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Sarah Urlrey for Spectator

At Tuesday's public meeting with School of Public Health Dean Linda Fried, students gathered to voice their concerns about the school's administrative and financial situation.

“It's time to break the silence about the culture of fear here at Mailman,” Jennifer Hirsch, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, said at a public meeting with Dean Linda Fried on Tuesday morning. 

Hisrch was one of around eight Mailman faculty members and students who spoke out at the meeting about their concerns about the school's administrative and financial future as tensions continue to rise among administrators, faculty, and students over how the professor salaries at the school should be funded.

Although a steering committee was recently established to investigate alternative sources of funding for faculty salaries at Mailman, faculty said on Tuesday that they felt locked out of conversations. Members of the committee said that they were shocked at not being allowed to meet with Mailman and Columbia University Medical Center administrators, including Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences Lee Goldman.

“This exclusion troubles many of us,” SMS professor Ronald Bayer, the steering-committee co-chair, said. “Politically, it's a very grave mistake to have faculty representatives not involved in thinking about how we move forward.”

Fried said that Mailman has a “strong and unchanged commitment to our wonderful faculty, both tenured and nontenured”—but those at the meeting said they had doubts about the actual level of commitment.

“You told me that to be a leader you need to know when to fight,” Amy Fairchild, SMS professor and the former chair of the SMS department, said to applause from the packed auditorium. 

Tensions have been escalating at Mailman since two prominent faculty, SMS professors Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, were told in January that their contracts would not be renewed after this year since they were unable to find adequate outside funding for their salaries.

Like many public health schools in the country, Mailman requires its professors to source up to 80 percent of their salaries through grants from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But with those organizations struggling to come up with funds themselves, questions have been raised about the long-term sustainability of the “soft-money” model, especially in Mailman's SMS department.

“The thing that's set everyone on edge and created an environment that's now almost toxic was the letting go of two valued faculty who have been here 30 years and were let go with nine months' notice,” David Rosner, an SMS professor and a history professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said. “That's saying to faculty that they're nothing but widgets in a machine shop.” 

“People really are afraid. We've been pressured to stop organizing, and I think that's the goal of the administration here: to intimidate people into being quiet about this,” Sara Lewis, an SMS doctoral candidate and former mentee of Kim Hopper, said.

“Broadly speaking, there's a real feeling that she [Dean Fried] is imposing a culture of fear and silence by attempting to try to keep people from responding and voicing our concerns,” David Johns, an SMS third-year doctoral student, said.

Johns, Lewis, and over a dozen of their fellow students have formed a protest committee to “Un-Occupy Mailman.” 

“Our basic premise in all of this is that there is money at Columbia. That's part of why we're pushing so hard. We understand the climate and the realities of being tethered to grants for funding, but the money is there,” Katie Bahan, an SMS master's candidate, said, referring to Columbia's announcement of $6.1 billion in donations from its recent capital campaign.

The group has made efforts to ask questions about the future of Mailman's funding but members said they have received very little in the way of answers.

In January, the group hand-delivered letters to University President Lee Bollinger, Provost John Coatsworth, and Goldman demanding the rehiring of Vance and Hopper. 

“We have yet to even see an acknowledgement that our letters were received,” Seth Prins, a doctoral student in epidemiology, said. 

The petition sent to the provost requesting that professor Hopper's letter of nonrenewal be rescinded attracted over 60 signatures from Ph.D. students at Columbia and at other institutions including NYU and Harvard, while a similar petition sent regarding professor Vance attracted some 50 signatures. 

The Un-Occupiers said they will continue to escalate their protests with each coming week and will remain active up to and past graduation in May.

“We can't remain silent about the way things are going,” Johns said. “You can't hang a black crepe on our education. You can't try to keep us quiet. We're not going to fall in line.”

Yasemin Akcaguner contributed reporting.  |  @ebbogz

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote spoken by David Rosner to David Johns. An earlier version of this story quoted Johns as saying "black drape." He said "black crepe." Spectator regrets the errors.

Mailman School of Public Health funding Grants activism Columbia University Medical Center CUMC Linda Fried
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