The Columbia administration has an attitude problem.
In the most recent University Senate quality of life survey, Columbia College students gave the University a 4.86 out of seven overall satisfaction score, but that dropped to 3.34 when students were asked to rate the administration.
“Administration” is a nebulous term students often use to refer to anyone who works for Columbia. Although the University includes dozens of offices, from Residential Life to Facilities, students often think of the administration as one whole.
While not everyone dislikes the administration, students are aware of the general discontent with the bureaucracy. We don’t dislike the administration just because of its politics, or lack thereof. What irks many of us is the mistrust and rudeness that permeates many administrative offices. And because our school is so caught up in red tape, it’s often impossible for students to know where to get help.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be similar sentiment at some peer universities. I asked students at Princeton, Brown, and Dartmouth whether they perceive animosity toward their schools’ administrations. None did. At Brown, all deans have office hours at least once per week, during which any student can drop in and chat.
“They are responsive and they want to help the students,” Max Kanefield, a junior at Dartmouth, told me.
How many Columbia students would say that about our own deans?
I believe many administrators care about students. But during my reporting for this column, I found that administrators were only willing to talk about issues that fall directly under their purview. This disconnect is representative of the immense Columbia bureaucracy. The structure and character of the administration is so broken that individual administrators struggle to show their concern for us—and, in turn, many students don’t think these administrators care at all.
For this column, I interviewed James Valentini, dean of Columbia College; Cristen Kromm, dean of Undergraduate Student Life; Lisa Hollibaugh, dean of Academic Planning and Administration; and Kavita Sharma, dean of the Center for Career Education. I asked these deans whether they thought the administration has a positive or negative reputation among students.
“We have many different functions and offices here at Columbia,” Valentini explained. “I don’t think there’s a way to summarize the attitude toward all of them.”
I received similar answers from the other deans, all of whom declined to comment on the record for much of the interview. The suspicion between Columbia students and administrators is so entrenched that our deans won’t recognize it.
Columbia’s bureaucracy extends beyond its undergraduate colleges. Although nearly all Columbia College students live on campus, issues concerning our residence halls do not fall under deans like Kromm and Valentini. These deans are the most visible administrators, but there are many aspects of our lives here that are out of their control—areas that fall under departments like Housing or Health Services.
Too often, these other members of the Columbia bureaucracy treat us more as potential liabilities than students. Over the course of two nights, there were four fire alarms in East Campus. Certain there was no fire, many EC residents stayed in their rooms. I was concerned about what would have happened if this had been a real fire, so I called Columbia Housing and said students who stayed could have died. The Columbia Housing representative’s first concern was whether Columbia would be liable if students were injured in a fire.
I was shocked. It doesn’t matter to me whether Columbia would be liable—I was appalled that the representative’s first response was not about students’ safety. This attitude was emblematic, to me, of why Columbia students don’t like the administration.
The representative told me I should email “Upper Management.” I spent 45 minutes writing a detailed email. Two days later, I received a short reply that seemed to be a form email.
“Thank you so much for the email,” it read. “The safety of our students is our upmost [sic] priority.”
At this point, there was no one else to reach out to. Instead of Housing being completely separate from Columbia College, there should be someone who can serve as a point of contact for students. Although we’re told we have these means of support, this is often not true. Dean Sharma told me academic advisers are a resource for any issues students have—academic or not. But my first year, my advising dean told me it was inappropriate to ask her about being stressed over my extracurriculars. Although I switched advisers, that dean still works at Columbia. Too frequently, these so-called resources for support suffer from the same attitude problem as the rest of the Columbia bureaucracy.
Dean Hollibaugh got to the heart of why the deans hadn’t answered my main questions. “There’s just such a range of individuals working here,” she said, “that to make a comment on what Columbia is or isn’t seems to be impossible.”
I see the difficulty of her position, given the enormity of the Columbia administration. But if administrators want to improve our experiences, it’s time for them to put students above bureaucracy and be more tuned in to student sentiment.
In addition to changing their individual attitudes, Columbia administrators must reform the broader philosophy of how our school is run. There should be someone students can go to, regardless of what’s bothering them. And no matter their job on campus, people who work for Columbia should remember that treating students with humanity would go a long way toward improving our lives here.
Aaron Fisher is a Columbia College senior studying history and religion. He first encountered Columbia’s bureaucracy as a deputy news editor for Spectator. If you have any ideas about how to get anything done at Columbia, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch of the Day usually runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.