Looking back to his freshman year in 1963, Roger Lehecka, who graduated from Columbia College in 1967, served as Dean of Students from 1979 to 1998 and now teaches an American Studies seminar on Equity and Access in American Higher Education, describes the Columbia of his college career as a "dramatically different place." "When I arrived as a freshman, all the black and Hispanic freshmen could have fit in a Carman suite," he says. "Maybe Asian students would've pushed it into the double-digits." Over 50 years later, Columbia's racial diversity has significantly improved, with 57 percent of the current freshman class self-identifying as students of color. But some believe this progress could be affected now that the Supreme Court of the United States has reopened the debate on affirmative action by agreeing to hear the case of Fisher v. Texas. Abigail Fisher, a white college student who was denied admission to the University of Texas, claims that she was unfairly rejected from the university because of her race. This case has the potential to overturn the landmark 2003 decisions in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld race-conscious admissions as constitutional. President Bollinger served as the defendant who argued in favor of affirmative action in 2003, and the decision to eliminate race as a factor in admissions, a possible outcome of Fisher v. Texas, would apply to all institutions that receive public funding, including Columbia. Since 2003, affirmative action has become the focal point of a larger conversation about the value of diversity on college campuses. As history professor Eric Foner, who graduated from CC in 1963 and obtained his Ph.D. in 1969, points out, "The only kind of diversity subject to legal scrutiny is diversity related to race. Geographical diversity, economic diversity—none of these are subject to strict scrutiny." It is this heightened scrutiny that many people believe is a result of important misperceptions about the use of race in student admissions—specifically, its historical context. "Affirmative action has a particular meaning in American history. ... It was clearly designed as something to make up for past discrimination and injustice," Lehecka says. "Part of my issue is that a lot of people don't know the history of it or how it works," says Nnaemeka Ekwelum, a senior in CC and a member of the Black Students' Organization's executive board. "People don't understand the concept of historically marginalized identities." "This issue has been pigeonholed into the idea of quotas for students of color," says Cindy Gao, a senior in CC and political chair of the Asian American Alliance. In layman's terms, affirmative action is constitutionally protected in the sense of considering race as one admissions factor among many. However, quantifying an advantage for one ethnic group over another, as in the case of quotas, is unconstitutional. More importantly, affirmative action is just one aspect of a larger set of initiatives designed to increase diversity and support for students of color on campus. "Affirmative action is a tiny policy that addresses the fact that there is inequality," Gao says. Kambi Gathesha, a junior in GS and a member of the African Students Association, says that the current conversation on affirmative action and diversity is limited in its scope. "The idea of 'diversity' [has] been hijacked as a form of appeasement," he says. "It's as though if you just get different faces in a school, that solves everything. [Instead,] we should ask what it is ... that make students of color feel they can perform at their best. The existing dialogue on diversity doesn't speak to those questions." The question of what "diversity" means at Columbia is a complex one. Each person interviewed for this piece was asked how they personally comprehend "diversity." Each gave a different answer. But affirmative action is just one policy among a constellation of "diversity" initiatives that the University has pursued in a long and flawed history—a history in which students, much more than administrators, have proactively pursued change. Blowing the Past Apart Foner recalls that there was only one black man in his graduating class of Columbia College. "Was this because of luck of the draw? Because every other black person was stupid? No," Foner says bluntly. "For hundreds of years, Columbia practiced discrimination against applicants of color," he says. "Then the 1960s blew that apart." The '60s was a decade of political upheaval that needs no introduction. The leadership of the country called upon institutions of higher learning to help solve the country's racial inequality, and Foner and Lehecka agree that Columbia College knew it had to change its admissions approach. "It became intolerable to have an all-white class," Foner says. According to Lehecka, it was in response to this political climate that Columbia College first began recruiting students of color in 1964. "[In the '60s,] there was no question that Columbia saw what it did, in an affirmative action sense, as making up for social injustices," Lehecka says. "The University saw itself as a place for significant social mobility [for underprivileged students]." But in spite of these positive intentions, the administration stumbled through effectively recruiting students of color. Michael Rosenthal, a professor in the English department and former associate dean of Columbia College from 1972 to 1989, says that "the numbers were obviously small, and nobody perceived minority recruitment with the focus that we should have." Students, meanwhile, had a more specific plan in mind. During the infamous student protests of 1968, students of color seized Hamilton Hall and issued a series of demands through the Student Afro-American Society, aimed at increasing greater representation and better administrative resources for students of color. One of these demands was for the creation of a separate committee, whose majority would consist of black students, to oversee the admission of blacks. When this demand was rejected, a group of 60 students responded by blockading Hamilton Hall on April 14, 1969. Eventually, at the behest of students and through negotiations with the Faculty Executive Committee, the Multicultural Recruitment Committee was created as a mechanism to increase the presence of students from historically under-represented groups. According to Daniel Bell, a senior in SEAS and co-chair of the MRC, most of what the committee currently does is identify and help prepare students for the admissions process. But the MRC of the 1960s had significantly more influence. "The MRC had a lot more access to student applications when it was initially created, and committee members would read applications and advise the admissions officers as to who would be a better fit," he says. "I think it's important that the MRC was created by students and was an organization that students saw a need for," Bell says. "That's really powerful, the fact that students were actually involved." After the 1968 protests, Columbia College accepted 260 black, Hispanic, and Asian students for the 1969 freshman class, up from 145 the previous year. Stagnation in the '70s After the uproar of the '60s, the University—suffering from financial woes—faced a comparable dry spell for diversity and equality initiatives. The decade was bookended by two significant changes, one on the campus level and one on the national level. The most significant change on campus was one of space. In 1968, an additional student demand had been the creation of a lounge for black students in 106 Hartley, which at the time was used by ROTC. But in 1970, after ROTC's removal from campus, students occupied both the lounge itself and then-Dean Henry Coleman's office, in an effort to rename and repurpose the lounge. Already a theme was emerging. "Whatever dialogue about social equality had on campus has been raised by students," Gathesha says. In 1970, the students successfully renamed 106 Hartley the Malcolm X Lounge. The space was established as a safe haven for students of African descent and today remains the only lounge dedicated to a specific ethnic group on campus. However, it has broadened its role to serve as a space for students of various backgrounds. One admissions change occurred in 1978, when a white man named Allan Bakke sued the University of California Medical School at Davis on the grounds that the medical school's use of a quota system in its admissions was unconstitutional. In the decision of Regents of California v. Bakke (1978), the court held that the use of a quota system violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by excluding applicants on the basis of their race. However, the general use of race as one of many considerations in student admissions was held constitutionally permissible. Foner criticizes the legalese of the ruling as limiting the discussion on diversity. "SCOTUS, in a completely ahistorical way, refuses to allow people to talk about why affirmative action is actually desirable," Foner says. "And that's because it's a form of redress for hundreds of years of discrimination in this country. But SCOTUS has rejected societal racism as grounds, so what you have to say is that you're seeking a diverse class because it improves the educational quality for everyone." Moving Forward Through the '80s Lehecka, who became dean of students in 1979, summarizes the basis of his strategy for improving undergraduate diversity. He tasked his staff with finding out "what the facts were" of how many minority students were admitted, had enrolled, and had graduated. At the time, graduation rates in particular were low. Lehecka spent time meeting with students of color, primarily black and Hispanic students, to talk about what their college experience had been like. According to Lehecka, based on what he learned from those discussions, he made the case for, and was able to acquire resources aimed at, an increased focus on advising these students throughout their Columbia careers. Though the new advising program involved hiring someone with the sole responsibility of advising the students and addressing their concerns, Lehecka emphasizes that the job of supporting students and enabling stronger diversity goes beyond the responsibility of just one person. "It was—and is—important that everybody felt that [support] was their responsibility," he says. In 1983, students of African, Latino, Asian, and Native American descent formed a coalition called the United Minorities Board. UMB met with Lehecka to propose a new student initiative: the development of a multicultural center, in order to respond to the students' feelings of isolation. Lehecka encouraged them to submit a proposal, and UMB eventually secured funds from Columbia College Dean's Office in 1986. But the plan was stalled because the UMB had no space available for the center. It was not until a year later that serious efforts to realize the center began. On March 21, 1987, a black senior named Michael Jones was hospitalized after a group of white students assaulted him outside Ferris Booth Hall. The white students were also reported to have used racial slurs in an attempt to provoke Jones and his friend. Following the incident, from 1987 to 1988, the Black Students Organization and Chicano Caucus picked up the work of the UMB and renewed efforts to realize the center. In fall 1988, Columbia College found space in a brownstone formerly occupied by a fraternity, and the newly formed Intercultural Resource Center opened its doors in spring of 1989. "Especially coming to an institution that historically wasn't designed for minority students, we need more spaces that support us," Ekwelum says. Though she praises the IRC, Gao does not think the circumstances of its opening reflect well on the administration. "It took a hate crime for the school to finally respond," Gao says. "Everything requires so many negative things to happen." But Lehecka disagrees with this characterization. "Support didn't come from riots—it came from talking to students," he says. "The commitment to racial diversity was there all the way through." Activism in the '90s and '00s Columbia Law School professor Jack Greenberg, who graduated from CC in 1945 and the law school in 1948 and served as dean of the college from 1989 to 1993, recounts how Li Lu, recently honored at the John Jay Awards Dinner, was nearly rejected from the University as an international student. At the time of his application, Lu had been a student leader at Tiananmen Square and had even published a book about his experiences. "People in the admissions office mentioned to me that they wouldn't admit him [Lu] because he didn't speak English and didn't have certain prerequisites," Greenberg says. But Greenberg insisted on Lu's acceptance. After a year of English courses and "a superb record" at the School of General Studies, he was admitted to Columbia College. And after three years at the College, he was admitted to and enrolled at the law school and business school. When Lu graduated in 1996, he received three degrees. "This is just an example of my personal intervention, but the college had that kind of attitude—to target potential and admit people when they could," Greenberg says. Admissions became more selective after 1995, when then-Director of Undergraduate Admissions Eric Furda increased outreach and on-the-road recruiting. Recruitment committees had access to a wider geographical range of students. Then, in 2003, Bollinger's famous cases, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, together upheld the Bakke ruling. In both cases, the university admitted to using race as a factor in admissions because it serves a "compelling interest in achieving diversity among its student body." In the case of Grutter, the court held that a race-conscious admissions process that takes into account many other factors, evaluated on an individual basis, was constitutionally permissible. But in the case of Gratz, Michigan's use of a point system, which automatically awarded 20 points to under-represented minority applicants, was held to be unconstitutional. The office did not undergo any other major changes during the 1990s or 2000s. Even after the Bollinger decisions in 2003, Columbia's admission process—already in line with the Bakke decision—was untouched. But there were changes to on-campus resources, initiated through student demands, that were both intellectual—the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race—and administrative—the Office of Multicultural Affairs. In 1996, students began a series of protests and demonstrations calling for, among other things, the creation of an ethnic studies department and an increase in faculty diversity. Four students began a hunger strike that lasted two weeks, and hundreds of students rallied on College Walk. Three years later, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race was created. "African studies, ethnic studies these disciplines were created as a way of addressing ethnic discourse and colonialism," Gathesha says, calling them "important intellectual resources." But the University's diversity initiatives received their most significant boost, also at the behest of students, with the creation of the Office of Multicultural Affairs in 2004. After a series of "racist incidents" in fall of 2003 and spring of 2004, the Columbia University Concerned Students of Color, a now defunct student group, staged a protest on Low Steps. Participants dressed in black and wore signs that read, "I am being silenced." CUCSC demands included, among other things: changes to the Core Curriculum; on-campus cultural housing and a new location for the IRC; a vice provost of Multicultural Affairs; increased support for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race; and the creation of an Office of Multicultural Affairs. Students cited the fact that multiple other Ivy League colleges at the time already had their own multicultural centers. "OMA wasn't created until 2004—it's insane, to think they didn't have it before," Gao says. She also compares the "thriving" ethnic studies programs of schools like Harvard, Yale, and NYU to the current state of Columbia's program. 2012 was the last class it was possible to major in Asian American Studies, Latino/a Studies, or Comparative Ethnic Studies. "[They] have been relegated to tracks' under the new Ethnicity and Race major," she says. "Columbia prides itself on being over 50 percent students of color, but we have fewer resources compared to other schools with fewer students of color." Later in 2004, the University created the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives to increase the faculty diversity, with special emphasis on historically under-represented groups. Then, in 2005, the University trustees approved a proposed $15 million campaign to attract minority scholars to the Arts and Sciences faculty. "That was a very specific university policy, and the administration put its money where its mouth was by appropriating funds to recruit a more diverse faculty," Foner says of the campaign. Just a few months after these structural improvements, another bias incident occurred in December 2005, when two undergraduates graffitied a floor in Ruggles with racial epithets, anti-Semitic imagery, and homophobic slurs. The students were arrested and each charged with one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief as a hate crime. Stop Hate On Columbia's Campus, a grouped formed as the successor to CUCSC, repeated CUCSC's 2004 strategy by staging a series of protests and demonstrations. Driven by student demands, administrators instituted diversity training during NSOP, the expansion of the IRC to increase "safe spaces," and the move of LGBTQ groups—accompanied by a newly hired advisor—to OMA. Similarly, in fall of 2007, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was found in SIPA and Teacher's College, and a noose was hung on the door of a black Teachers College professor. Students conducted a hunger strike on South Lawn that lasted ten days, demanding administrative and Core Curriculum reforms and an expansion of ethnic studies, among other other items. In response to those demands, the administration agreed to add a Major Cultures seminar into the Core Curriculum and to mandate "anti-oppression" training for incoming faculty. "In direct response to an incident, we help coordinate and are part of the Bias Repsonse Team, which is comprised of deans and directors across Student Affairs," Melinda Aquino, associate dean of multicultural affairs, says. "The core of our protocol is support and education." She goes on to state that the administration's approach is to not only to carry on existing initiatives, but to be attuned to needs in a shift of strategy. "In addition to responding to incidents, proactive programming and encouraging shared responsibility of this work are essential," she states. "[We] regularly look at any patterns in reports that may inform the content we focus on in our programs or new initiatives. While Gathesha acknowledges the University's progress, he states that he wishes the administration would change its approach. "There's this constant dynamic of students feeling the need to push for a response," he says. "This is an institutional fight in the strongest sense of the word. Students of color not only fighting to be understood in a peer group but also fighting for the attention of the administration creates a culture of mistrust." Today and Tomorrow In an interview with Spectator published last month, President Bollinger stated that he believed overturning Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger—thereby eliminating race as a factor in admissions —would be "devastating" and a "national tragedy... It would mean that you could no longer consider race or ethnicity, and that would mean a significant decline in racial and ethnic diversity." The question of what "diversity" means at Columbia is a complex one. Within the Class of 2014, 57 percent of students self-identify as a student of color. Of these students, 25 percent self-identify as Asian or Asian American, 14 percent as African American, 16 percent as Latino, and 2 percent as Native American. "Diversity—of all kinds—is one of the hallmarks of the Columbia education and experience and we are proud that Columbia has one of most diverse student bodies amongst our peers," writes Jessica Marinaccio, dean of the Undergraduate Office of Admissions, in an email. "We are fortunate that Columbia attracts a very large and diverse applicant pool from all 50 states, almost 100 countries, and from a wide variety of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds," she continues, stating that the office reviews this applicant pool holistically to shape the demographics of each incoming class. The University continues to struggle in its resources for students of color. There remains the ongoing issue of bias incidents on campus, the most recent and public of which occurred in fall 2011. The Native American Council reported an incident at homecoming in which a non-Native student wore a headdress and did not remove it after being asked to do so by a group of Native American students. Instead, the individual's friend greeted the students with a tomahawk chop. OMA administrators met with students to discuss the causes of the incident and the way to respond. "In addition to providing a supportive space for them, we helped pull a meeting with a number of students ... and launched a poster campaign directly related to our conversations," Aquino says. "OMA is still reactive," Gao responds. "But OMA doesn't have the resources it needs, so I don't blame them [that office]." "The point is not just to create diversity, not even just to address historical injustices, but to also address ongoing discrimination," Gathesha says. "The contemporary context makes it necessary." Other resources are suffering as well. As Gao indicates, the ethnic studies department remains underfunded in comparison to programs at peer institutions. And Ekwelum, the resident advisor for the IRC, laments the center's space issues. "It's frustrating how people default to the IRC as evidence that we have space for students of color," he says. "This is a resource from 1989, and today we have people meeting in, literally, every available space in the house, at every available hour of the day." There are—and should be—diversity initiatives that take place outside the sphere of admissions. The pursuit of diversity of any kind is not limited to a single policy, or simply awareness, but is an active, multifaceted, and continuous educational pursuit. "[We need] to think about the idea of struggle as something that is ongoing," Gathesha says. "Power is stubborn." "The University can't become complacent," Ekwelum says.
Thuto Durkac Somo