Opinion | The Canon

Raising the bar on institutional activism

The first question is this: Should Columbia, as an institution, concern itself with the world beyond its gates? If not, the question of political statements is irrelevant—the Columbia community can live in oblivion, cherishing its academic agnosticism and avoiding controversy.

If, however, this university considers society at large a sphere to be influenced and improved, then we must determine how it does so. But even then, the question is not whether we should make political statements. Of course it would make political statements—because to take any action, promote any position, and endorse any value is to make a political statement. This is the real question we need to ask ourselves: When Columbia takes a position, how does it enact that position in the world? Assuming we can achieve a just way of including all relevant voices in the discussion and coming to an institutional opinion, we need a course of action.

The easiest answer is divestment. But there’s a reason it’s the easiest—it’s also the least effective and least thoughtful. For example, the recent ballot initiative on divesting from fossil fuel companies trades real-world effectiveness for feel-good blanket judgments. For those who believe that Columbia’s divestment from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies is a victory for climate change, I would challenge them to resist its populist veneer and understand how much money those same companies spend on alternative energies and what impact the divestment will have on any of their behaviors.

Barnard Columbia Divest’s ballot initiative is everything that Columbians are proud not to be: intellectually lazy, strategically inept, and hopelessly reactionary. While we clap each other on the back for this progressive leap, the world will continue precisely as it did before. The worldwide economy will continue to need fossil fuels, those 200 companies will continue to produce fossil fuels, and investors will continue to buy their shares. As an institution, Columbia will have done absolutely nothing of importance.

This is why Columbia and its peer institutions need to aim higher. Instead of focusing on what we can take away, we need to focus on what we can produce, what we can give. We are a world-class institution, known for the knowledge that is discovered in our labs, the books that we present to the world, and the Nobel Prizes that we bring back. But we do not trade in bylines alone—Columbia is an ecosystem of influence, from our world-renowned faculty to, yes, our financial wealth. These are weapons in our institutional arsenal and yet we are loath to employ them in furthering our causes. When the world was threatened by fascism, Columbia didn’t focus on divestment—instead, it helped produce technology to win the war. When AIDS continued to ravage sub-Saharan Africa in the late ’90s, Columbia didn’t make surface-level statements, but developed the Mailman School’s International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs, which treated its one-millionth patient in September 2010. 

My point is simple: When Columbia wants something in the world to change, it should change it, not settle on punishing those who are part of the problem. It starts with the topic at hand: fossil fuels. Where is the push for more funding of alternative energy research in Morningside Heights? Where is the referendum to put money forward to attract the world’s leading experts to join us in our pursuit of a cleaner world? These are challenges, to be sure, but they are challenges worthy of Columbia. Students, faculty, and alumni who are passionate about a topic must not be satisfied with sideline potshots. We belong in the fight, making our dent in the problem by crafting solutions, bringing experts together, and educating the leaders of tomorrow to address these issues. To do anything less is institutional malpractice.

We have the people and the resources to make the world a much better place. Let’s not settle on the superficial when we can achieve the fundamental.

The author is a 2012 graduate of Columbia College. He is a Venture for America fellow and works for Grand Circus, a startup tech training institute.  He is a former regular contributor to The Canon.

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

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