Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

Since University President Lee Bollinger emphasized the importance of increasing Columbia's physical space in his inaugural address last year, expansion has been a hot topic in Morningside Heights. And while Columbia administrators have worked hard to create the impression that they want to hear many voices as they plan to expand, many local residents and students aren't taking them at their word--and are organizing groups that will make their voices impossible to ignore.

As different groups have become involved, their respective roles in the process are becoming clearer and will define the terms of the debate as it plays out over the next several years.

Recent concerns about Columbia's failure to release a design plan this fall have created the opportunity for the various groups to define their very different ways of engaging with the University. Columbia administrators say that the design company has not yet given them an acceptable plan, and they do not want to release a plan until they are convinced that it is a worthwhile proposal. Nevertheless, many have seized on this as proof of Columbia's lack of transparency.

Over the past several months, the University has created groups to offer input on the subject, including the Faculty Advisory Committee, the University Senate's Task Force on Campus Development, and the Community Advisory Board, formed from members of local community boards.

The formation of the official University groups has been coupled with the creation of grassroots community and student organizations that are unaffiliated with Columbia. They were created due to concerns about the University's approach to expansion, and their independent nature will allow them to offer a balanced, critical view of the process.


The approach of the administration

Columbia has not yet established an umbrella group that will deal with issues relating to the Manhattanville Expansion. Instead, the administration has formed many different groups that consult with University President Lee Bollinger and other senior administrators, according to Emily Lloyd, executive vice president for government and community affairs.

Lloyd called the approach "multi-faceted" and said that the University's consideration of the Manhattanville expansion has involved the advice of many disparate groups, including faculty, community members, and students.

Lloyd said the Faculty Advisory Committee is one of the primary committees that Bollinger works with. "Discussion is far-ranging--academic matters, [campus] design, community issues. They are a group that the President thinks with."

The administration also works with the University Senate's Task Force on Campus Development, which focuses primarily on academic matters like how much space different schools in the University will need when the University expands, according to committee chairman Peter Marcuse, professor of Urban Planning. The Task Force, which includes eight faculty members, three students, and two administrators, also briefs the full Senate with updates on the expansion process.

In addition, the administration works with a Community Advisory Board, made up of 35 members of local community-based organizations that were chosen by Columbia. Lloyd said the members of the Community Advisory Board are "thoughtful, well-informed people who don't have a narrow interest to advocate." The CAB last met in October and will meet again next Tuesday.

Administrators also have frequent informal meetings with other administrators, students, and community members. For example, Bollinger has met with students in town hall-type meetings this semester, in addition to the deans of different Columbia schools. Two weeks ago, Lloyd attended the CB9 meeting, where she answered pointed questions from local residents about Columbia's level of transparency.


Criticism from neighborhood activists

Despite Columbia's efforts thus far, neighborhood activists are still skeptical that the University is really willing to engage in such an open dialogue, and neighborhood groups are responding by organizing to hold the University accountable to its commitment to listen.

Carolyn Kent, a member of the Community Advisory Board, said she is pleased that Columbia has set up meetings, but says they have not been as helpful as they should be.

"I appreciate that Emily [Lloyd] is trying to bring together community leaders. ... I appreciate that there is an idea about outreach," she said, although she added that "so far in the process, discussion with the Community [Advisory] Board has not been up to the task."

She said that the University has not done nearly enough to show that it is concerned about the surrounding neighborhood. "There is really no evidence yet that ventures thinking about the possibilities of the University and the community and the merger of these two goals."

She is not alone on the Community Advising Board in criticizing Columbia's approach.

Earlier this year, Spectator reported that Community Advisory Board member Maritta Dunn, who also serves as the Second Vice-Chair of Community Board 9, said at a Coalition to Preserve Community meeting, "Columbia is conducting itself the way it has always been conducting itself--the war is still on."

Another critic of Columbia's approach to expansion is Tom DeMott, a longtime neighborhood activist who this summer helped found the CPC.

One of the main goals of the CPC is protesting Columbia's planned expansion into Manhattanville. The meetings have been widely attended: earlier this month, a CPC meeting attracted 50 people, even though the meeting was not advertised to the public. There was a similar turn-out at last night's CPC meeting.

DeMott agreed with Kent's and Dunn's criticisms of Columbia, saying that the meetings he has attended with Columbia representatives have not satisfied him.

"It's a little hard to work with an institution when they are not willing to give up the information and make the effort to have the people who are making the presentations say with any sort of assuredness what might happen," he said.

In response to this vein of criticism, Lloyd said the University cannot give details on what it has not yet decided. She said that although "people tend to think Columbia is omniscient," the long time period planning for the Manhattanville expansion is different than other, short-term University projects.

"Only now is the design team really working towards a plan they think we should propose," she said.


Early stages of student involvement in the process

At least one student group has sided with the area residents and workers who are concerned about expansion. Though the group does not yet have a name, it organized a teach-in earlier this year and has met weekly for the last few months.

The group is also working with the CPC on a petition intended for students and alumni who are dissatisfied with the University's handling of the process thus far.

The petition cites concerns about the effect the proposed expansion would have on Harlem, including the potential loss of jobs, displacement of residents from apartment complexes, and the rendering exclusive of spaces that are now public, and asks the University for more tangible commitments. This list of concerns is designed to echo a similar list currently being drafted by the CPC. A segment from the petition reads "though at present the University administration claims that it is addressing community concerns, we are asking for concrete commitments now that go beyond vague pledges to prioritize these matters".

Nell Geiser, CC '06, has attended the group's meetings and has been involved in drafting the petition. She said that despite the many meetings that have been held by administration officials, the administration is not showing enough evidence of actually incorporating the concerns of local residents into their plans.

"If you're truly committed to community involvement, you will bring these voices, concerns, realities into the process in the beginning," she said.

But, she said, her group does acknowledge that Columbia has shown some willingness to work with outside groups.

"We're not saying they've been entirely secretive or closed," she said, adding later that four members of her group met with Lloyd this week.

Other students are also interested in forming groups about expansion. Andy Lebwohl, CC '04, sent an email last week to Senior Executive Vice-President Robert Kasdin suggesting the creation of a student committee dealing with expansion.

Lebwohl, treasurer of the Student Governing Board and the outgoing president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, wrote to Kasdin, "Increased communication between the student body and the administration can only help the process, and will bring both better innovation to the expansion process, and will help allay any fears that this is a zero-sum game."

Kasdin sent a brief reply in which he thanked Lebwohl for his comments and promised a more substantial response later.

Lebwohl said he hopes a student committee might help the presentation of expansion as a process that could benefit everyone, both in the University and in surrounding areas.

He said he believes a cooperative approach achieves more results than a combative approach, and he worries about the tactics of some critics of the expansion. "What I'm concerned by is the adversarial tone that some of the activism so far [has] taken on," he said.

Despite the level of conflict and emotion in the debate, Lebwohl said he hopes the student committee can work with the administration to keep everyone happy. "My number one goal is not to piss anyone off," he said.