Monday, November 19, 2007

Bollinger's Gem of a Notion

The hunger strike by some Columbia students was settled, more or less, the other day with the university agreeing to adopt certain initiatives and around $50 million of programmatic concessions. As the Spectator reported: "In light of the strikers' demands, Columbia has committed to several Academic initiatives. These include, subject to faculty approval, the shift of Major Cultures to a seminar-style class, and "unprecedented" student input in the faculty hiring process for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Additionally, a review of the Office of Multicultural Affairs will include the consideration of creating a Multi-Cultural Affairs office in the Arts and Sciences."

What was missing, however, was any concession around the student's demands that the university recognize the community's issues with the Columbia expansion plan. As one CB9 board member told the paper: “This is the end of phase one of student activism to demand changes necessary to make them not only 21st century professionals but 21st century citizens,” Community Board Nine member Dr. Vicky Gholson said. “I was very disappointed that Columbia could not collectively come together and give the students demonstrative and tangible signs complying with demands in relation to the Columbia expansion.”

What it does indicate, as the editorial in Saturday's NY Post highlighted, is that the university will be held to a higher monetary threshold when it comes to the community benefits side of the expansion process: "Bollinger opted to give in on several of the kiddies' demands - including an appreciable expansion of Columbia's ethnic-studies endeavors and a beefed-up freshman brainwashing (that is, orientation) program for next fall. All silly stuff, but essentially harmless - and, again, Columbia can afford to indulge its children. Note, however, the one significant student demand Bollinger declined to honor: a promise to halt the university's planned $7 billion expansion into Harlem. That will go forward. Meanwhile, his willingness to drop such swag on a few dyspeptic kids certainly won't go unnoticed. Clearly, Columbia has cash to spare - so Bollinger shouldn't be surprised when some of the university's neighbors start getting antsy about their share."

Indeed! What's clear is that Columbia has adopted a rope-a-dope strategy with the CBA-and its community response stands in sharp contrast with other Ivy League university expansion efforts. This was underscored at a forum held last week. The discussion-appropriately titled in the NY Times, "When the Gown Devours the Town,"-brought out some interesting observations; and the comments from former UPenn president Judith Rodin were particularly illuminating.

Rodin underscored our point about the fact that the university has a great potential to help its surrounding neighborhoods, but often eschews this more enlightened role in pursuing its own self-interest: "Dr. Rodin argued that universities play a critical role in cities as engines of economic development and as major employers. Sadly, she added, “in the name of redevelopment,” universities have often contributed to “the destruction of the neighborhoods around them.”

Rodin went on to point out, and in the process unintentionally perhaps, her comments served to embarrass CU president Lee Bollinger: "Universities have “a lot of great potential” to be partners with cities, but too often are more like “the 4,000-pound gorillas, exercising their interests in a way that isn't always neighborhood-friendly.” Finally, Dr. Rodin suggested that universities should engage with their communities as part of their responsibility to train responsible citizens."

Ouch! Bollinger's response, however, bordered on the surreal: "There are many issues that we face. One of them is the so-called problem of gentrification. And the point that I will want to make in the discussion is that of all the institutions that can help deal with the problem of gentrification — however one wants to define that — universities are really critically important as a solution to that, and not really as a contributing cause."

Well, perhaps, universities per se aren't the cause of gentrification, but Columbia certainly is-at least if we look at the universities own EIS which predicts that three to five thousand current residents will be either directly or indirectly displaced. So we can say that Bollinger is being a bit disingenuous in his remarks.

He does go on to remark: “As long as we can do this kind of growth in the right ways, with the right interests of the neighborhood taken into account, it should be a great thing for everyone.” That is, as long as CU can walk the walk as well as Bollinger can talk the talk."