Written by Parth Chhabra
Edited by Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Julian Shen-Berro
Graphics by Xixi Wang
Photography by Rya Inman
Illustration by Lilly Kwon
On the night of December 1, 2018, S, a black resident of Carman Hall, comes home alone. They take the service elevator at the back of the building.
When they arrive on their floor, it is immediately clear that something is wrong: The holiday decorations that had gone up earlier in the day are vandalized and crushed bulbs are strewn across the carpet. S, who requested to be anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the subject, proceeds down the hallway to survey the extent of the damage, passing their own room without paying much attention to it. When they return to their room, they notice that someone has placed an air vent outside their door—graffitied with an anti-black slur.
S’s first reaction is to do nothing; they know immediately that they don’t want the attention of many people knowing, so they leave the vent outside, swipe into their room, and go to bed.
When S wakes up the next morning, they don’t feel the “emotional impact” they did the night before. Instead, they feel detached, cynical. Still, they don’t want anyone to know, so they go to a friend in the building to get some white paint to see if they can cover it up without having to report it.
When the friend sees the vent, though, they are shocked, and their reaction allows S to let themselves feel the emotion—they start crying and realize that someone should be contacted. S calls Public Safety as well as the residence hall director on duty and reports the vandalism.
Almost exactly a week after S finds the anti-black slur marked air vent outside their door, a Columbia College sophomore goes viral for harassing a group of mostly black students outside Butler Library late one Saturday night. As the video makes the rounds on social media, many people seem to share the opinion that one Twitter user voices:
“@Columbia has a WHITE SUPREMACY problem!”
Hate crimes and bias incidents both refer to targeted actions that are motivated by discrimination and prejudice. A person commits a hate crime, according to the New York State Hate Crimes Act of 2000, when they intentionally select a person or group and commit a “specified offense” motivated by prejudice against one of their identities—including race, religion, and sexual orientation and, as of November 1, 2019, the law will also include gender identity. Bias incidents refer to acts that, while still motivated by hate or prejudice, may not be criminal. The line distinguishing the two can get legally complicated.
Last November, the FBI released its annual report for 2017; the report revealed that hate crimes have risen for three consecutive years—both nationally and on college campuses. Although these spikes probably reflect our current cultural and political moment in the United States, this does not mean these incidents are new, especially not at Columbia.
Surveying even just the last two decades, it is clear that our university history is one brought together by often violent acts of discrimination, student activists fighting to prevent them, and a university administration trying to respond to them. In 2004, protests of the Columbia University Concerned Students of Color emerged in response to three racist incidents. In 2005, the homophobic and anti-semitic vandalism of a Ruggles suite gave birth to Stop Hate on Columbia’s Campus. In 2007 (and again in 2018), racist and anti-semitic vandalisms occurred at Teachers College. In 2013, football player Chad Washington committed an anti-Asian hate crime. Hate crimes and bias incidents punctuate Columbia’s modern history.
The events of the last semester—which include not only the anti-black slur found on an air vent outside S’s door but also another instance of swastikas painted outside Professor Elizabeth Midlarsky’s door and the viral white supremacist rant outside Butler—are not isolated incidents. They are hate crimes and bias incidents on a campus long used to responding to them. But how effective, then, are the systems and structures that the University has built over the years to confront and prevent discriminatory acts?
Commenting on the university at large, University President Lee Bollinger said Columbia does have a “fundamental responsibility to try to stop incidents of hate and discrimination,” in an interview with Spectator earlier this month. Given the national climate under the Trump administration, he added, it is “harder today to deal with this than it was four or five years ago.”
At Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, a University Student Life webpage tells us there is protocol for dealing with bias and discrimination. The seven-part process, created as a collaboration between students and key administrative offices, is the guiding framework through which the University responds to hate crimes and bias incidents at two of its undergraduate schools. It is also the procedure followed when responding to S’s incident, a Columbia College spokesperson told Spectator at the time.
The protocol seems, on paper, thoughtful, caring, and firm. First, Public Safety responds on the ground, ensures the victim’s safety, and documents the incident. Then, members of the Bias and Discrimination Response Team both reach out to targeted students and identity groups to provide support to and work on the best way to notify the broader community, and develop educational programming in response. Finally, the protocol outlines its commitment to disciplinary action—including letting NYPD and the courts take care of matters that are hate crimes—and to the confidentiality of the targeted individuals. This is a system intended not only to address immediate acts of discrimination and violence, but also to work toward broader cultural shifts.
But conversations with students impacted by three distinct bias-related incidents in the undergraduate community in the last four years have revealed that the application of this protocol is inconsistent and, sometimes, insufficient. Even when the protocol is implemented as it is supposed to be, students can be left to shoulder much of the burden. History shows that the University has struggled with addressing the culture that engenders acts of discrimination, and it has ultimately been students who, through protests, demands, and initiatives for a safer campus, have led a trailing administration.
Early morning on Sunday, December 9, Kwolanne Felix, a first-year at Columbia College, comes home from an off-campus party. It is a Saturday night—Sunday morning by now—and she and some friends decide to go to JJ’s for some late-night food. They are a scattered group and as they make their way over, some members of the group are approached by a man in a suit.
The conversation is going fine, Felix tells me, until the student puts his hand on one of the women, causing her to react.
You’ve seen the video: Dressed in a suit, arms in the air, Columbia College sophomore Julian von Abele proclaims his love for white people. “We’re white men; we did everything,” he yells, jumping around. As the students surrounding him, mostly black women, confront his views, he continues jumping, aggressively shouting even as his voice turns hoarse. “White men are the best thing to happen to the world,” he says at one point.
Later in the night, while Felix and her friends were at JJ’s Place, von Abele entered the dining hall, where he continued his loud ranting. A uniformed public safety officer on break was also there at the time, and at the students’ request, Felix says, he walked over and spoke to von Abele. According to Felix, the public safety officer returned and told them that not much could be done, that von Abele was just saying how he felt. A University spokesperson told The Eye that von Abele left JJ’s Place after the intervention.
S had a mixed experience with Public Safety: The officer that responded to their initial call was “super nice and apologetic” about the incident. The officer assigned to investigate their case, however, was insensitive, S recounts.
“I got really frustrated because he kept asking me—he kept trying to verify with me—that I didn’t think it was personal. And he kept saying, ‘Oh but you don’t think it’s personal right?’ In those words,” S says. The implication, according to S, was that the attack wasn’t a targeted one: The officer asked S at one point if it were possible that somebody could have written that on the vent before and just put it back up.
“Instead of the question, ‘Do you feel like it was personal?,’ he kept asking, ‘You don’t feel like it was, right?,’ kind of like belittling the experience I thought,” S says. “And at that point, I literally just told him, ‘I mean it’s clearly personal: I’m black. I’m one of the very few black people on the floor; this is my floor that was vandalized.’”
A University spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the incident, but said that all investigative staff conduct investigations in accordance to specialized training and with “respect, professionalism, and expertise.”
As per the protocol, two staff members did reach out to Felix—her advisor at the Center for Student Advising and Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs Melinda Aquino. While both the CSA and the Office of Multicultural Affairs are offices listed as part of the Bias and Discrimination Response Team, the website offers no information about who makes up this team aside from the fact that it includes these offices and Residential Life.
A spokesperson for Undergraduate Student Life told The Eye in an email that coordinating student outreach, without specifically addressing whether or not this was done in Felix’s case, can allow administrators who know students to reach out to them. The spokesperson also clarified that the Bias and Discrimination Response Team is comprised of all staff who serve at the 24/7 Dean On Call for Columbia College and SEAS; the offices involved include those listed on the website as well as Student and Family Support.
Felix is close with both her advisor and Dean Aquino, whom she works with on the Queer and Trans Advisory Board and sees at least once a week. She met with both of them. Her advisor, Felix says, told her about Counseling and Psychological Services, and Aquino inquired about her well-being. But neither conversation brought up the response education programming that the protocol presents as the center of its cultural and preventive arm. Aquino didn’t follow up after the first meeting—Felix says it would have been nice to have a follow-up meeting.
Members from across USL also reached out to S, including staff members from Residential Life such as their residential hall director and the assistant director for first-year housing. S also had a meeting with Aquino; they tell me that Aquino was “very nice and supportive,” and they appreciate her time and effort. Kyoko Hirose and Arwa Adib, members of the Asian American Alliance e-board, also met with Aquino in the aftermath of the backlash they faced following last year’s cultureSHOCK. Both emphasized their appreciation for Aquino, whom they call “part of this community.” She helped them protect themselves from various forms of online hate and was extremely responsive to their queries.
In her meeting with S, Aquino did bring up concrete plans for upcoming response education: There would be explicit racial bias tabling and programming and S volunteered to work on it with the office. But, there has been no follow-up since this initial conversation in December.
In an email to The Eye, USL reaffirmed the centrality of restorative justice programming to bias incident response and confirmed that Aquino discussed potential programming opportunities with S. The email also said that the OMA’s programming for this semester, including the Black Gotham walking tour outing and a program on Black sexuality with Ericka Hart, was informed by the Carman incident and “other campus issues.” There continues to be no sign of specific response programming planned in Carman.
In addition to discussing the programming, Aquino and S talked about campus notification. She told S that there would be an email sent to the entire college—one that would explicitly identify that “an anti-black racial slur” had been graffitied onto an object in Carman Hall. There has since been no email.
USL told The Eye that the notification for such incidents typically remains within the residential community, without directly responding to why such an email had not gone out to the college.
It’s not clear to what extent an email would have helped, though. After Julian von Abele’s racist rant went viral, the three undergraduate deans of Columbia College, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and General Studies wrote an email statement that explicitly identified and denounced racism and white supremacy—a win, in many ways, considering that Suzanne Goldberg’s email, which was forwarded to Columbia College and SEAS undergraduates by Dean Cristen Kromm in the wake of the Tree of Life tragedy, did not explicitly condemn anti-Semitism. Despite this, Felix was left unhappy with the notification.
“[It] felt like a copy and paste email,” she says. “It felt like the email, the same email they sent like two weeks ago when a teacher had swastikas painted all over their office.”
The incident Felix is referring to took place at Teachers College and is outside the purview of the USL protocol, but the three deans also wrote an email to denounce the incident and anti-Semitism (this time explicitly) to the undergraduate community. But what effect do repeated emails have on their efficacy and meaning, even if they are necessary public notifications? After all, when one’s subject begins “Denouncing racism...” and the other’s “Denouncing anti-semitism…” there is a sense of robotic repetition.
But notification is not just a statement of principles; it is also a measure that can keep the campus community informed and, potentially, safe. According to an Eye review of Public Safety crime logs, since 2011, there have been 26 bias-related incidents, not necessarily crimes, reported to Public Safety; of these, at least 20 were reported to have taken place on the Morningside Campus. Under the Clery Act, the University isn’t mandated to send out a campus-wide notification unless the crime is a Clery-reportable crime that can be classified as a “serious, ongoing threat.”
Abigail Boyer, currently the interim executive director of the Clery Center, emphasizes the difference between legal obligations and the work universities must do anyway. There are “communications certainly that institutions do with members of their community that are beyond just meeting the technical requirements but certainly help to make sure that campus feels informed and supported,” she says.
The emails that were sent out after the incidents at Teachers College and outside Butler are examples of this second type of notification, undertaken to keep the university informed and supported. But without an effective system of response around it, these emails, as we can see from Felix’s reaction, might fail to meet that goal.
Adib tells me how emails can feel empty when no other action has been publically taken. “You can send as many emails as you want, but if you’re not actively doing something to change the way things are on campus, it means nothing.”
So what are the University’s legal obligations outside of reporting and notification when it comes to hate crimes? None, according to the Clery Act. “The Clery Act pertaining to violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking does include specific policy elements that have to exist in relation to how an institution responds to an incident reported, to elements within their disciplinary procedures—that’s not something that currently exists for hate crimes under the Clery Act,” Boyer explains.
But while the Clery Act may provide no other legal requirement, a spokesperson for the New York City Commission on Human Rights says that a university could be held liable under New York City’s human rights law if a bias incident was committed by a university employee or if it were discovered that a university responded to bias incidents against certain groups but not others. Under the law, a university could be held liable for up to $250,000 in civil penalties, an uncapped limit in emotional damages, and be subject to affirmative relief like policy updates, mediated apologies, and monitoring by the city. A university without solid policy runs the risk of being found in violation of the law, the spokesperson said.
Ultimately, much of the tangible action following the incident arose from Felix’s own initiative. She was the one who emailed her professors for extensions on her finals and filed reports herself: first with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, and then, after discovering that they don’t deal with incidents pertaining to one student’s allegation against another, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. Only the Black Students’ Organization offered to help her navigate the reporting process, she says.
The outcome of this investigation—and any sanctions that may arise for von Abele out of it—are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as part of his educational records. Felix tells me, in fact, that the office of SCCS doesn’t normally update reporters and she only received an update, to tell her that interviews had concluded, after asking for one. The office confirmed to The Eye that it can’t report any information on the outcome of a student hearing due to FERPA protections.
And so, even though USL protocol commits itself to disciplinary action, legal protections can leave students feeling like their university is not siding with them. By contrast, Barnard’s decision to ban von Abele from its campus is an example of open and explicit support; however, earlier this semester, a College spokesperson declined to elaborate to Spectator how this ban would be enforced or how long it would be in place. As for Columbia, von Abele’s fate remains unclear.
For a Bias and Discrimination Protocol that boasts—to whatever extent a website can—of its Support, Educational Programming, and Notification tenets, the implementation of the protocol in the cases of Felix and S suggest that the Columbia College-SEAS protocol has an imperfect implementation that leaves many gaps in its execution. In an email to The Eye, USL said there are plans to improve the protocol this summer.
Listening to von Abele’s white supremacist claims outside Butler, Felix imagined the library, with all the names that adorn its front, looking down and agreeing with von Abele. After all, if the Butler facade is anything to go by, the world has been written mostly by white men.
“If he wanted to, he could've definitely looked up and said ‘Look at Dante, St. Augustine, look at Vergil, these are the men that we study here,’” Felix says.
Von Abele’s rant rested itself on ‘historical’ claims: “We”—meaning Europeans—“built the modern world,” he says in the video, straight into one of the students’ cameras. In the aftermath of von Abele’s virality, a lot of the conversation on social media about the University’s response has centered not just around the response to the incident but the University’s general implicit support of white supremacist values through the Core.
In response to all the criticism the Core is generating, the chairs of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization published op-eds defending their courses in Spectator. Contemporary Civilization, the program’s chair Emmanuelle Saada clarified in her piece, was never meant to glorify a singular, superior civilization. Instead, she argues, the class is in part meant to question the methods by which these texts became the canon of a dominant tradition and “evaluat[e] what this process marginalized or discounted, from whole categories of people to ideas.”
But even she admits that the “objectives of Contemporary Civilization are not always made clear to the public or even, sometimes, to our students.” Since Saada’s thoughtful version of the course relies on the way individual instructors present the material to students, her approach is not standardized—and not guaranteed to be applied across the board.
Felix is appreciative of her Literature Humanities instructor, who she says has always been thoughtful and reflective with the works on the syllabus. This semester, for instance, she changed the reading list to reimagine the West by taking out Crime and Punishment—which is Russian, a country that isn’t geographically in the West—and added other writers, such as Christine de Pizan, whose The Book of the City of Ladies imagines a city populated by the great women of the Western canon, and Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor.
In her op-ed, the chair of Literature Humanities, Joanna Stalnaker, defends small changes: She argues that while these changes may seem minor, the Core is predicated on the belief that one text can alter the way we read the rest of them.
But the onus falls on instructors to diverge from the syllabus; in their statement in the aftermath of the von Abele incident, the Black Students’ Organization demanded, amongst other things, the inclusion of more black authors in LitHum and CC.
The disparity between the way students of color see the Core and the way administrators do lies in students’ individual experiences: Discussing Sepulveda—the Spanish philosopher who was a supporter of colonial slavery—Dafne Murillo, the former co-chair of the Student Organization of Latinxs tells me that they “had a really hard time reading it in class. Just reading the text was really hard for me, and I don’t feel like that is something, the intergenerational trauma that triggers people of color is acknowledged at all by the Core Curriculum—because it was not designed for us.”
There are nearly 300 students on Low Steps, but not one of them is speaking. Many of them are wearing only black and some also have a sign around their necks. “I am being SILENCED,” one of these signs reads.
The silent protests of February 2004 were led by the Columbia University Concerned Students of Color and were precipitated by three racist events. In December 2003, the Columbia University Marching Band put up a racist poster for Orgo Night. In it, Michael Jackson is portrayed as a black man and then a white woman, with the caption “Who needs ethnic studies anyway?” A couple of months later, on February 5th, 2004, the Columbia College Conservative Club held an “affirmative action bake sale” in Lerner, in which black and other students of color were charged less for cookies and such, to imply that they had been given an easier entry into Columbia. Fifteen days after that, the Fed published a racist cartoon on its back page—titled “Blacky Fun Whitey.” The cartoon mocked the history of black people in America and used racist stereotypes in drawing them.
Speaking to me earlier this semester, David Johns, one of the co-founders of CUCSC, refers to the incidents as “the convergence of ignorance and privilege.” The final of these events, the publication of the cartoon, proved to be the catalyst for protest action that lasted a week.
Bollinger had already been in contact with students in the aftermath of the bake sale, and on the second day of the silent protest, he sent an email to Columbia undergraduates—he said he was hesitant to speak against free speech, but called the events “unusually offensive” and called for students to put greater thought into the harm we can cause with what we say. Students were not satisfied. “I recognize the apology but … has anything on campus changed as a result of this apology?” Anthony Walker, of the Columbia College class of 2007, told Spectator at the time.
By the end of the week, the students had a list of nine concrete demands to present to Bollinger. The demands included the creation of an office of multicultural affairs, three new administrative positions, and a committee on diversity—as well as changes to the Core. Scanning the last two decades, we find that this emerges as a pattern: students demanding more from the University—in terms of response and institutional changes to combat hate crimes and bias incidents—than the University is providing.
Protesting students—comprised of representatives of groups including the BSO, the United Students of Color Council, and the CUCSC—presented Bollinger with their demands on Thursday, February 26. By March 1, he replied: His new statement committed to the creation of a multicultural affairs office, but ignored student demands for a new administrative position—vice provost for multicultural affairs. He also sidestepped calls for a new Core class and instead affirmed the continued reexamination of “all areas of our undergraduate curriculum.”
Bollinger’s second statement, perhaps most importantly, conceded that the “infrastructure of diversity” was “less well-developed at Columbia than it should be.” The Office of Multicultural Affairs, which was officially opened the following fall, is an example of reactive change—the University being led by its students to make up for its institutional deficiencies.
At the time, Johns tells me he and fellow protestors envisioned the office as “a combination of [a] physical space that could be a safe space for students on campus, but also [an office that has] a senior leader who would have institutional resources with which to address some of these problems.”
But the office wasn’t that.“The office is not what we asked for,” Jenni Oki, of the Columbia College class of 2007, told Spectator at the time. The OMA did not have as active a role in policy or the ties to the central administration that the activists had imagined.
In the year and a half that followed the opening of the office, Columbia saw repeated racist and anti-semitic graffiti in buildings across campus, including Lerner, Butler, and Watt. In December 2005, the homophobic and anti-semitic vandalism of a suite in Ruggles prompted protests and the formation of Stop Hate on Columbia’s Campus, a group very much in the vein of CUCSC that came before it.
The day after the incident, SHOCC created seven core demands; these included, anti-oppression training, more safe spaces on campus, and like CUCSC before them, changes to the Core. On March 29, 2006, SHOCC finally got an audience with Bollinger: they met with him alongside the President’s Student Advisory Committee on Diversity, a group of administrators, faculty, and students, which had been created in 2005—nearly a year after CUCSC’s demands for it.
Nothing happened in the immediate aftermath of the meeting. That evening, SHOCC held an emergency meeting at the IRC to plan, with over fifty students crammed into the space. The result was a three-day long campaign on Low Steps in April, ending with a mass rally welcoming Bollinger’s return from a trip to Asia. More meetings with administrators were set up, this time with moderate success: SHOCC succeeded in creating an LGBTQ advisor position within the OMA and the creation of a Public Safety “Know Your Rights” awareness campaign, diversity training for officers, and a more timely system of reporting hate crimes.
The year after, in 2007, a swastika was found spray painted on the door of Teacher’s College professor Elizabeth Midlarksy. The year, in general, was a rough one: In 2007, there were more incidents of vandalism—including graffiti of the phrase “Queers Rape” in Carman Hall, and the discovery of a noose outside the door of a black former Teacher’s College professor, Madonna Constantine.
Despite the conversation around bias incidents, in particular, acts of graffiti that had taken place over the last couple of years, the university made errors when responding to the Carman Hall incident. The graffiti wasn’t removed for nearly a week—a mistake the then-Dean of Student Affairs conceded in an email—and the OMA reflection event was planned at the same time as the Frontiers of Science midterm, making it inaccessible to close to half the residents of Carman who would have been enrolled in the course at the time.
In 2013, football player Chad Washington heckled an Asian student and two of his friends as he was leaving his dorm on West 113th. After the student tried to defend his friends, Washington shouted a racial slur and shoved the student against a wall. Washington was arrested for a hate crime—the charges were later dropped—but the incident and the later discovery of Washington’s racist tweets— “When Asian ppl fall asleep in class teachers can't tell![sic]” one reads—catalyzed a discussion about athletics and its culture on campus.
In response, the Asian American Alliance released a statement, co-signed by over 50 student organizations, that emphasized that the hate crime was not an isolated incident. Outgoing student council leaders also wrote a petition titled “Fix Columbia,” calling for the formation of an independent commission headed by Bollinger and Provost John Coatsworth to investigate the case and the systemic issues within the athletics department. That September, however, the then interim Dean of Student Affairs, said the petition never reached her office for review and no action was taken.
Athletics culture was again thrown into the spotlight in 2016, when, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, screenshots from the Class of 2017 wrestling group chat were leaked to Bwog. The screenshots revealed frequent use of sexist, racist, and homophobic language; of note, the n-word is casually used by non-black members of the group, including to refer to women, campus workers, and the protestors at Ferguson.
Hudson Taylor—a former assistant coach for the Columbia wrestling team who left before the incident, and the founder of Athlete Ally, an organization looking to reform national sports culture by making programs less homophobic and transphobic, also speaks of the need for change in the athletics department to be proactive. He tells me that change will take place nationally when universities make a proactive change in their internal educational policies and inform their university communities about these changes.
This problem is not a Columbia specific one, Taylor highlights. Around the country, athletes are learning how to better behave without learning how to better be. “Is the in-person character consistent when no one is watching? I think more often than not athletes now know how they must conduct themselves when they're in a public space, when they're in the locker room, when they’re surrounded by coaches,” Taylor explains. Change, he says, needs to include training not just the athletes, but the coaches and senior administrators, and shifting the entire conversation.
The history of the last two decades, then, reveals a pattern of inadequate institutional interventions in addressing hate crimes and bias incidents; instead, students groups, from CUCSC to SHOCC, have led the efforts of a reactive university.
On November 7, 2015, the Trans Awareness Week bulletin board on the thirteenth floor of Carman Hall was ripped down. The entire board, including its backing, was missing—unusual for Carman, for whom the MO of vandalism is more along the lines of changing a letter to make a word funny, Nicola Douglas, then-sophomore and residential advisor of the floor, tells me.
Douglas replaced the board with a nearly identical one. But in the weeks that followed, it was again torn down and vandalized more than once, forcing Douglas to replace the board once more, this time with a plain blue sheet and a simple statement of solidarity that was signed by the residents of Carman’s thirteenth floor.
The vandal, though, was relentless: this board was attacked, too, and in pictures, you can see the many places the paper was torn and taped back up. At some point, the vandal also taped a piece of paper reading, “I RESPECTFULLY QUESTION THE VALIDITY OF TRANSGENDER IDENTITY,” onto the signed board.
In this case, a lot of the USL protocol was enacted out the way it is technically supposed to be. Members from Residential Life, including her residential hall director, reached out to Douglas and educational programming was organized; all other RAs held meetings on their floor to unequivocally condemn the act of vandalism and a partnership of Residential Life, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, LGBTQ @ Columbia, and GendeRevolution tabled in Carman on multiple days to promote awareness and resources. Douglas and her residential hall director, Aaron Hukari, also decided to place the poster in a locked case in the lobby. Another poster, which read, “Hate Happens at Columbia,” was put up beside it.
But Douglas’s experience reveals another kind of structural failure; it highlights the way in which following protocol that checks all the boxes doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of or adequately support students.
Douglas and Hukari, after all, were responsible for moving the bulletin board to a locked case in the Carman lobby, and it was Douglas, along with her residents, who repeatedly remade and put up the vandalized board. She felt like responding to the aggressor was her responsibility, she tells me.
“A lot of these were my idea or my hall director's idea like it wasn't a lot of the University being like we have all these suggestions of ways to help,” she says of her initiatives. “I feel like if it wasn't for the fellow RAs in the building, and like me being angry, and my hall director being invested in the situation, I don't think like that much would happen.”
So, although the requisite individuals reached out and educational programs were held, Douglas felt like the burden of work fell on her. S tells me the same thing—despite Aquino not following up with them about the programming, they didn’t want to take on the initiative on commencing the work because of the added burden it would be on them.
When I summarize the educational programming section of the protocol to Johns, who co-founded Columbia University Concerned Students of Color in 2004, his first reaction is to point out exactly this—the potential for the burden of these programs to fall on students’ backs. “It cannot be that those who are aggrieved are responsible for coming up with the remedy,” he says, “... We are made responsible for identifying the problem, creating a context within which everybody’s comfortable discussing our problem... and then coming up with a solution.”
It is only after Douglas finally located Chris Woods, then-assistant director for LGBTQ outreach at OMA, that she was able to communicate this pressure. Woods, in turn, provided her with many useful strategies to help her distance herself from the issue. He helped her “recognise specific places where i could ask my supervisors in Res Life to help, instead of doing things all myself,” she says. Douglas received care and support from Woods, but it came from Douglas’ proactive effort, not as a result of the USL protocol.
“I believe in individuals, mostly, at Columbia,” Douglas tells me, “A lot of people in ResLife and a lot of people in OMA… a lot of these people genuinely care about these social justice issues and about queer and trans students in all this because they’re good people. However, I don’t think the structures put in place by our ancient university were built, initially, to care about these kinds of things.”
Besides USL’s Bias and Discrimination Protocol, the University is taking other measures to address bias in university culture: After the von Abele incident, the Office of University Life, which serves all 20 of Columbia’s schools, announced the formation of a “working group” to counter bias incidents, that would be housed under its Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. A spokesperson for UL told The Eye the working group would focus on timely and clear communications, providing reflection spaces, and enhancing a culture of inclusion.
The 2017-2018 report released by the Task Force, also has another example of such a group. The bias incidents “discussion group” met over the course of the previous academic year to discuss the question: “Should students create opportunities for processing, reflection and moving forward after a bias incident?” The group concluded that the most effective course of action was “providing tools throughout the year to cultivate resilience among students and continuing support from school-based administrative leadership.”
But as throughout history, students are demanding more than support from administrative leadership and taking on the work they see as needing to be done. In the aftermath of the incident outside Butler, Felix tells me that while she did not go to the Organization of Multicultural Affairs’ reflection night, she went to the event that the Black Student Organization held, as did a lot of other students who were affected by the incident. BSO made an effort to get to know most of the students who were outside Butler that night, Felix says. This response illustrates how students can be better are creating the community of support their peers need better than the University is.
Felix is also taking her experience of a lack of support from administrative channels and building into the shortcomings she found there. Felix, along with three partners, including first-year Nisa Rashid, is working on an initiative to provide campus with a student-run space that helps students affected by hate crimes and bias incidents find resources—including on how to report—and peer mentors who have experienced similar discrimination on campus.
“You can come to us, talk to us, and let’s say that you don’t want to report, which is completely valid, we can still make sure that… if you need support right now, we’ll provide support,” Rashid tells me.
How is such a space different from the OMA? For one, it is an example of students taking the burden of support away from the administration and placing it on their own backs. Secondly, Rashid tells me, it is also a space where students can find support for things like microaggressions, smaller acts of daily discrimination that wouldn’t necessarily merit a university-wide response.
Rashid has met with Aquino—they plan to work together on the initiative But even though the initiative will have structural support, it is by the students, for the students.
“I really don’t like looking to the administration because I really feel like they rarely have their finger on the pulse of what this place is about,” Hirose says, as we talk about support in the aftermath of the von Abele incident. “... I go to my community here, because that is so distinct from what the institution offers me.”
Correction February 28, 2019: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Carman Hall vandalism outside S’s door took place on the night of December 2, instead of the night of December 1 and early morning December 2. The Eye regrets the error.
Enjoy leafing through our fourth issue!