University President Lee Bollinger emphasized Columbia’s stance on freedom of speech in light of recent protests surrounding controversial speakers at the first graduate fireside chat of the semester on Tuesday evening.
Two weeks ago, protesters interrupted a speech by white nationalist Tommy Robinson, who was invited by Columbia University College Republicans for Free Speech Month. As a result, several protesters are under investigation for violating the University’s Rules of Conduct, which prohibits the disruption of a function in a way that “renders its continuation impossible.”
In response to questions about how the University protects speech from different campus groups, Bollinger reiterated his stance on allowing controversial speakers to present in public forums. He said that the University must discipline those who violate its code of conduct, which explicitly cites disruption of speech.
“It is not freedom of speech to disrupt speech you disagree with, and if you do disrupt that speech, then you are subject to the discipline that the University provides,” Bollinger said. “I will do all I can to make sure our principles are upheld.”
According to Bollinger, the administration’s role is to demonstrate that they do not support such ideologies, thus supporting students who may feel personally affected while still allowing for discourse. Bollinger elaborated on these ideas during an interview with Spectator earlier this month.
“We will allow and protect these speakers, even though they have reprehensible ideas. This is, and has been, the view of the University,” Bollinger said. “In protecting them, we strengthen our own skills of argumentation and discourse.”
Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg, who also attended the event, said that she understood the challenges of accepting controversial discourse. However, she emphasized the importance of engagement.
“Anybody with a voice can speak over a speaker, but a real challenge is figuring out how do we respond and contest those ideas,” Goldberg said. “Sometimes, in a very uncomfortable and difficult way, having these speakers come onto our campus can provide these kinds of opportunities. Those who don’t want to be anywhere near that and want to protest can protest, but outside.”
Many students also expressed concerns about Columbia’s role in the global and local community. When asked how the Manhattanville campus contributed to its Harlem surroundings, Bollinger explained the University’s motivation for expansion and the intentional design of the campus.
“Without [expansion], Columbia would be on a declining trajectory as a great university,” Bollinger said. ”We intended to create, in this area that declined in very significant ways, a campus that would reflect the modern sensibility that you do not close yourself off to surrounding communities—you interact with them, exchange with them, collaborate with them.”
Bollinger cited the funding of the Columbia High School, a training program for community health workers, and the athletics clinic as ways in which the campus has tangibly provided services for the public.
In addition to Manhattanville, Bollinger addressed aspects of the Columbia World Projects program which strives to address the needs of the world at-large. He provided the example of the University’s role in researching short-term climate change consequences and creating response strategies to the increased frequency of natural disasters.