Columbia’s Office of University Life has appointed Joseph Greenwell to be its inaugural vice president of student affairs, a position created to expand the office’s current outreach to student-facing offices and student organizations across the University.
Greenwell, who arrives to Columbia after serving five years at UC Berkeley as an associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, officially began in the role on Aug. 31.
First publicized by Bollinger in 2014, the Office of University Life was originally titled the Office of Student Affairs under the purview of the office’s first and current Executive Vice President Suzanne Goldberg, then special adviser on sexual assault to University President Lee Bollinger. When it officially opened in 2015 under a different name, student leaders responded with concerns that the removal of “student” from its title implied a shift toward a less student-oriented role.
As the first directly student-facing office within central administration, the Office of University Life connects the 16 undergraduate and graduate schools through University-wide events, task forces on gender-based misconduct as well as on race, ethnicity, and inclusion, and oversight of student discipline.
Hailing from Berkeley, where he worked to address “student wellness and mental well-being, campus climate, sexual violence and sexual harassment, and organizational changes,” Greenwell also faced national pressure in light of free speech controversies. In particular, he resisted student pressure to cancel a speaking engagement by right-wing activist Milo Yiannopoulos, citing the university’s commitment to free speech in an incident that sparked a nationwide debate on the limits of campus speech.
In an interview with Spectator, Goldberg said that Greenwell will continue to work on related questions, strengthening student affairs connections across all of Columbia’s 16 schools.
“We create networks across the schools for student affairs officers and other staff who work with students,” Goldberg said. “Part of Joseph's responsibility will be to strengthen those networks and work on the range of issues that are at the university level to support the student experience.”
Within University Life, he will oversee the student life team, as well as Religious Life and Community Impact, both of which were moved to the Office of University Life from the provost’s office this summer. Greenwell will also oversee the student conduct and community standards office in the investigation of academic, behavioral, and gender-based misconduct.
“By having Joseph provide the partner-leadership with those units, I will be able to continue deepening work in other areas that I haven’t had as much time for, so those will include additional faculty-student-staff partnerships on a variety of issues,” she added.
Historically, the office has also faced significant criticism from student activists, who have expressed concern that the person responsible for bringing their concerns to University administrators—namely, Goldberg—is also the one responsible for enforcing discipline.
The procedures have also faced general scrutiny; last fall, Goldberg’s office initiated an investigation into students who interrupted a white supremacist speaker on campus in protest, and claimed that they had been in violation of the rules of University conduct prior to the investigation’s conclusion. Goldberg informally dropped the investigations after an outcry from students and faculty.
In light of University Life’s history, students cited ongoing concerns that it might continue to remain distanced from the student body.
University Senator Ramsay Eyre, CC ’21, emphasized that the Office of University Life has a huge role to play in the student experience at Columbia, but said that students are unsure of how to navigate the office without knowledge of what specific administrative roles aim to accomplish. Moving forward, Eyre emphasized the need for more student outreach, which could be accomplished with the creation of Greenwell’s position.
“I think if there were administrators from the office that were more regularly visiting student councils or student groups, talking to students about things they’d like to see change at Columbia, issues that they care about, I think that would always be a positive development if that’s something they wanted to do more,” Eyre said.
Since 2015, Amelia Roskin-Frazee, CC ’20, has been a member of No Red Tape, a student organization dedicated to combating sexual assault on campus. She expressed No Red Tape’s frustration with a lack of clarity in Goldberg’s role as student conduct and community standards overseer while also serving as a student resource, which she claimed has complicated the group’s ability to seek resources within the University.
The issue was particularly relevant for the organization in previous years, when activists found themselves in a position where they protested the office over Title IX-related issues, even while the office was responsible for adjudicating discipline for free speech. In light of these concerns, Roskin-Frazee claimed that she did not believe Greenwell’s appointment would make the office more accessible for students, as the conflict would still exist.
“He needs autonomy from University Life, but if his position's under University LIfe that seems to be a problem. It doesn't work to have the person overseeing student conduct be ... I don't even know what to say, just fundamentally the structure of where his position is does not work for survivors,” she said.
For others, the office has provided invaluable assistance in advocating for resources for student groups on campus.
Michael Higgins, GS ’21, co-founder and chair of The Food Pantry at Columbia, says The Food Pantry’s interactions with the Office of University Life have been “since the very beginning … a very positive experience.” The Food Pantry used the office as its main point of contact to get its permanent space in Lerner Hall, mostly interfacing with Ixchel Rosal, the office’s associate vice president for student life, who will be working under Greenwell as part of the restructuring.
Higgins anticipates working with Greenwell in the future and hopes to continue the Pantry’s positive relationship with the office. He says he’s looking forward to “working with [Greenwell] as well as with everyone in the Office of University Life at the same level that we’ve been working with them in the past.”
Deputy editor Valeria Escobar contributed reporting.