Opinion | Columns

We need to thank the Columbia bureaucracy

“We need to thank the Columbia bureaucracy.” 

Aliza Polkes wasn’t even joking. As co-founders and co-editors of 4x4 magazine, Aliza and I were taking turns typing in a Woodbridge kitchen, crafting our letter from the editors to be published in 4x4’s inaugural issue. When I thought we had successfully thanked everyone who played a critical role in turning our vision into a reality, Aliza reminded me of a major force that pushed 4x4 into existence in the first place: Columbia’s bureaucracy. 

Though we agreed that our heartfelt letter wasn’t the right place for a shout-out to something so frustrating that it has literally brought me to tears, Aliza was right. It is my belief, though not necessarily that of others at 4x4, that Columbia’s bureaucracy truly (ironically) deserves recognition for the successful creation of 4x4.

I could probably write a senior thesis on the history of 4x4, but I’ll try to be brief describing the reasons we needed to start this initiative. All of 4x4’s founding editors used to be a part of Quarto, the official magazine of Columbia’s creative writing department. At the end of last year, the department head and Quarto’s adviser were changing, and, with leadership in limbo, a program administrator in the department required editors to stop all work on the magazine. We weren’t allowed to hold events or even convene as a staff. Ten years or 10 days—when the magazine could come back, and who would run it when it did, wasn’t up to the student editors. Unable to change this decision, we had to either disband or continue with a new identity. And so began 4x4

Saying it like that, so matter-of-factly, doesn’t do justice to the emotional side of the story. For many writers at Quarto, myself included, the magazine was the only thing on campus to which we wholeheartedly devoted ourselves. To accept that we had to disassociate from the magazine was especially painful because many of us couldn’t even understand why. Our situation certainly wasn’t the fault of the new departmental leadership, which has been kind and supportive of 4x4. In fact, given the beautiful relationships I’ve witnessed between 4x4 editors and the creative writing department, I can’t even imagine the new department leadership would have wanted this situation to manifest. So why did this happen? 

I’ve heard horror stories of Columbia’s bureaucracy causing disaster for students trying to avoid a forced leave of absence to those trying to create a campus hockey team. The writing department is not immune, and, as a result, about 20 editors were told to stop working on a magazine they loved. I don’t mean to single out the writing department—it’s simply representative of how Columbia runs. I know that bureaucracy is something students have to learn to navigate, but I never knew how powerful and pervasive it could be.

I also didn’t know that powerful organizations could rise in spite of it, and maybe even because of it. 4x4 would never have come into existence if it weren’t for amorphous bureaucratic forces. Our editors would have stayed on at Quarto, and we would never have experienced the growth of our new group’s influence that has led to the success of our project. In the eight months since we began, we’ve raised over $10,000 and read over 600 submissions. We might never have had the ability to develop a brand identity from scratch or see how far we could go on creative inspiration alone without Columbia’s bureaucracy prodding us into uncharted territory.

Bureaucracy is a weird beast. As Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson have so powerfully told us: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And Columbia’s bureaucracy is often one of those things that can all but kill you in your time here. I doubt anyone would prefer a bureaucratic system over a non-bureaucratic one, but this viewpoint overlooks some disguised benefits that come from learning how to thrive in a bureaucratic system. Dealing with it and responding to it is a life skill that extends far beyond a university setting. 

Sociology professor David Stark once told his class that complicated rules leave room for flexibility. Getting the result you want out of a bureaucratic system, however, requires an understanding of how to interact within these complicated rules. This understanding could be as simple as learning to phrase questions to higher-ups in such a way that elicits green lights instead of red ones. On a broader scale, it’s a skill that can be learned by individuals and student organizations alike. As an organization, 4x4 has certainly thrived by developing this skill. And personally, I believe the bureaucracy-navigating ability I’ve learned as a member of 4x4 will be invaluable to the success of my future endeavors—from getting better at doing taxes to starting new initiatives. 

Despite my frequent complaints about Columbia’s bureaucracy, I doubt this is the worst procedural system I’ll face in life. I also doubt that many of the great initiatives on this campus would be as successful if they didn’t channel their frustration with bureaucracy into a passion for surmounting obstacles. Our time at this University is our chance to confront bureaucracy, figure it out, and thrive despite it. If we can navigate and challenge it here, we may find that we’re not only creating stronger initiatives in response to these hurdles but also developing a skill set that will last us for the rest of our lives. 

Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Balancing with Bhandari usually runs alternate Tuesdays.

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

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