In the wake of former General Studies Dean of Students Tom Harford’s removal in August, GS students have reported a heightened reluctance in seeking support from their administration, despite its history of being particularly accessible to students.
Administrators announced Harford’s removal from his position in August but did not provide specifics for the decision beyond citing his “unacceptable” conduct. The following week, an anonymous GS student, “Jane Doe,” filed a $50 million lawsuit claiming that Harford subjected her to inappropriate sexual activity, alleging that Harford’s authoritative role allowed him to maintain control over her housing, psychological services, and resources.
Interviews with current and former GS students have revealed a close relationship between Harford and much of the GS community, one that often extended beyond the perfunctory roles of a University administrator. Due to a lack of clarity surrounding available resources, students—who often come from nontraditional backgrounds, hold full-time jobs, and aren’t guaranteed housing at Columbia—have said they would turn only to Harford for academic, financial, and even emotional support.
But in light of Harford’s alleged misuse of power, students said the haziness surrounding his administrative responsibilities have made them apprehensive about trusting and utilizing the advising resources currently available.
According to a University spokesperson, GS academic advisors are intended to be the first point of contact for all student resources and questions, whether they pertain to academic or emotional needs. The spokesperson also noted that support is available through programs during the New Student Orientation Program and classes such as University Studies—a GS core class intended to teach basic skills for navigating college life—taught by academic advisers.
Even within these bounds, students reported that Harford would go above and beyond what is expected of an advisor-student relationship. On Sept. 27, at GS Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch’s annual town hall discussion of issues pertaining to military veterans at Columbia, students expressed broader concerns regarding an administrative disconnect from students in light of Harford’s removal. Attendee Anthony Bunkley, GS ’19, reflected on the “awkward” situation advisers are put in when assigned the burden of a “crisis management” role.
“Housing and financial issues should not need to be handled in the Dean of Students’ Office. GS-ers come in with emotional and psychological baggage. ... [Harford] was overburdened and the school leaned on him far more than it should’ve,” Bunkley said at the event.
Jenna Marie Rackerby, GS ’20, told Spectator that a friend referred her to Harford for emergency assistance when she faced homelessness and was unable to find accommodations through Columbia. Harford later became the only administrator Rackerby felt comfortable approaching when she faced issues with financial aid, psychological support, late pay, limited ability to get loans, and lack of emergency funding.
When asked why she did not turn to other offices, Rackerby said that GS’s bureaucracy made it difficult to seek help and access critical resources in a timely manner.
“[Harford] was the man to get things done, housing issues, food insecurity, emotional and mental health issues. … Things a lot deeper than just ‘here’s your Core checklist, what classes fit into this box?’” Rackerby said. “We’re the redheaded stepchildren of Columbia, and Dean Harford was the only one trying to eliminate those boundaries.”
Junjie Jiang, GS ’15, who had Harford as an adviser for three years, described Harford’s alleged $500 out-of-pocket emergency gift to Jane Doe as something he would do for anyone.
“Harford was essential in creating a supportive culture that makes you feel that you’re at home, [which is] important especially for GS because a lot of nontraditional students have had hardships in life,” Jiang said.
Harford’s expansive and often unclear role to students earned him a sense of heightened power within the GS community, which, according to Alex Chang, GS ‘20, ultimately exceeded a reasonable limit.
“Because so many solutions were inappropriately concentrated in one person,” Chang said. “This power … made it a ripe situation for abuse.”
Chang also said that Harford’s removal has instigated a chilling effect on students hoping to approach administration with more personal matters, increasing distrust in administrators particularly due to a lack of open communication.
“GS students are more hesitant to go to administrators. … The Harford situation has really exacerbated the trust that students have in the whole process. ... It’s a lack of transparency and a red flag,” Chang said.
According to Rackerby, GS students hope to see a clearer path to accessing the resources promised to them, specifically in areas such as financial aid and housing. Rackerby cited weeks-long wait times for appointments with advisors, and the lack of a crisis response team for GS students facing issues including homelessness, food insecurity, and financial stress.
“I don’t think students are going to be able to have that same bureaucratic political entity that says, ‘there’s no specific rule in the book, it doesn’t say I can do this, I’m going to do this to help you because I want you to graduate,’” Rackerby said. “I don’t know who will be responsible for that. I don’t think anyone.”