Opinion | Staff Editorials

Make protesting pragmatic

From the 1968 protests and interrupted commencement speeches to the Minuteman protest, Columbia’s history has been undeniably impacted by student activism. 

We applaud student activism, and we recognize its pivotal role in shaping campus dialogue and in driving reforms on a much larger scale. Divestment from and embargoes against South Africa, for example, unfolded on a massive scale across many universities and governments, playing a significant role in bringing an end to apartheid. Even when student dissent has failed to produce immediate and readily identifiable results, activism has proven an effective grassroots vehicle for students to voice their concerns, particularly to a University administration that is largely removed from the daily lives of most undergraduates. Proud dissent and passionate activism are deeply ingrained in Columbia’s culture.

Though campus protests have become less disruptive—rarely do we see building occupations or hundreds of student arrests—this academic year still witnessed its fair share of student activism. For instance, the silent freeze mob held to highlight the University’s mishandling of sexual assault on campus, along with several other demonstrations and school media reports, has served a role in galvanizing related policy reform. Interestingly, the current sexual misconduct policy is itself partly a product of a rules change following rallies in the fall of 1999, ignited by the administration’s misguided assertion that no rapes occurred on campus at all. We are inspired by our peers who have taken a lead in driving much-needed change on our campus.

Last week, there was a second divestment protest, this time targeting private penitentiary companies instead of fossil fuels. In this case, students barged into Low and announced their petition to President Bollinger’s deputy chief of staff, Carrie Walker. This closely resembled Student-Worker Solidarity’s practice of storming administrative offices last year to voice their dissatisfaction with worker contracts. Most recently, students interrupted the Athena Film Festival awards ceremony to protest recognition of Sherry Lansing, who is engaged in contract renegotiations with allegedly underpaid employees. Ironically, Lansing was not present for the protest about her.

An environment in which students can freely express dissent is vital, but students should think twice before engaging in needlessly disruptive protests that carry little relevance to the University community. Although dissent may be wired into Columbia’s DNA, we also have to remember that even though the 1968 protests succeeded in their goals—Columbia’s disaffiliation from the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the cancellation of a controversial gym—they brought an enormous amount of trouble. During the protests, students were brutalized by police, and there was a total halt to regular University operations. Afterward, the University’s reputation fell, alumni gave at a flat rate, and acceptance rates soared to nearly 50 percent to fill classrooms.

Rash activism can have real consequences on the campus and should not be used lightly. Perhaps the greatest victim of such protesting is the cause itself. Through frivolous actions, activists end up delegitimizing their protests, thereby alienating potential supporters and dissuading others from entering a serious dialogue. 

When students decide to protest disruptively, they must do so in a way that respects their cause, brings a pragmatic approach for driving change, and carries some degree of broader student support. Fringe protests not only fail to produce real results, but also stymie dialogue by forcing a critique of actions, not reasons.

Meet the editorial board »

To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Lee Bollinger posted on

Thanks guys! Really appreciate it! I find these protests pretty damn annoying.

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Corrections Corporation of America posted on

Thanks so much Spectator! We wholeheartedly agree, and found that letter super disrespectful. Made us want to lock these troublemakers up, keep them from disrupting the safety and security of this country anymore

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You voted '+1'.
Segregationist posted on

Thanks, Spec! Those civil rights era protests just caused so much TROUBLE, amirite? Ugh, activists. It's like they're trying to make things "better" or something.

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Anonymous posted on

"Columbia’s disaffiliation from the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the cancellation of a controversial gym—they brought an enormous amount of trouble. During the protests, students were brutalized by police, and there was a total halt to regular University operations. Afterward, the University’s reputation fell, alumni gave at a flat rate, and acceptance rates soared to nearly 50 percent to fill classrooms"

People don't shirk from protesting because they're afraid to get hurt. They protest with the knowledge that there may be physical risk involved. They protest because the cause they're fighting for is bigger than their individual selves.

Also, who f@cking cares if admission rates soared.

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White South African posted on

Omg Spec, totally! And activists also caused so much trouble when we were just trying to go to our white bathrooms and movie theaters! It's such a shame that activists made South Africa end apartheid, they really are annoying.

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Anonymous posted on

"We applaud student activism, and we recognize its pivotal role in shaping campus dialogue and in driving reforms on a much larger scale. Divestment from and embargoes against South Africa, for example, unfolded on a massive scale across many universities and governments, playing a significant role in bringing an end to apartheid."

Don't think they were objecting to protests against apartheid.

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Anonymous posted on

It's called irony. Learn to understand it.

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Anonymous posted on

http://therecoveringpolitician.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ironic.jpg

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Actually posted on

It's sarcasm.

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Anonymous posted on

Eric Foner would crap all over this editorial

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and the prize for worst op-ed ever written goes to posted on

the spectator! woohoo! congrats, spec staff!

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Anonymous posted on

Last time I checked, disrupting the campus atmosphere WAS the point of a protest, of activism. We don't protest just to be nice and make things comfortable for you.

Also: "Although dissent may be wired into Columbia’s DNA, we also have to remember that even though the 1968 protests succeeded in their goals—Columbia’s disaffiliation from the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the cancellation of a controversial gym—they brought an enormous amount of trouble. During the protests, students were brutalized by police, and there was a total halt to regular University operations. Afterward, the University’s reputation fell, alumni gave at a flat rate, and acceptance rates soared to nearly 50 percent to fill classrooms." So it was terrible that people protested against the racist/classist measures the University was going to take to bulldoze poor black folks out of their homes just for a gym? Give me a fucking break.

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Uhh posted on

Said gym was in Morningside Park. No one's home would have been demolished. Furthermore the fact that this gym would have included public community facilities is almost invariably forgotten

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menckenman posted on

Get the history right.
A) per above, the gym was going into the park, not in a neighborhood.
B) Said park, then and now, was unusable after dark due to crime, and was never so crowded that the small footprint of the gym would have curtailed usage.
C) CU got the gym anyway, but Harlem didn't get and still doesn't have the local facilities the gym would have provided.

This was a political play pure and simple by activists, and the main losers were the residents of Harlem.

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Neo-Nazi posted on

Thanks, Spec! yeah, I find it really annoying when people protest about why I shouldn't discriminate against others. By the way, I would love if you could continue pouring your energies into criticizing those protestors, that means it's so much easier for me to get away with spraying Swastikas on the walls of Synagogues in the middle of the night.

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Wow look at what this article says posted on

Fucking Nothing

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Sweatshops in South Asia posted on

Really, thank you so much, Spec. I don't really understand why people have to make such a ruckus about us. I mean, sure, we're paying these kids $2 a day BUT COME ON HOW DISRESPECTFUL IS IT TO HOLD UP SIGNS AND PARADE AROUND AND DISRUPT? Just disrespectful. It's so much worse than paying little South Asian kids $2 for 16-hour days and not giving them workplace protections.

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Anonymous posted on

If you think sweatshops are evil, you really ought to take an economics course.

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Sweatshops in South Asia posted on

But I didn't say they were evil! Ugh no they are not evil they help white people of the Western world get the clothing they deserve. (and yeah, I'll just forget that the poor South Asian kids barely have any rags to cover themselves, but ah well all that matters is my profit!)

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Rape apologist posted on

Thank Spec! Yeah I also hate it when Take Back the Night and all those stupid feminist groups protest whenever someone puts up a flier making a rape joke. Like, come on, get over it. If you don't like it, just ignore it. Protesting is not going to win you points. And using trigger warnings because rape victims apparently have "PTSD" and "flashbacks"? PUH-LEASE. That's stupid, you're alienating the middle-of-the-road people by being too radical. Rash activism indeed.

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this isn't princeton posted on

"students should think twice before engaging in needlessly disruptive protests that carry little relevance to the University community. "

Seriously, you don't think there are people at Columbia with family in prison/unions??? Or from communities where those issues are urgently important? GIVE ME A BREAK.

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What I have to say about this terrible editorial posted on

"First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Imani Brown posted on

^That quote pretty much sums up how I feel about this editorial as well.

That being said, everyone should try to make it out to the first Columbia Prison Divest teach in happening today (Monday Feb 10th), from 6.30-8.30 pm at the IRC - 552 W 114th Street. If you'd like to understand more behind the rationale of some of the action that's already taken place, this would be a great place to start.

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bc '14 posted on

^ One of the BEST MLK quotes of all time. and so weirdly underused. hmm, i wonder why?

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Malik Newton posted on

This is terrible journalism. I am struggling to see where it makes sense. The authors applaud protest tactics, a word I think is important to stress because tactics need not be confused with an end in itself. Then, the article goes on to condemn the same tactics, one might note across a variety of very different instances, by saying, "An environment in which students can freely express dissent is vital, but students should think twice before engaging in needlessly disruptive protests that carry little relevance to the University community. ". Here is where I begin to be confused: what, specifically, is needlessly disruptive of, say, reading a letter to a university representative? or a flash mob?--both of which are recent tactics employed by student activism? Furthermore, how does demanding the university to divest from private prisons bear little relevance to the university community? Beyond assuming a singular community, the suggestion seems to be that anything that merely challenges the status quo, be it a sexual assault policy, or our investing in putting people in cages, is needless. Might I ask, what would be an example of non-disruptive, yet effective (since you've already praised the effectiveness throughout history of protest), means of enacting change?

And these supposed consequences, what are they? Your example of what happened to Columbia after 1968 tells me less about the merits of the student activist (and, to be sure, I do not fully endorse all of their tactics), and moreso about the failed response of police, who brutalized students, a prospective studentry, who, perhaps, had no interest in attending a university, for reasons that can't be solely attributed to activist demands, and a alumni base, likely for reasons of conservative narrow mindedness, who decided to give less to Columbia. Even if it were true that these things were a direct reflection of student activism, at what point must we not accept the demands for a more just Columbia, and, by extension, the consequences that follow?

And, if any irony shouldn't be allowed to escape us, it should be Columbia's own lauding of its activist past, and the change brought because of it (diversity, this, progressive, that), while, in its present, in its policy and its language, it does it best to evade demands for it to be responsible to the world it shapes.

The fact that the editorial board wrote this diatribe is more revealing than disappointing. It further reveals what to some is already a bare faced truth. As is made evident by the tone of this piece ( words like "rash activism", "barged", "victims"--and the liberal drivel that follows as a solution, like, "pragmatic", and worst, because it says nothing,"dialogue") is there is no serious engagement, neither by the administration nor bodies such as Spectator, with the demands of those consistently marginalized and discredited within the university. What's more, it demonstrates a profound distrust in fellow students to know what they think worth fighting for and the best means to achieve it.

Anyway, I only get thirty minutes for lunch and I have five minutes left, so I best not waste my entire lunch.

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Seriously, thank you posted on

Thank you, Spec. I found this display terribly disrespectful, and it is frustrating that this was the channel chosen for civic actions. I am a minority student on full scholarship, and I doubt that any of these kids actually know real adversity. You are fortunate to go to an Ivy League school, one of the best schools in the world at that! Please, lead with character, because the ends does not justify the means, and President Bollinger has led this school tremendously and deserves respect. How soon we forget about Grutter vs. Bollinger...

Honestly, the trolls on this commnet thread disgust me.

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Anonymous posted on

..So since we attend a good school, we shouldn't object to anything? PrezBo and CU aren't infallible.

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Karla Jimenez posted on

I'm a Latina student on full scholarship, but that does not mean that we should be blindly grateful to be here or stop from criticizing/protesting/doing something about things that are wrong with this institution.

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Anonymous posted on

in fact, part of why Columbia gives scholarships is to get diversity of perspectives!

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Note posted on

The issue isn't with protesting--that's vital to all of us.

It's with how we protest. Protest smarter, so that the protests themselves don't become the controversy. Rather, we want the issues to become the controversy. A good protest wakes people up without going over the top. A good protest makes people think--but it doesn't force them away.

A truly successful movement doesn't split a university into competing factions by shutting down buildings and denying other students the chance to complete their education. Rather, it complements their education, showing them how the world outside the Morningside bubble actually works.

Protest, but don't shoot your cause in the foot.

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Anonymous posted on

I understand where you're coming from--really, I probably would have felt the same a few years ago--but I completely disagree. Making the protest in itself the controversy is quite often the most successful way to make the media (and then by extension, the public) to take notice at all. Do you think the Lansing protest would have gotten a full write-up in Spectator if some students had just, say, put up some flyers and issued some banal statement?

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Angry Senior posted on

"Although dissent may be wired into Columbia’s DNA, we also have to remember that even though the 1968 protests succeeded in their goals—Columbia’s disaffiliation from the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the cancellation of a controversial gym—they brought an enormous amount of trouble. During the protests, students were brutalized by police, and there was a total halt to regular University operations. Afterward, the University’s reputation fell, alumni gave at a flat rate, and acceptance rates soared to nearly 50 percent to fill classrooms."

1) Did you actually just use the word "trouble" in that context? Jesus christ, what is this, 1960?
2) Acceptance rates soared to 50%? Be more elitist and awful, I dare you.

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Dude that thinks the editorial board is out of touch. posted on

Give me a brake!

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Anonymous posted on

lol god forbid acceptance rates go up

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Anonymous posted on

That would be horrendous if it were to actually occur. Ignore the mouthbreathers, Spec, this is a great editorial.

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Anonymous posted on

at least sign your names. You just hide behind your Macbooks and kiss up to the administration, then you have the gall to calls our actions "frivolous." Just don't call yourselves journalists and do NOT tell us what is relevant to "our" community.

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Anon posted on

FWIW, their bios are linked at the end of the piece, under "Meet the editorial board."

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Anonymous posted on

Disturbing how the editorial board, which represents a publication that reports on student news, feels entitled to so publicly vocalize which student concerns are important and which are not.

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Anonymous posted on

Exactly.

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Anonymous posted on

The criticism that this article has thus far encountered in the comments isn't even half of what it deserves. This article is absolutely shameful, and I *know* the face of an editorial board member when you are telling them that something Spec wrote was awful: they nod their heads politely and then they don't change a damn thing. It is discourse like this (a discourse completely lacking difference; a discourse between a symbolic white upper-class person and a white upper-middle-class person) that makes our educational spaces feel so unsafe. I hesitate to say that Columbia deserves better if this is considered a mainstream opinion on campus--I'd say that the communities whose realities you are brashly erasing (note that they consist of millions) are the ones who deserve better.

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Class of '00 posted on

- If the point of this editorial is that protests shouldn't be trivial, that's trivially true, and your issue is with the goals rather than the means of protest. So why don't you debate the issues if you think they're trivial?
- Probably, 1968 did hurt donations. But it's stupid to blame it for the drop in applications in the 1970s and 1980s. Look at NYC in that period, and think for a second about why it rebounded in the late 90s (when I was a student there), in the "Friends" era, when NYC was undergoing rapid gentrification. It's completely twisted to blame protests for the fate of Columbia in that intervening period.
- I basically agree with your point about trivial protests that alienate people. (Most people would, so maybe it's not an argument worth making?) But I imagine that this is an issue your opponents have also thought about, and a better editorial would have tried to see things from their POV.

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T Williams posted on

Wow, what a charmingly elitist, paternalistic, and conservative denouncement of student politics. Not only does the Spectator Editorial Board believe that it can arbitrate what concerns the University community - "students should think twice before engaging in needlessly disruptive protests that carry little relevance to the University community" (as if issues of fair wages, the criminal justice system and women's rights didn't affect members of Columbia or their families) - but it gives the most frank and unapologetically capitalist logic as to why: after the 1968 protests, "the University’s reputation fell, alumni gave at a flat rate, and acceptance rates soared to nearly 50 percent to fill classrooms." So we should not protest because it hurts the University's image and endowment?

This tells us more about the privileged, elite background of the Spec staff then it does about the concerns of students or the rest of the Columbia community. Students, keep protesting, and don't let those in power or with vested interests in it tell you how to protest.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm on Spec, and honestly, reading this made me embarrassed and angry. The editorial board is seen by many readers as the voice of the entire paper, and the views expressed here are the last thing I want to be associated with. Last time I checked there were plenty of intelligent, kind, open minded people on the editorial board, so how this got published is entirely beyond me. That said, it doesn't change the simple fact that this article is elitist, condescending, and entirely dismissive of issues that DO effect the Columbia community, even if they're outside the comprehension of the editorial board (which is an issue on its own).

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Anonymous posted on

I don’t agree with all of the points of the opinion piece, but I think some of the commenters here may have missed the main thread of the argument. I have been to a number of protests in my time. My first protest was to try to get my university to divest from South Africa in the 80’s. I have seen brilliant protests, and counter-productive ones which "alienating potential supporters." There are times when disruption is both effective and necessary, but in my experience the disruption of a given protest is counterproductive more often than people who are caught up with the emotion of an issue might think. That doesn’t mean disruption is never warranted, but I agree wholeheartedly with the title, that protests should be pragmatic.

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