When compared to controversial semesters past, the fall of 2013 had its own share of important campus conversations. Columbia hit the ground running with scandal as Zeta Beta Tau lost its house. Initially unsure of what had happened due to a great deal of secrecy, we advocated for transparency. In the aftermath of ZBT, hazing itself became a topic of discussion and received attention in the form of op-eds, a task force, and a week dedicated to conversation about preventing it.
Transparency was also the buzzword of the University Senate elections. Students concerned about their representation fought to make the elections public. This common call was heard, and all nine candidates advocated for measures to increase transparency. In the same election, the Columbia University Democrats’ proposal drew traction, and divestment from fossil fuels rose in prominence.
The “Vagina Monologues” incident was a break from a calmer debate. There was no need to call for debate—it was already happening furiously on all sides. Instead, we asked for a mature approach to the dialogue in the hope that it could be an opportunity for substantive discussion.
But perhaps the two most predominant foci for debate this semester have been athletics and community—and, at times, the intersection between the two. Football’s 0-10 season was indicative of larger problems in athletics. Students and alumni weighed in, calling for reassessments of athletic leadership. University President Lee Bollinger even stepped into the arena, defending Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy through an unprecedented correspondence with Spectator that received its own powerful response from Columbia College Student Council President Daphne Chen.
As we reflect back on these incidents, one pattern becomes clear: There is insufficient interpersonal dialogue that brings people from all sides together.
Impersonal and anonymous comments online hardly suffice. Infrequent town halls are not enough. Small meetings attended by insular groups are effectively held behind closed doors. All too often, this dialogue is incomplete—one side talks to itself and decides, “Yes, that went rather well.”
To combat this paradigm, an open forum should be created so that issues relevant to the larger Columbia community can be debated in earnest. A nonpartisan watering hole, where no group has a monopoly and all have a say, should become an establishment.
We are a university that prides itself on a spirit of activism, critical analysis, and willingness to debate. These hallmarks of our student body are already expressed in dorm rooms and student organizations; creating a regular open forum would merely give them a wider audience and greater potential to effect change.
This forum could take shape in a number of ways. While an organically constructed one would be ideal, we recognize the benefits of organization from an established student group. A free-form circle discussion would invigorate discourse, but an official arbitrator would provide focus. Topics could be set beforehand to draw those interested, or they could be decided in the meeting.
Of course, we have our reservations as well. Some student groups may certainly attempt to dominate the discussion. Student councils or other groups may or may not be the best to moderate such a forum. Attendance may suffer on less controversial topics. But the devil is in the details. We can assess what works best only after we try.
Next semester, let’s make these open forums a staple of campus discussion.
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