This past semester, the First-Generation Advisory Board hosted its first town hall meeting to gauge which issues would be most important to address in the low-income community during the upcoming semester. The discussion overwhelmingly centered on food insecurity. Our students are going hungry, and they are desperate for help.
The First-Generation Low-Income Partnership operates a Facebook page entitled Columbia University Class Confessions. Since I was admitted to Columbia, I have scrolled through story after story, horrified at the lengths some of my own classmates have had to undergo to avoid going hungry. In the anonymous posts on the Class Confessions page, some students said they had to miss out on returning home to visit family. Some said they turned to sex work.
In an attempt to combat food insecurity on campus, students have set up Facebook pages to share opportunities for hungry students to find their next meal. A few months ago, one member of the group admitted to packing up food after visits to the dining hall because they did not have the means to afford another meal otherwise. The comment section of the post erupted, shaming the original poster for a supposed lack of ethics.
The shame of food insecurity is not a burden that should be carried by those affected. Perhaps the shame of food insecurity should lie with those most removed from the problem. In the 2012-2013 school year, University President Lee Bollinger’s total compensation totalled $4.6 million, and his current salary is about $2 million. He is considered the highest-earning president of the Ivy League. In these moments when I am forced to remember that some of my peers are going hungry, I wonder: Do you all know the size of the pocketbook of the man in charge?
But somehow, those at the forefront of finding solutions for food insecurity are consistently those who are only one mishap away from falling victim themselves. The low-income community at Columbia is courageous, selfless, tenacious. We rely on each other for help and guidance more than we rely on most other figures at this university. We are constantly thinking, speaking, and creating in order to bring ourselves closer to equity on this campus. However, I’ve entertained the question: Is there not some greater figure, perhaps with more resources and influence, who is willing to lend us a hand as well? After all, Dean James J. Valentini once claimed: "We want to try to eliminate all of those things that prevent [students] from being successful once they are here.”
Of course, I do not mean to say that PrezBo’s earnings alone are the root of food insecurity on campus. I am not diminishing the work he has done to be in the position that he is in. I am not pinning the blame for a system which fails the impoverished on his work. However, I am challenging his silence on the issue. I am wondering how a man who interacts with his student body frequently has not publicly condemned the notion that some students must go hungry to afford an education at Columbia. I am wondering how President Bollinger can understand the prestige of our university, be so familiar with the quality of the minds on our campus, and still neglect to nurture these minds with the most basic human necessities.
It is not President Bollinger’s fault that inequity inevitably leads to a more turbulent college experience for underprivileged students. But it is a shame that impoverished students who now attend one of the most prestigious schools in the nation must also sometimes be forced to admit that they are going hungry. It is a crime that one of the most privileged and elite schools in the nation, presided over by one of the highest-earning university presidents, cannot promise these students that they will not go hungry.
I must wonder then: does President Bollinger make the active, conscious decision to neglect the underprivileged on our campus? Is there some misguided lack of understanding behind his silence? Or, perhaps, does President Bollinger think he has done enough for low-income peoples?
PrezBo is a longstanding advocate for the right to free speech. But perhaps he should turn his attention toward ensuring his students have the human right to eat tonight.
Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English. She works with the First-Generation Student Advisory Board to address prominent issues in the low-income community on campus. You’re Still Not Middle Class runs alternate Mondays.
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