There’s a lot we don’t know about why the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau lost its brownstone on 113th Street last month.
We don’t know anything about the initial incident that prompted the Inter-Greek Council Judicial Board to recommend revoking ZBT’s charter and taking away its house. We don’t know why former Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger decided to overrule the Judicial Board and allow ZBT to keep its house, or what the terms of its probation plan were. And we don’t know what violation prompted the administration to evict ZBT from the brownstone and convert it into general housing.
Transparency is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but there’s a reason for that. Institutions often pay lip service to this idea only to act in ways that fall far short of achieving transparency, and the Columbia administration is no exception.
A transparent process would enable us to have a more effective understanding of a taboo topic: hazing. The administration is pushing broader education and awareness of hazing among student groups this year, and the incident that triggered ZBT’s probation involved hazing. However, the University’s definition of hazing is extremely broad. If the definition is going to be broad, specific violations must be explained. Students cannot be expected to change a culture of hazing if no one has any idea what sort of activity, in practice, constitutes a hazing violation.
Additionally, we know that many details of the ZBT saga, while not public knowledge, exist in the shadowy corners of rumor and hearsay, discussed among students in lieu of official information. Administrative transparency is necessary to prevent rumors from getting out of control and creating a damaging stigma against members of student groups. The current lack of transparency might help the University maintain a positive image, but it sacrifices student well-being, and such a sacrifice is unacceptable.
When a major decision is made that substantially affects the student body—and the determinations of which groups control the brownstones on 113th and 114th streets are major decisions—transparency from the administration toward the student body is absolutely necessary.
Transparency is also essential if the University wants to prevent allegations of preferential treatment. Contrast the handling of ZBT’s house to the email sent by Shollenberger in December condemning a flyer posted by the Columbia University Marching Band. Why was one incident dealt with in a campus-wide email, while another was hashed out behind closed doors? With a transparent process, the campus community could at least discuss the merits of the actions of these groups, rather than getting bogged down in destructive and angry finger-pointing and animosity. Every group should be treated equally and fairly, regardless of infraction—Greek life, athletic teams, and the hundreds of other student groups that make up our exciting and diverse student life.
What do we think transparency would look like? In this case, the decision of the Inter-Greek Judicial Board and its rationale, as well as Shollenberger’s reasoning, should be made public and distributed in some way: a statement to campus publications, a school-wide email, or something similar.
We understand that there are often important privacy concerns that must be balanced when the administration communicates disciplinary information. That should not be an excuse to withhold crucial decisions from the student body, which, in the end, is most affected by the administration’s actions.
We don’t know exactly why ZBT lost its house, but going forward, we hope that this mishandled process will be a catalyst for a more transparent administration.
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