On Wednesday, Dec. 7, the Columbia University Marching Band was summoned by Provost John Coatsworth and University Librarian Ann Thornton for a meeting concerning the band’s use of Butler Library for Orgo Night. In this meeting, the band was informed that, after a 40-year run, it would be barred from using Room 209 for the festivities. Thornton cited “disruption” as the motivating factor behind the ban. This meeting was followed by a meeting with Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm, who informed members of the band that they would face individual and group sanctions if they entered 209 at midnight this Thursday.
It is hard to know the administration’s real intentions. Perhaps Provost Coatsworth, after leading a failed charge to stop grad students from unionizing, wished to assert his authority elsewhere. Maybe University Librarian Thornton, in an effort to reduce stress, chose to offer students one more hour to indulge in the adderall and Redbull bacchanalia of stress-cramming in Butler 209.
What’s clear, however, is that “disruption” is not the actual reason behind the ban. If it took 40 years for the brain trust in Low Library to notice that Orgo Night is disruptive, I have little hope that the University will survive into the next decade.
Perhaps this speaks to Coatsworth’s and Thornton’s disconnect from undergraduate student life. If the two had been more tuned in, they might have realized that the University’s track record of enforcing sanctions in recent years is tenuous, at best. I’m old enough to remember when Columbia banned students from bringing “large objects” (say, a mattress) to the graduation proceedings. A whole lot of good that did. And although Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg talked a mean game about suspensions and expulsions during the Low Library sit-in, I don’t recall anyone actually suffering any consequences.
What Columbia will realize in time is that our culture is richer for the efforts of CDCJ and Sulkowicz. There’s a trend here: students push back against the administration, and if they win concessions, after some time has passed, Columbia appropriates the beneficial end result of that battle into its self-image. That’s a big “if,” though. In due time, I’m sure, Columbia admissions materials will tout the graduate student union; however, the success of the union was contingent on students fighting back in the first place. While Orgo Night might not be equivalent to those fights in moral virtue, its contribution to Columbia’s culture—as a source of entertainment on a campus in the midst of a war on fun—is undeniable.
(An aside: there’s a kind of poetic justice in a marching band scriptwriter citing Sulkowicz and CDCJ—former targets of Orgo Night scripts—in an op-ed defending Orgo Night.)
Thankfully, fighting back is what CUMB does, and they do it fairly well. What Coatsworth and Thornton fail to realize is that Orgo Night has never been about “permission.” It's a celebration of the opposite: disruption is the name of the game.
Thornton and Coatsworth’s suggestion that the band move to Lerner is ridiculous: If we allow the school to set its own terms for student disruption, we risk a future in which campus traditions are gutted and warped beyond recognition (see: Bacchanal). It would be foolish for me—a recent grad with no skin in the game—to advocate for the band to storm Butler 209 in the face of administrative sanction. But the suggestion to move to Lerner misunderstands the core values that make the event worth going to. Imagine celebrating fuck-the-powers-that-be irreverence in a powers-that-be approved location. How impotent would we feel as students?
I’ve seen Orgo Night from the perspectives of an uninvolved audience member, a scriptwriter, and a performer. It has come to exemplify the ideals of the college experience, especially in how it neutralizes communal stress by means of communal joy. Taken alone, the discourse surrounding the event is already worth the disruption: it tests our collective willingness and ability to engage with difficult issues. Taken together with the catharsis of laughing—and groaning—as a community, and the fact that Orgo Night serves as one of our school’s few Columbia-specific cultural touchstones, it becomes eminently clear that the event should not suffer the heavy hand of administrative intervention.
Given Columbia’s insistence on encroaching on student space (see: Lerner), it is more important than ever for CUMB and the student body to stand their ground. You don’t have to agree with the band’s politics to despise the idea of the administration regulating student space and organizing on a whim.
So, if you want Orgo Night to take place in Butler 209, I have two pieces of advice. First, contact your student deans. Contact Anne Thornton. Flag down Prezbo if you see him on his morning jog.
Perhaps more importantly, though, show up to Room 209 at midnight. Climb up on the tables. Sing the fight song. Chant “USA! USA! USA!” Pushing back against the administration is an important fixture of life at Columbia: it colors our time here, and, in turn, inspires other students to apply. So play your part. Past, present, and future Columbians will thank you.
Mikhail Klimentov is a 2016 Columbia College alum and former poet laureate of the Columbia University Marching Band. He was an illustrator for the 137th volume, an opinion columnist and deputy opinion editor for the 138th volume, editorial page editor for the 139th managing board and an opinion columnist for the 140th volume. He tweets @LeaderGrev.
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