Criticizing Columbia’s administration is all but an extracurricular activity for a large number of otherwise satisfied undergraduates. This dissatisfaction is at least partly due to a feeling of powerlessness at Columbia. Complaints include accusations that the administration isn’t transparent and doesn’t explain its rationale for decisions to students. Many students also feel that the administration is either blatantly aggressive toward student activism or just negligent.
To address this, many students look to the student councils. When their student representatives fail to succeed, they, too, are criticized. Complaints about the trivial tasks members of student councils take on miss the point: There is little the student councils can do. They aren’t designed to be serious arbitrators between the administration and the student body so much as they are spokespeople for the student body with no real power.
It is a mistake to deal with the administration as students alone.
Student leaders can better achieve their goals by considering a different kind of relationship to Columbia, a corporate relationship with a different set of rights and expectations granted to them. Thinking about a student’s relationship to the school on these terms also gives the student a different kind of power.
Columbia cannot be considered as an educational system alone. The University is an influential economic power in its own right, and that shows in its actions. Even decisions made without an explicitly stated economic interest, like the recent expansion into Manhattanville, have vast fiscal consequences—not only in buying out land in the area, but also for future development in Manhattanville. More noticeable is the direct financial activity the school effects through an endowment of over $8 billion, which is invested in largely profitable equities and commodities.
The endowment is managed by an external company called the Columbia Investment Management Company and ostensibly monitored by the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, made up of students, alumni, administrators, faculty, and staff. But in the end, decisions about the endowment are overseen by the board of trustees.
As a university, Columbia is classified as a nonprofit institution. But it is also undeniably a corporation—at least in the loaded way the term is used in informal discourse. There is a managing group, representing a much larger group of investors, that operates with the aim of expanding and making a profit through its investments, for its investors. Along with the other products of the University, students are an investment that time, energy, and money go into molding. When they graduate (and potentially before then), the University hopes to see an investment return—whether it’s money through donations, or even just a reputation boost from the connection to an accomplished investment (the student). But students also put money into the University via tuition, and by that rationale, aren’t students, in a way, investors?
Some activist groups like Columbia Prison Divest have taken an interest in how the University uses the summed investments of its students. In an interview with Spectator, Gabriela Pelsinger of Columbia Prison Divest made an important point: “I chose to direct financial resources to the school ... so I am accountable to what this institution does with this money.” Students are certainly investors in the corporate part of Columbia, and their input should be considered in economic operations of the school.
Even more critically, students who consider themselves investors want to be responsible investors. If a significant number of Columbia student-investors are concerned by the human-rights violations involved in an investment, should that not be considered as valid, if somewhat less important, as the concerns of the board of trustees? The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing was founded back in 2000 but operates indirectly. Its contact with the student body is only through the University Senate, and student members of the committee are appointed by nominations by student-government organizations. While the committee has very sensitive information on University finances, shouldn’t the group be somewhat more accessible, given its importance?
Alumni are bombarded with emails reminding them to donate to Columbia, reminding them that the school spent time and money on developing (hopefully) successful alumni. But this must be a two-way street.
We aren’t just the University’s investment, and we have all invested in this University, through both our time spent as students and our tuition to attend. We should be able to demand the same kind of power that an investor in another business corporation might expect. Students already have the right to a certain type of power through their status as investors in the Columbia corporate interest.
So far, the school has not recognized that power to the full extent that students deserve—probably because it could be the leverage student groups need to enact desperately needed change. Columbia’s being a corporation is not necessarily a bad thing. A corporate Columbia is one where students—investors—should have a real say.
Britt Fossum is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in chemistry. She contributes regularly to The Canon.
To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.