In his book What Are Intellectuals Good For?, George Scialabba praises those who, blessed with an influential voice in society, have used that voice to “hem in everyday barbarism a little.” The NYPD has defended its surveillance of Muslim Students Associations at Columbia and other schools as routine, as nothing out of the ordinary. The everyday nature of their actions does nothing to diminish its barbarism. In moments when the liberty and security of our own are under threat from the forces that claim to protect us, our leaders must seek to protect every individual as well.
Which is why a comparison between the statements made by Barnard President Debora Spar and Columbia President Lee Bollinger to their respective student communities is so instructive. President Bollinger’s statement reads like a declaration of deniability, focusing on the specific elements of this case. President Spar’s, by contrast, stands as a clarion call against discrimination and in support of students’ liberty and security.
The timing of the two statements, of course, is the greatest indicator of the difference in intention behind them. President Spar released her message on Tuesday, one day after the news of the surveillance broke, suggesting that she hoped to reassure her students of the support of their college in an uncertain, trying time. President Bollinger released his first message to the Columbia community today, after releasing a one-paragraph public statement on Tuesday. His first response to the news that police were profiling his students and conducting surveillance on a religious group was oriented to the media. Only after significant pressure from the student body did he feel it necessary to address the people targeted by this discriminatory practice.
Further, President Bollinger’s claim that “the University and our Department of Public Safety had no prior knowledge” of these NYPD activities raises more questions than it answers when compared with President Spar’s assertion that “Barnard’s Department of Public Safety does not participate in or condone unlawful surveillance or monitoring of any kind.” Assuming that neither of these people are just outright lying, Barnard students can rest assured that their college has not and will not aid the NYPD in unjustified and discriminatory monitoring of its students. Columbia students have received no such reassurance. All we have is a denial of collusion in this particular case.
I don’t know why President Bollinger’s response to blatant discrimination and profiling has been so tepid compared to that of his counterpart from across the street, or why he has acted as though the security of his students is a secondary concern in this case. But in times like these it’s worth noting that, for more than twenty years, Columbia has had a unique partnership with the NYPD. The Institute for Not-for-Profit Management at Columbia Business School plays host to a program called the “Police Management Institute,” which has trained, among many others, the second-highest ranking officer on the force: First Deputy Commissioner Rafael Pineiro.
It would be a shame if such connections stopped our leaders from doing whatever they could to protect their students from discrimination, to hem in everyday barbarism even just a little.