It was time for dinner after a long Monday but the doors to the Diana Center dining room were locked. Through the glass walls, students were speaking passionately but wordlessly, or so it seemed to those of us outside.
For the more than 150 people sequestered inside the room, focusing with hawklike intensity on the figures speaking at its center, as well as the over 2,000 people who either watched the livestream of the meeting or caught up on it after, campus discourse was headed for a heated division.
After a little over an hour, the meeting was concluded and all but Barnard’s 25 elected student representatives streamed out of the now-unlocked double doors. Shortly afterwards, SGA voted to place a Columbia University Apartheid Divest referendum at the end of the upcoming spring election ballot.
This spring, two major referendums were attached to the bottom of the student council ballots presented to CC and Barnard students. For CC students, the question was on carbon neutrality, and for Barnard students, it was whether the administration should move to divest from eight companies embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the past, when student groups have moved to put initiatives on the ballot, hackles have been raised and conversation has been provoked, implicitly centered around the question: What is student government for?
Bringing political issues to the student government table requires a ginger step. There’s the danger of putting out a resolution that makes students feel unsafe or divides the student body. On the opposite, equally tricky end of the spectrum is the risk of putting out a statement so sanitized it reduces the biting ability of a political action to actually achieve change.
Does student government have to be apolitical, then, to be representative of the entire student body? Historically, student council referendums that are voted for in the affirmative by the student body produce no concrete results—what does this mean for the power of our student councils, and where does it leave our politics?
"A hot fucking mess"
One year before approaching SGA, Caroline Oliver left Columbia College Student Council’s April 2, 2017 meeting two-and-a-half hours into what would eventually be a four-hour meeting.
“It became a war of attrition,” Oliver, an organizer for Students for Justice in Palestine, says. “It wasn’t going to be fun and games, but CCSC did not handle it well.”
The proposed referendum question that Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a pro-Palestine group comprised of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, came forward to CCSC with was: “Do you support Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s campaign as part of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement?”
CUAD took its proposal to CCSC last year and SGA this year because it felt as though the administration wouldn’t listen to it without council backing.
“I really think that it’s not in the college’s financial interests to listen to groups like us,” Oliver says.
That April 2, 2017 CCSC meeting quickly unwound into a “hot fucking mess,” in Oliver’s words. When the Jed D. Satow conference room—where CCSC meetings are held—doors opened, movement into the room quickly congealed, distinctly hive-like, as the mass of students all attempted to gush in.
The unsuccessful many were ushered into two overflow rooms, where livestreams with disappointingly poor audio were waiting. In all, 24,000 people would tune in to watch the livestream.
Nicole Allicock, then the president of CCSC, covered what wasn’t on the agenda: “I want to make clear that this conversation is not a question of the content of the debate that’s going on in the larger movement...It is actually the objective wording, feasibility, and adherence to the mission and policies of Columbia College and Columbia College Student Council that’s up for debate here.”
In the livestream video, Allicock spreads her hands apart, and people applaud. There are a few whoops of agreement.
This is not how it turned out.
CUAD, in its presentation, admitted that it wasn’t looking to change anyone’s opinion, but had plans to present the findings of the referendum to the ASCRI. The group called on CCSC to be the objective middleman, the means to this process, and asked it not to deprive the student body of engaging with the debate.
J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace group that opposed the question, spoke next. It argued that the ballot question would make campus atmosphere too divisive and would stop the student body from having meaningful conversations about the conflict.
Aryeh, a pro-Israel political education group, called the question “hateful” and asked the council to keep Columbia a safe space by voting “no.” The pro-Israel groups both bristled at the use of the word ‘apartheid’ and the reference to the BDS movement, which they see as defamatory and harmful to both Israelis and Palestinians. Dore Feith, one of Aryeh’s presenters and then the president of the group, stated at one point that, “CCSC is not a polling company,” and, as such, the question was out of the range of the council’s responsibilities.
Then the debate commenced. Siddharth Singh, then the first-year class president for CCSC, and the sophomore class president this year, recalls that, they only started talking about the language of the question itself until the last twenty minutes, “because everyone was firing their stories about Palestine being oppressed by Israel, Israel being oppressed by Palestine.”
The emotional and the political took over the room as people stood up to give anecdotes about how the conflict had affected them or their family. The conversation became dangerously personal, in some instances.
Jay Rappaport, a CC senior and one of CCSC’s three student senators, and who was serving as a senator at the time of CCSC’s 2017 meeting, said he thought it was important that the council didn’t deprive students of their voices, as that’s what CCSC’s constitution mandates. “I’m happy that students felt comfortable speaking their mind to their student council,” he says.
The debate during this year’s SGA meeting, in contrast, went significantly more smoothly. The question this time was slightly different: “Should SGA write a letter of support encouraging Barnard to divest from eight multinational companies... that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians?”
“SGA has been excited about this,” Marla Solow, an organizer for JVP, tells me, smiling.
In the video, as the livestream camera swings around from the Association members to face a sea of people, a viewer can hear Angela Beam, the president of SGA, say, “We’re super psyched to have such a crowd. This literally never happens.” A bubble of laughter swells up from both sides of the room.
During the meeting, three CUAD reps spoke. This was followed by applause and questions from council members and the audience. SGA had everyone in the room out of there by 9:05, barely over an hour after the meeting was called to order. Then they voted.
In 2017, CCSC ultimately voted against putting the referendum on the ballot 5-28, with representatives citing that they didn’t want to make a political statement, or that some of their constituents would feel attacked by the language and implications of the referendum. This year, SGA voted in an “internal” meeting after the general body meeting to ratify a referendum. Because it was internal, the reasons for this decision aren’t on the record.
CUAD came to SGA in 2018 initially seeking a letter of recommendation. By instead ratifying a referendum for Barnard’s students to vote on during their spring election period, SGA admitted, to its credit, that it doesn’t automatically represent everyone. “Do I begrudge them that they took it to a referendum?” Oliver asked. “No, because I see that as exercising their stated purpose as a governing body.”
So where does this disparity in results—with CCSC choosing to remain “unpolitical” and SGA embracing a divisive referendum—leave both councils with regards to their ability to be platforms for student voices?
For one, it protects CCSC from the same level of controversy SGA faced this year.
This desire to be uncontroversial, then, can stand in the way of student groups accessing the real power that lies behind the council: the ability to say that it has the student body on its side. The sheer number of people who showed up to the Satow conference room that April night seems to prove CCSC’s legitimacy as a representative body as a means to deliver the real measuring instrument, the ballot, that would publicly proclaim which side of the argument had more support on campus. To say that the soul of the campus was on the line to the opponents and the proponents of the debate would be hyperbolic, but the fight both sides put up indicated clearly that this dug deeper than just a question of a council’s support.
But some agree that CCSC voting “no” to the referendum was a good move, or at least a logical one—after all, the thinking goes that it is not the job of the body to be political in the first place. Feith, speaking to me a year after that meeting, still thinks that it was out of order for CCSC to consider the question. “It’s a national issue,” Feith says. “They should stay above that and stick to campus affairs.”
Oliver, however, disagreed that this issue is out of order to put through council. “This was a political issue, yes, but the locus of the issue is still the endowment. It’s still a campus issue. It still relates to students. ... It’s our money that’s being invested.” In debating a hotly-contested issue in an open meeting, the proponents and opponents locked wits over campus culture, even incidentally, which is entirely within the purview of a council.
Relevancy aside, the council has to grapple with the issue of its representative place, especially when it comes to issues that divide the University. For all students directly and indirectly implicated in the debate, the conflict is a livewire, a highly personal one that elicits strong emotions of fear, grief, and anger.
Yet we still ask the members of student government—not just CCSC, but also every other representative body—to rise above it and make the issue completely impersonal in their own voting. Student council is human, even if it doesn’t always feel that way to outsiders.
The political nature of the ballot exists with or without whatever the CC student body may have had to say about—if they took off the ballot, they’d be seen as siding with one camp, and by putting it on the ballot at all, with the other. Even allowing discussion within their space could be considered a political move on CCSC’s part. The tightrope is more of a yarn thread, in terms of diameter and structural integrity. How then, can CCSC ever truly successfully avoid being political?
Speak softly and carry a big student council
This year’s Varsity Show features a starry-eyed character, Chelsea, who is running for student council; the council deals with issues that the student body brings to them, she says earnestly: “That’s their job!” The brought-to-life Alma Mater eyes her sympathetically and pussyfoots the question, to audience laughter.
Student council has a reputation for being notoriously ineffective, seeming never to get anything done—disregarding how difficult it is to see any new policy actually occur before your term in office ends on campus. Everybody knows that. And yet some student groups still continue to look to student government as a body by which to apply pressure to the hand of the administration.
At Columbia, this happened only a few months ago. Columbia’s chapter of the Roosevelt Institute—a national, progressive political think tank—has recently been focusing on developing University-specific policy recommendations. In the past, it has supported activist groups, including Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, Morningside Heights Community Coalition, and Fight for $15, by providing information and advice. It has also recently been working on getting its own agenda directly through to the administration.
“We don’t say we’re an activist group,” Nicole Felmus, the president of the Roosevelt Institute, tells me. “But this is the first year we’ve really tried to reach out and create coalitions with student activist groups.”
In February, a team spearheaded by Charles Harper and Adekunle Balogun, respectively the Energy and Environment Center Director and Initiative Organiser for Roosevelt, decided to bring a proposal for a referendum to CCSC. The team argued that Columbia, despite attempting in small ways to go green, wasn’t changing fast enough. It believed the results of a referendum might apply pressure to the administration and speed the process up.
CCSC wasn’t the pair’s first point of contact for getting change effected. Roosevelt had explored speaking to the administration themselves, using unofficial support caught from students while tabling on College Walk or frantically running around Lerner with a clipboard. But this doesn’t cut it for the higher-ups in terms of legitimacy.
“It’s not so much that [the administration was] decidedly not cooperating with us,” Balogun says. “I think the frustration that we were having last semester was just that they were kind of ignoring us.” (A few days after their interview, Harper and Balogun clarified that the Office of Environmental Stewardship, whose representative had been on maternity leave, had since reached out and been very communicative.) Student government takes a voice, such as the Roosevelt Institute’s, and amplifies it, so that it can’t be ignored.
At the end of this February CCSC meeting, 28 of the 36 council members voted to put the referendum on the ballot. The results, it was agreed, would tell a story about student opinion. In early April, 84.93% of student respondents to the question answered in the affirmative.
Besides this referendum proposal on carbon neutrality, only three referendums have ever been successfully ratified and put on the ballot in CCSC’s history since its founding in 1979. These were, in chronological order, to do with fossil fuel divestment, the creation of a credit union, and the creation of the sandwich ambassador position on CCSC.
With the exception of the smaller scale referendum initiatives, however, these have largely proven ineffective. The first was in October 2013, when Barnard Columbia Divest asked the council to ratify a question on the ballot asking if the University should divest from the two hundred largest fossil fuel companies in which it was invested.
The student body voted overwhelmingly in support of the referendum, with 73.7% of the vote in favor.
But when BCD tried to take these final, overwhelmingly supportive numbers to the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, the ASCRI replied with a 56 page docket essentially telling them: "No." (Following further protests, the University finally declared in March 2017 that it was going to divest from its thermal coal, but not gas or oil, holdings.)
What’s the role of student government, then, if initiatives pushed through by them are only going to be ignored or halted in their tracks? Ademali Sengal, the former president of Roosevelt and its current coordinator for Roosevelt’s Financialization Campaign, thinks that student government needs to do it anyways.
“That’s the reason why it was created: to push back on some things that the University wants.” He lapses into silence for a few seconds, thinking. “Or [to push on what] we want from the University.”
Between Columbia and Barnard’s councils, though, SGA has a stronger relationship with its administration. That doesn’t mean that Columbia’s government goes entirely unheard, though: “There’d be a lot of pressure on [the administration] to change,” Harper optimistically believes, should the Senate recommend their proposal on carbon neutrality.
When I spoke to representatives of the Roosevelt Institute about their carbon neutrality referendum, they were in the midst of sending out their members to lobby every other governmental body on campus, graduate and undergraduate, in order to pass resolutions of support. They’ve also homed in on Columbia and Barnard’s murky investment practises, pitching SGA on a referendum on divesting from Puerto Rican debt and the creation of its own ASCRI.
SGA enthusiastically voted to bypass this referendum and put it straight into a resolution, confident of its own unanimous support for the initiative. However, even if the University agrees to divest, where exactly both Barnard and Columbia’s hold investments will continue to be unclear.
Stephanie Grove, the Economic Development Center Director for the Roosevelt Institute, tells me, “I wouldn’t say that they’re hiding it, but they’re not required to disclose it.” Any proclamation of divestment, then, will continue to be largely symbolic.
A friendly face to banks and sandwiches
The second referendum that CCSC ratified was for the creation of a credit union—a bank run by students, with lower interest rates and fees.
The third referendum was strange, and accordingly misunderstood. In 2014, CCSC created a new student council position: the sandwich ambassador.
The position was created with serious, noble intentions, namely, to increase accessibility to food and transparency in student government. That’s what Joshua Burton, the first sandwich ambassador and a senior this year, tells me. It was also seen by many who voted for it as a good-humored jab at CCSC to get it to take itself less seriously.
Creator Daniel Stone’s stated assertion in 2016 was that the position wasn’t a joke. Is it? “Oh, yeah, one hundred percent,” Burton tells me gravely. Then his face cracked and he bursts into laughter.
The most important things about the rise and fall of the sandwich ambassador are that it proves the power of organised members of the student body to move council in a certain direction, even if the latter is initially against their agenda. (As CCSC was initially opposed to the ambassadorial position’s creation, the Lion circulated a petition that collected the required 15% of the student body’s signatures.)
Like CCSC, SGA also has only a short history with referendums. In March 2016, Divest Barnard convinced SGA to pass a referendum asking if the student body wanted Barnard College to divest from fossil fuels. 24% of the student body responded, and of that sample, 96% were in favor.
In early April, the student body voted overwhelmingly in favour of carbon neutrality. The landslide of support is a victory for the Institute. What will follow will be its journey to take the idea to the Senate, and ultimately, hopefully, the administration, to propose a plan to Columbia’s Green Fund in order to start putting ideas into practice.
The Institute hopes that, with the support of the data, the initiative will go far. “I think the University gets scared,” Felmus says. “I think the University is scared of activism and in many ways doesn’t want to work with [activists] because they think it makes them look weak. But if this project is trying to work in the system that’s already been created and is pushing for positive goals that are attainable for the University, it’s baby steps, right? And it can help lead to greater change later on.”
Beilock locks down divestments
If the SGA referendum had, by the end of the voting period, achieved less than a simple majority, that’s where it would have died. But 64.3% of students who voted on the referendum felt that SGA should write a letter recommending divestment.
Despite CUAD’s celebration and the opposition’s disappointment, the initiative was still on unsteady grounds—SGA might still vote the next Monday not to write a letter to the administration.
The response from the administration, initially, was tempered. Almost immediately after the meeting, the college put out a statement that it was "aware" of the referendum and would refrain from taking action until SGA reached out to it.
But, last Monday, Beilock announced that Barnard wouldn’t take any action on divestment even if SGA moved to write a letter of support for it, preempting any move the SGA might make in the future.
In an op-ed defending the referendum that was published just before Beilock’s email, SGA claimed that “asking the students we represent for feedback is not radical.” It went on to say that “any move to prevent a referendum would call into question the Representative Council’s ability to represent students.”
In her letter, Beilock calls the referendum out as irrelevant to Barnard’s mission, all but accusing SGA of not being currently able to “foster civil discourse.” In doing so, the administration effectively had its own dialogue as to how to proceed with the results of the referendum, exclusionary of SGA, the democratic process, and the student body.
That same night, SGA responded to Beilock’s announcement in their scheduled general body meeting. Their written response was read out loud to a crowd of about fifty students, alternating between the members of the executive council. The council was “shocked” by Beilock’s preemptive shutdown and claimed that her action “flies in the face of process and dismisses students before they can voice their opinions.”
Representatives from SGA had spoken to Beilock that morning, they said, where their requests for discussion were “summarily dismissed,” and that Beilock refused to rephrase aspects of the email that were vaguely worded or incorrect.
SGA said at the evening meeting that it was disturbed by the break in precedent in relations between the administration and the council and unsure as to where it would lead. It voiced concerns about Beilock’s future interactions with both the student government and student body. Finally, it noted that it would continue with the process of voting to write a letter in support of divestment in order to “fulfil [its] duty and advocate for students to the administration.”
That night, SGA voted to write the letter anyways. Still, despite SGA’s willingness to proceed in the democratic system, Beilock on Monday showed the limits of a student council’s power.
Where do we go from here?
So where does this leave the referendum as a power tool to gauge student opinion towards changing policy? And as a herald of student ability to affect that change? For one, because we can’t know exactly where Barnard’s holdings are invested, divestment has to be a trust exercise between the administration and students. This renders the referendum explicitly symbolic, as well.
Nevertheless, “it’s great to have the debate and it’s great to have it open in the air, and it was a good platform for people to kind of raise this issue,” Singh says. But no one seems to know what the answer is—should student government be apolitical in this sense?
Regardless of the answer, people have been talking. The debate has circled back, as it did last year, to the balance between support and open discussion, respect and discourse, comfort and free speech. Op-eds flew into the Spectator’s Opinion section. The case for voting no. The case for voting yes.
“This is something I’ve heard a lot recently, in saying that this divestment campaign is shutting down dialogue. But I will say, you know, I think I’ve had probably more conversations with people this week than I usually would,” Solow says.
Student government, stretching from Columbia’s sprawling graduate schools to its undergraduate schools, all the way across the street to Barnard, can appear faceless, uncaring, and immobile, even if the complete opposite is true.
I asked Rappaport if he thought CCSC was approachable. He was silent for a long time. “Approachability is a problem that CCSC has,” he says, finally.
But after CCSC’s ill-fated meeting in 2017? “Elections last year was a shitstorm of activity,” Burton tells me. There was a particular uptake in minority candidates that year that both Sengali and Felmus noted. Even if voting turnout was largely similar between last year and this year for Columbia, there were far fewer uncontested positions last year.
More importantly, Barnard’s voter turnout this semester was 49.9%, the highest ever, a huge jump from last year’s turnout of 30%. It’s not a coincidence, however you look at it, that the year that elections garnered its far-and-away highest turnout was the same year that a divisive referendum was put on the ballot.
Engagement seems to be a matter of finding, in Balogun’s words, what would excite most students, what would get most students rallied around, in unified support with or direct but respectful opposition to the student standing next to them.
But it’s also not a coincidence that, three days after the referendum result was released, an unknown address spammed Barnard students’ inboxes with an email titled “ISRAEL DID 9/11”. The email contained the crazed and nonsensical outline of a conspiracy attack on Zionists. It was exactly what opponents of the referendum feared would happen.
Next semester, Columbia and Barnard’s administrations, their student governments, and their respective student bodies will potentially have to square off to push policy through, or redefine how they interact with each other. Any dialogue, official or unofficial, will have to be had with the context of these referendums, and their implications for everyone involved, in mind.
“I don’t think there’s a wrong way to go about affecting change on this campus,” Omar Khan, a Senator for Columbia College, says of all three groups. “I think it’s more important to be working in conjunction with each other.”
Only time will tell if this is what will actually unfold.