Two weeks ago, on the morning of March 11, I made the difficult decision to remove a banner that had been hung the previous evening on the front of Barnard Hall. The banner had been posted, in full compliance with Barnard’s existing practice, by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine. The students had not cleared the banner’s content with anyone at Barnard College, nor were they required to do so. Instead, our procedure had long been simply to allow any recognized student group to hang a banner promoting an event, presuming that the banner space was available on their desired dates.
So why, then, did we decide to remove this banner and re-evaluate our procedures? Because Barnard is a small college, with only a few buildings and one main entrance. Barnard Hall is both the first building you see on entry and, of course, the building that bears our name, along with our official signage and seal. Traditionally, Barnard has allowed student groups to use the spaces on either side of the Barnard banner to promote upcoming events. It was never our intent to use that space to advocate for any political position or opinion. Yet, by Tuesday morning, it had become clear that this banner’s placement on the main building had inadvertently created the appearance of official Barnard endorsement. And once this perception was afoot on our campus and in our community, we felt compelled to remove the banner and to halt the hanging of all banners on this site.
I wish we had had the opportunity to notify the leadership of SJP before the banner’s removal on that Tuesday morning. I wish the issue of endorsement had not arisen so powerfully in the context of an already-heated debate. I feel for students who see our decision as an attack on their views and community. But this is where we find ourselves right now, and from where we must move forward.
Over the next few weeks, Dean Avis Hinkson and her colleagues will continue to reach out to student groups and leaders across campus, striving to identify an alternative space for displaying banners, in addition to the already existing areas for flyers and posters. Our hope is that this newly identified area will facilitate and expand the kinds of conversations that are central to Barnard’s mission—conversations that are open and inclusive and reflect the diversity of our community.
These discussions are not easy. Yet they are crucial to our community and to what we aspire to be. I applaud our students for grappling with these issues, for standing up for what they believe, and for forcing us as a community to engage in difficult conversations, however painful they may occasionally be.
The author is the president of Barnard College.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.