Opinion | Columns

The kids are alright

Is it Columbia students or Columbia that causes the problem? "The problem" is Columbia's most important one: the absence of a community culture. Culture is the sinew of a community, and Columbia's undergraduate population as a whole lacks those intangible linkages that bring us together as something more than the combination of our parts.

Is it the students or the school? This is a question that we don't generally ask enough, but when it comes to the issue of community, it is especially relevant.

When we talk about community-building, too often we frame the discussion so that the blame is put on students instead of on institutional factors on campus. This means that instead of focusing on policies and institutional practices that students can work to change, the discussion often veers into esoteric laments about "Columbia students."

Often we hear the refrain that there is "something" about Columbia undergrads. They are somehow inherently disinclined to engage in community activities. I, however, don't think Columbia students are so different than students at other schools with a similar nerd quotient. I don't see how it could be otherwise.

Consider Columbia's place in American higher education. It would be a pretty common-sense conclusion to say that our students are not drawn to Columbia for radically different reasons than they are drawn to our peer schools. Although there is certainly a population of students that came to Columbia in particular because they were interested in living in New York, or for the Core Curriculum, by and large they made their decision to be here strategically. Many—if not the majority of—students based their decision on the fact that Columbia was the best institution they were accepted to. As Columbia has climbed up the rankings, I believe this can only have become truer.

Even if we could prove that Columbia students were inherently more disinclined to actively engage in the community than at peer schools, this wouldn't mean the University shouldn't be encouraging policies that foster undergraduate community.

Three and a half years of observation have led me to conclude that there are certain institutions and practices at Columbia that hurt community sentiment. This discourages many students from actively feeling inclined to build community beyond anything but their most personal and immediate networks. One example which I have previously discussed in another column is the lack of adequate public space on campus. This is a fundamental issue that robs students of the most basic foundation necessary for naturally building community.

Given Columbia's different undergraduate schools, students are also faced with a fragmented sense of community. With the divisions between Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Barnard College, and General Studies, undergraduates are often left without a single, unified institution to call home.

Professors who are engaged in their responsibilities as university researchers in addition to being undergraduate instructors reinforce the lack of a common undergraduate sentiment. These responsibilities mean professors have little extra energy to actively engage undergraduates.

A final pertinent example—which is perhaps solely my experience, but I wager that it isn't—is the lack of responsiveness on the part of administrators. I have often met with an administrator to discuss something only to run into that same person weeks or months later without him or her having any recollection of who I am. While I don't think that any one individual "deserves" to be remembered, repeated instances of the people responsible for making our community work completely forgetting about a student certainly do not encourage community sentiment.

These personal observations are, however, less convincing than the simple logical conclusion that our students cannot be different enough than those at any other nerdy, big school to be the cause of the problem. If the students aren't particularly different, then it has to be the institutional arrangements and practices that make Columbia lack a strong sense of undergraduate community. Being in New York City is undoubtedly a factor, but that isn't a reason to throw up our hands. Our lack of strong community must still be addressed, and we can't change our location to do it.  

This is an important issue by a variety of metrics. For one, it causes many students to have a more negative college experience than they should. From an institutional perspective, it has very practical implications for the future of the four undergraduate schools. If the administration is serious about making the undergraduate schools a central place in the University, then it must ensure that the students have a good experience. Otherwise, future alumni will be disinclined to make the donations that are the lifeblood of any private undergraduate college.

Although the problem stems from Columbia and not the students, students can take an active role in being part of the solution. Efforts to build community—either by particular student groups or through policy leadership in student government—can help fill the void. For innovative student leaders, placing their efforts in the framework of building community could be an effective way to lobby for more resources and administrative support. By doing so, students would not only help fix the problem in a small way, but  bring attention to the many instances where bureaucratic procedures and policies stifle student-led efforts to build community.

Alex Merchant is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Hispanic studies. Atomized to the Core runs alternate Thursdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspecatator.com.

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