On Saturday morning, Barnard students opened their inboxes to find that Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States of America and a 1983 Columbia College graduate, would be their 2012 commencement speaker. The announcement sparked yet another impassioned chapter in the ongoing Columbia-Barnard saga. Many Columbia College students were disappointed, and understandably so. Just a month before, CC seniors had been told by Dean James Valentini to donate to Columbia, not for the money, but because "we all owe something to the college." Not only that, but Columbia students have attempted to have Obama return to Columbia since he was elected president in 2008 through initiatives like the POTUS project. Why would Obama choose the school across Broadway for his return to Columbia, rather than speaking at the college from which he graduated? Despite the disappointment of some Columbia students, the ensuing reaction—from both sides—was appalling and embarrassing. While many students reacted either ambivalently or supportively to the news, even more responded with vitriol. Bwog and Spectator comment boards were filled with gloating from Barnard students and a combination of condescension and sexism from Columbia students. Our community did not seem like one that had recently been selected by the leader of the free world, but a petty breeding ground for misogyny and jealousy. What could have been an incredibly proud moment for Columbia was tarnished. As many have already pointed out, we have to understand why Obama chose Barnard in the first place. Women's rights are quickly becoming an issue in the 2012 presidential race, especially with recent negative statements from Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh. By coming to one of the pre-eminent women's colleges in the country, Obama has the opportunity to deliver a speech on women's rights that will reverberate not only with the Barnard graduating class, but with the nation and the world. His motivation for choosing Barnard was politically motivated. Many important political speeches, from Winston Churchill's address at the Harrow School to the famous Marshall Plan speech at Harvard University, have used the platform of a commencement address. Obama will have the stage to deliver what could be a very important speech for his presidency. Moreover, Columbia students have no reason to be so angry at Obama's decision as to launch attacks at Barnard, when the role of a commencement speaker is contextualized. One of the advantages of Columbia is that there are countless opportunities to see influential speakers through outlets such as the World Leaders Forum, and not just at Commencement. On graduation day, the most important words don't come from a magazine editor, or a CEO, or even the president of the United States. They come from our parents, our professors, and the people who shaped our college experiences. We should take pride in the honor that has been bestowed upon the Columbia community, not react with animosity. Hopefully, this will not be the last time that Obama decides to visit Morningside Heights.
Columbia Spectator Staff