Despite Columbia College Student Council’s mission to serve as a liaison between Columbia undergraduates and the administration, both activists and members of CCSC seem to agree on one thing: Historically, the council has not been attuned to the needs of activist groups—specifically those representing marginalized communities.
With a level of bitterness that has become pronounced in recent years, student activist groups have voiced perennial complaints that they are discouraged from turning to CCSC for support, as they see the council as an extension of the administration rather than an independent body advocating on behalf of students.
As student activists outline their concerns for the upcoming school year, many do not see CCSC as a viable place to turn for support. In interviews with Spectator and in public statements, activist groups including 24/7 Columbia, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, UndoCU, Student-Worker Solidarity, and Columbia Divest for Climate Justice have characterized their relationship with CCSC as inconsistent and, at times, nonexistent.
“We’re on different planets,” CUAD member Zak Aldridge, CC ’19, said. “I think [CCSC] have to take the first steps [to reach out].”
Unlike activist groups, CCSC has direct access to administrators that are otherwise difficult to reach and, as a result, the power to bring the concerns of student groups to the administration’s attention.
Co-president of the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership Destiny Machin, said that, by connecting the group with former Executive Vice-President for Arts and Sciences David Madigan, CCSC helped the group obtain an additional $21,000 in funding for its new lending library.
In its efforts to work “within the system,” however, the council has alienated some activist groups, which have expressed their view that the council is more committed to preserving relationships with administrators than advocating for student groups.
“CCSC dilutes [popular student opinions] in order to communicate it to the administration, and that is a frustration,” former CCSC Class Representative and current CDCJ member Sofia Petros, CC ’19, said. “If students want ‘X,’ then [CCSC] needs to communicate [that] to the administration with an equal amount of force—they shouldn’t be dulling it down in order to manage the administration.”
While many current and former CCSC members recognized the frustration from the activist community, they justified their perceived inaction by highlighting their need to maintain working relationships with administrators. They also said that many activist groups are unable to fully see the change that they do make, pointing out that incremental change that can be used to establish precedent.
“Even if it looks like we might be buddy-buddy, we’re still students pushing for the students,” former University Senator and Class President Sean Ryan, CC ’17, said. “We’re still pushing that administrative level. We have to really think about the long term about the student voice.”
While the CCSC constitution states that the student body president and at-large representatives must meet with administrators on a regular basis, the constitution does not specify how often, making it difficult for CCSC members to guarantee access to administrators.
“Where there isn’t a standing meeting mandated by our constitution, it’s often student initiative,” CCSC Student Body President Jordan Singer, CC ’19, said.
Activists and council members acknowledged that there has historically been a disconnect between CCSC and students of marginalized identities.
“What was interesting for me was seeing people [propose resources] for people of color or for other marginalized students that already existed—A, you don't know what’s going on, so you're clearly not a political person; and B, if you had spoken to a person of color, they would have told you that [the resource] exists, how it works, and how it does not function,” Petros said.
Many activists have taken issue with CCSC’s unwillingness to represent student views that are not supported by the administration or the entire student body.
Last year, the Black Students’ Organization appealed to CCSC to defund Columbia University College Republicans, after CUCR brought white supremacist speakers Tommy Robinson and Mike Cernovich to campus.
While the council agreed to submit a concern report in solidarity with BSO, it did not fully meet the group’s request to defund the group. Following conversations with CCSC and BSO members, the University later announced that security costs for CUCR’s controversial events would be covered by Columbia itself, rather than by student life fee money.
Although CCSC endorsed the Graduate Worker of Columbia last fall, according to Petros, who was a representative at the time, council members were at first tentative to take a stand on the issue.
“We were one of the last major groups on campus to [endorse the GWC],” Petros said. “I was like ‘How haven’t we done this?’ and [other CCSC member said] ‘Administrators don’t like this.’”
A major point of contention between activists and CCSC has been the council’s refusal to hold a referendum on the initiative to boycott, divest, and sanction Israeli businesses. Two years ago, CUAD requested to have a referendum on student support for BDS, but CCSC refused to include the referendum on the ballot amid throngs of chanting protesters from both sides of the debate. Barnard accepted CUAD’s referendum in the spring 2018 semester.
“[The referendum] is not shutting down conversation. It’s opening conversation, and they were afraid of that,” CUAD member Zak Aldridge, CC ’19, said.
For many activists, even a show of public support would serve as a good first step toward building a stronger relationship with activist organizations.
“They are not advocating for student activists at all. … I would love to have seen visible support [for UndoCU],” UndoCU member Gabriella said. “Instead, they want to keep that relationship with the deans. … They seem to want to please everyone but by doing that they please no one.”