Opinion | Op-eds

Fiscal transparency for tuition is sorely needed

My Contemporary Civilization class meets from 6:10 to 8 p.m., commonly known as the “hunger time slot.” Who gets dinner at 6 p.m.? Who gets it at 8 p.m.? It’s a big problem. My professor, who graciously attributes our sometimes-tepid discussions to this poor state of affairs, just decided to petition the University to give us a small food stipend. He told us about it the day we were covering A Vindication of the Rights of Women. “We have a multi-billion dollar endowment,” he said, one elbow resting on Mary Wollstonecraft’s face, “I mean ...” Everyone laughed.

And why shouldn’t we? The mystery of Columbia’s endowment is practically a point of connection within our community. As a School of Engineering and Applied Science friend told me when I was applying for a fellowship, “Each department here is its own business. I haven’t taken CC, but I’m sure it’s a business too.”

The next day, an English professor commented that she was particularly impressed by Anna Bahr’s, BC ’14, exposé of on-campus sexual assault cases in the last issue of the Blue and White. She drew a connection between universities and the military, citing the gut-wrenching 2012 documentary, The Invisible War. “What is your relationship to the institution you represent?” she asked, excited. “Should these places operate by laws distinct from the larger legal system? Should Columbia get to, for instance, restrain freedom of speech?” Everyone smiled and nodded—it was a mid-afternoon class and we were relatively well-fed. “It’s all very fascinating,” she concluded, and began discussing Andrew Marvell.

I can’t help but think of these as bonding moments, like a form of greeting specific to the school community. “Oh, you hate SSOL too? Ha, I have two Ph.D.s, and I control a good percentage of your GPA—look how connected we are!” We reference our powerlessness so casually. We’re nearly self-congratulatory in our demonstrated awareness of the flawed system. I hate it, but I can’t think of an alternative way to cope.

I bet, though, that I could if I understood more about this place. I believe that financing a university like ours is complex, and maybe I’m naïve, but I doubt it’s too complex for a non-finance major to understand. How closely should I scrutinize my professor’s school/military comparison? How justified would I be in requesting a food stipend for myself? I don’t want to just nod my head. That, to me, defines naïveté more than a person willing to ask potentially stupid questions. I imagine someone up in the ranks nodded her head when her suggestion that some small piece of financial information be released was shot down. Not all restrictions on freedom of speech exist in laws or policies. I often fear I’m silencing myself out of an assumption that I’ll be judged for questioning the influence of our deeply enigmatic administration. 

Investing effort in a class designed to open my awareness feels silly when I can’t examine how Columbia’s investing in me. I should not have to major in finance to know where my tuition is going. What percentage of it is covering my professor’s salary? What percentage of it is covering, for instance, investments in a specific corporation? 

Maybe I should talk to more finance majors, though, in the hopes that they can explain why the workings of our endowment should be kept private. I’d like to hear a reasonable argument. Because there are many good arguments for transparency, as anyone in Barnard Columbia Divest, a student group dedicated to severing ties between the University and the fossil fuel industry, will attest. The group directed me to the endowment webpage, but there I only learned how it’s invested. Not where, and not how it’s spent. I deserve to know what my family is paying for, and I think everyone else in the community does as well. 

A refusal to give information about where the money is going would be less excusable than the current absence of answers. 

I don’t want to bond with my SEAS friend over our being in the dark. I want to look back with him and say, “Hey, remember when our education was a business? Trippy, right?” Except that’s the future, and an imaginary one, and I’m tired of dreaming. As long as the University stays so secretive about its spending, the larger lesson behind all our knowledge is that passive acceptance of the financial whims of the administration is OK—a message reinforced with every laugh and eye-roll. 

I want to be more conscientious than I am, but I feel like I have little to work with.

At least it’s all very fascinating.  

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in English and sustainable development. 

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

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