A confession: I was that kid in high school who took student involvement in administrative matters too seriously. I was a “lifer,” and during the course of my 13 years in attendance, my school changed a lot. Like a Dickensian peasant thrust into the throes of modernization, I didn’t take kindly to the rapid transformations underway, seeing the school appropriated to myriad bourgeois tastes (poetic license in use). I was in student government, which I bandied about with revolutionary fervor. During our monthly meetings with our rotund, Segway-riding headmaster, I, the grand inquisitor, would ask numerous technical questions about the school’s outlook while he, the befuddled heretic, sipped on his Big Gulp. Once, upon the dismissal of an administrator in the high school, I even went so far as to write a scathing letter to the chair of the board of trustees, outlining the numerous failures of the board to uphold the character and reputation of the school, and marking the cadre as “petty and impatient.” These words I read now with a twinge of regret. Oh the folly of youth!
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know I may have been too big for my britches. It was high school after all, and I hardly wish to give the impression that all my life’s energies were devoted to those halls. But the question of to what degree students ought to play a role in administrative matters continues to weigh on me, if only because of the specter from my overbearing past in these matters.
To think about these issues, I have been running a thought experiment. One way to look at our relationship with the administration is to consider the “college experience” a product we purchase (at high cost) from the University. In this view, the administrators are the management of a large corporation offering a highly coveted service. We, the students, are the consumers, who on the basis of reputation and perhaps some “test-drives” decided to buy Columbia for the next four years. It is a big purchase, essentially the only such purchase we will ever make, and as a result the administrators are in a position of great power.
Looking at the relationship in these terms, it is hard to imagine how exactly we can assert ourselves in questions of policy. In effect, we have knowingly bought the product on offer and there is no significant risk of our jumping ship, bar some egregious abuse on the part of Bollinger and Co. In this sense, we have about as much right to sway policy at Columbia as iPhone owners have recourse to shake things up in Cupertino in the name of the late great Steve Jobs.
However, something about this single-transaction view seems wrong. In reality, we pay for our college experience in an ongoing fashion, and we accrue the benefits of the services on offer at Columbia not in one instance, but rather over the course of eight semesters. Perhaps, then, we aren’t consumers buying an iPhone, but rather guests at a five-star resort. The obligations of hospitality are a better approximation of what happens when we purchase our education, as we are receiving an extended experience on the basis of iterated payments. Columbia plays host to us and seeks to give us the best facilities available for “business and leisure.” We chose Columbia on the basis of its excellent reputation, and should the administration—with President Bollinger as the general manager—fall short, then as the guests of this resort we have every right to express our displeasure! On this basis, student involvement can be accommodated at the limited level, ranging from the level of a “score our service” form to a minibar-fueled outpouring of rage in the lobby.
But somehow, the students have a more constructive role to play. We aren’t just consumers of the great offerings of Columbia. No! We are investors in the hallowed halls, holders of equity with all the attendant rights. These rights include the ability to take the administration to task, to influence policy, to guide the development of the University. And, empowered with the status of alumni, we retain these rights for a lifetime. So let us continue to assert ourselves within debates over school policy, leveraging our roles as active investors to enter the larger dialogue about the future of our school. I, for one, will drop the inquisitions and scathing letters from my repertoire.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon.