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Columbia Spectator Staff

It's unsurprising that little has been said about the possible merger of General Studies and Columbia College since Spectator broke the news that the Task Force on Undergraduate Education was considering ways to better integrate GS into the University community. After all, the article prompted strong negative reaction from many. On Spec's Web site, visitors called the idea of a merger "sickening" and declared "I wouldn't donate a penny to Columbia if CC and GS were merged." Michelle Diamond, Columbia College Student Council president and CC '08, sent an assuring e-mail to the student body discrediting the story. (It's unclear why. The substance of the piece has been confirmed by Provost Alan Brinkley, and when I followed up with her about it, she replied cryptically, "I am privy to conversations that you are not.")

Disregarding the irrational fear of arthritic roommates (nobody has suggested merging housing) and plummeting reputations (GS is by all measures one of the finest schools of its kind), there are legitimate reasons to oppose the potential merger. But the opposite case has not been heard nearly enough: there are many reasons that a merger would benefit all.

GS is a school without a community. Largely, GS students don't live, work, or hang out on campus. Many are not full-time students and often, their lives are centered elsewhere. This leaves the school's role undefined—is it simply a commuter college meant to instill education without providing a sense of community, or is it something more than that? The structure of any integration would go a long way to answering that question.

In terms of academics, with the exception of the Core, GS and CC have identical curricula. Further, this distinction has been eroding: GS students are required to take University Writing, Art Hum, and Music Hum, while Lit Hum and CC sections are made available to them. "I wouldn't be surprised if in five years, even the Core Curriculum was identical," Dean of General Studies Peter Awn said in an interview last semester.

Beyond curricular mergers, the only area that I have heard cited as the topic of specific conversations is admissions. While Awn has noted that the life experiences of GS students cannot be quantified by GPAs as readily as they can for CC students, the incredible success that Jessica Marinaccio, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, has had in making CC among the most competitive schools in the nation and increasing the reputation of SEAS show why this could be a strong move.

But beyond academics and admissions, it is unclear how the merger would be structured, as administrators have shied away from confirming specifics. One thing is clear: it seems unlikely that the two would completely join. Rather, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that this "merger" might mirror the restructuring that CC and SEAS underwent just over a decade ago.

With CC and SEAS still completely separate entities a decade ago, then-University President George Rupp and Provost Jonathan Cole worked with newly-appointed deans Zvi Galil and Austin Quigley to create a joint office of Student Affairs which would be run by the newly-designated Dean of Student Affairs, Chris Colombo. Admissions, financial aid, student advising, and residential life were all incorporated under this new office, which is now approaching its 10th anniversary. Since its inception, the Office has served as the basis of a University-wide undergraduate community. Columbia has already begun to bring GS into this organization, inviting them to enter into the relatively new Office of Multicultural Affairs (a recent addition to Student Affairs) and working more closely with SDA.

With the exception of housing, Student Affairs covers all of the areas most-often cited as places where GS should be better-integrated within the University community, including financial aid. Indeed, GS leaders have long pointed to financial aid disparity as the school's major problem, and the Capital Campaign's goal of raising $15 million for aid to GS students isn't going to fix it. (By comparison, the Campaign aims for $400 million in aid to CC students.) Eliminating the distinction between CC and GS financial aid would provide a larger pool of funds for students from both schools.

On paper, a merger of these functions through Student Affairs appears ideal, but in actuality, some of the structural flaws exhibitied by Student Affairs, which have led many to view it as the worst administrative area at Columbia, should give pause.

For a moment, let's compare Student Affairs with Student Services. In my time at Columbia, Student Services has overhauled and streamlined the registrar and bursar's offices, overseen the enormous CUID replacement, implemented an emergency messaging system, replaced the e-mail system, overhauled John Jay dining hall, and redid the Columbia shuttle service. Student Affairs? They have certainly seen their achievements, including the restructuring of advising and the passage of the new Pass-D-Fail policy. But, taking the example of how they took 18 months to write a non-binding 171-word Community Principles Statement, one can see where the Office might lead to frustrations in tackling a major bureaucratic reshuffling like the potential merger.

Despite all of the potential benefits that could arise from a GS-CC merger, they would likely be blunted if the move is made under the purview of the Office of Student Affairs.
Grant me a moment of speculation: Next year, it is likely that there will be a new dean in SEAS. Colombo, Quigley, and Awn are among the longest-serving administrators at Columbia and among the last hold-overs from the Rupp era. One can envision a scenario where all three retire in the next few years following the release of the heavily-anticipated report of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education. This would allow Brinkley and University President Lee Bollinger to conduct a from-scratch restructuring mirroring the one that Rupp and former University Provost Jonathan Cole undertaken a decade ago.

Student Affairs GS Merger