It goes without saying that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused great physical, social, and financial strain on our student population. In response, now is the right moment to discuss the burden that the cost of university is putting on students. Not only are we going through one of the worst economic recessions in American history, but the pedagogical quality of remote instruction raises a fair question about whether it’s truly worth the $60,000 price tag.
The proposed tuition strike that is making the rounds on campus appears to be the answer. Who wouldn’t want to support a 10 percent reduction of the cost of attendance, a 10 percent increase in financial aid allocation, and the expansion of the summer term financial aid package to all undergraduate colleges?
However, for a petition calling for a more transparent and democratic Columbia, it is troubling that this petition is neither transparent nor democratic.
While the petition is primarily marketed as a strike concerning the financial well-being of students—the subject line of the petition’s email reads “Columbia students are going on tuition strike to protest the high cost of tuition”—its letter of demands goes far beyond that. Hidden behind vague language and hyperlinks are demands that Columbia also rectifies its presence in Harlem; defunds Public Safety; divests from fossil fuels; commits to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; and moves forward with its negotiations with the graduate student union.
If you look at the petition form where you sign up to show support, however, you will see few of these issues mentioned in detail. Not only are the hyperlinks from the letter of demands missing—which then link to five other petitions the signer may be unknowingly and indirectly endorsing—but details and entire subclauses are gone as well. Without such information, you wouldn’t necessarily know that “divest from companies involved in human rights violations’' only means companies connected to Israel and not companies like Nike that are notorious for poor working conditions. Moreover, “fulfill [Columbia’s] responsibilities to the people of West Harlem” isn’t simply decreasing campus expansion, but rather ending its relationship with the New York Police Department.
This problem is more glaring than it first appears. For example, the only link clarifying the demand regarding divestment “from companies involved in human rights violations” links directly to the policy page of Columbia University Apartheid Divest, which then links to the broader BDS website. Completely unbeknown to the signer, a vague reference regarding “companies involved in human rights violations” in the petition sign-up form then becomes a direct endorsement of BDS in the letter of demands.
In effect, the petition that students sign is far different from the letter of demands those same students are then cited to support.
Such discrepancies have serious consequences. If these discrepancies are products of carelessness, they undercut the legitimacy of the letter of demands by referencing “3,300 Columbia students on strike” who technically signed a different petition. If the discrepancies are intentional, then the petition is rather insidious as it manufactures consent for some of the most divisive issues on campus by omitting them on the sign-up form. Such an offense would completely erode the petition’s legitimacy. Fixing this problem isn’t just a matter of updating the sign-up form, as that would then retroactively apply students’ endorsements to policies they did not initially accept.
Regardless of the reasoning for this discrepancy, what matters most is that this petition does not gain legitimacy by receiving student council endorsements. For one, the petition has been widely advertised online and requires no student authentication to sign. This means that student councils could endorse a movement not actually supported by Columbia students themselves, but instead one that has an inflated number of supporters from the Internet. Additionally, an endorsement would deny proper scrutiny and democratic due process to the over 100 other demands the petition indirectly supports.
Students need financial help and there are issues on campus that must be addressed. This petition as it is, however, is disingenuous if maintained and undemocratic if sponsored. For these reasons, even students who support the petition’s individual demands cannot in good faith endorse the petition as a whole.
Kevin Petersen and Phillip A. Ruddy are third-year students at the School of General Studies and Columbia College respectively.
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