartheid in South Africa during the late 1970s, or Columbia’s current investments in fossil fuel companies. Human rights issues had less exposure to activism 40 years ago and were rooted in sanctioned institutions more than they are today. Our generation has grown up alongside the looming dangers of global warming, so climate change possesses an urgency for us that others may not feel, and we should keep that perspective in mind. 

I call this extreme unrealistic because it requires—in addition to total transparency between the endowment committees and administration on one hand, and the students on the other—a way to reach consensus about which ventures are ethical and which are not. The first is impossible—it would take too much work for too little usage. Not enough students actually want to trace the paths Columbia’s endowment money takes, and of course, very few even can. The debate becomes one of degrees: If Columbia cannot invest in a company that makes use of fossil fuels, can it invest in a company that itself indirectly supports the fossil fuel industry? Radicalism steps in here, for if the answer to that is “no,” then these visionaries leave the University with very little recourse for economic growth. A Columbia uninvolved in any unsavory matter might be a good thing, but in many ways, it is not the University’s fault. Columbia must play to its environment, even if it means making a few ethical sacrifices along the way—for to narrow the range of monetary feedback would be to limit that gain substantially. Frozen yogurt shops in Brooklyn can “go green,” but a research university the size of Columbia would have to thoroughly alter its topography for its own sort of revolution. 

The ethical question also leads us down an impossible path. Cases like apartheid and (for us) fossil fuels seem rather easy to decide—who likes racism or global warming? They are indisputably “bad things,” at least among the vast majority of students here. But what about something like fast food? Some might censure Columbia for investing in Burger King and thereby enabling rising obesity rates, while others would support the University and the freedom to choose how unhealthy one eats. Every industry has its gray areas—in fact, the black and white decisions are the minority decision. If every investment Columbia makes is subject to intense ethical scrutiny, then either Columbia’s students form a more homogenous makeup to allow for its investments, or there is constant clashing disagreement. Nothing would ever get done.

People who respond to our big question with a solid “no” are disinterested, ignorant, or lazy. Either you know and don’t care, don’t know, or know and care but not enough. These are unacceptable excuses to me. I cited my Contemporary Civilization professor last issue, and I’ll quote him in this one (I liked the class, so sue me): “Beware the institution,” he would warn, dramatically and ominously. The message, though, is powerful: Do not let yourself be controlled. Beware. Be aware. 

I spent more time criticizing the “yes” argument because it is the side a progressively-minded, plastic, slightly frustrated college student might naturally take. Truthfully, the old guard is and always will be a few steps too conservative for the younger, more liberal generations. When we are in charge, matured by the brine of decades rather than years, no doubt we ourselves will find the policies of younger folk too reactionary or shortsighted as well. So if we ask whether we should care, the answer is staunchly “yes.” If we ask whether we should have any influence, the answer is perhaps a softer “yes,” a tentative but alert “yes.” The University sticks with the status quo as it must, but gives us the room to grow, respond, and eventually go out into the world and change things ourselves.

Ben Rashkovich is a Columbia College junior majoring in creative writing. He contributes regularly to The Canon.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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