Organizing for Change at Columbia University

"A single spark can start a prairie fire."
        - Mao Tse-Tung

Welcome to Columbia University. We hope you enjoy your stay. If there's anything you don't like, don't worry, it'll be over in four years anyway... No. That's not the right attitude. You are a student at Columbia University now. This place is your home, your work, your recreation, your social life: in a word, your community. If there's anything you don't like, GET OFF YOUR ASS AND CHANGE IT!

As a Columbia student, you have a unique opportunity to take control of your educational experience, to make a real difference in how you - and the rest of us - live for the next four years. Don't just take things as you find them; recognize that you have the agency to make lasting change. This is not because our progressive, flexible administration is so forward-thinking and open to student input (ha!), but because our conservative, inflexible administration is so open to student pressure. In other words, things will happen around here if, and only if, you make them happen. Here's a step-by-step model, one of many, of organizing for change at Columbia University.

  1. Form an organizing committee. That is to say, get a bunch of your friends and fellow students who feel the same way you do about the problem, into the same room at the same time. This step seems obvious, yet it is so important that it bears special emphasis. I promise you this: if you try to make change alone, as an individual, you will fail. End of sentence.

  2. Identify the problem. This can be more difficult than it seems. What are the specific institutions, directives, policies, or practices that cause or perpetuate the problem you wish to address? What office is responsible for all this? To whom do they answer? The maze of bureaucracy known as Low Library can be tricky to untangle; enlist the help of someone who knows their way around, like a battle-hardened senior, a student University Senator, a friendly professor, or even a sympathetic secretary. Remember, the hand that answers the phones is the hand that rules the world.

  3. Begin to envision a solution. What do other schools do that might be better? What have other students at other schools done when faced with a similar situation? Try to get as much information as possible about viable alternatives to the status quo. Here, national organizations along the lines of United Students Against Sweatshops, the ACLU, or the Center for Campus Organizing might be of help. If no alternative models exist, as may often be the case, brainstorm some, and let your imagination be the limit. Don't fall for the lie that 'it's not possible here, because it's never been done,' or 'we've always done it this way, and we'll always do it this way'; no good idea is too radical, and the university has more capacity for change then you might imagine. What you need to produce is a well-thought-out proposal for action on the part of the administration, one that is specific and grounded in material practices, and yet not too detailed that it can be killed on the basis of details.

  4. Present the argument. Your Logic and Rhetoric professor - er, make that, 'instructor' - would have you believe that a well-reasoned argument with facts and evidence to support it can never fail. This would be true, if universities were reasonable institutions. But what's reasonable about tenure? the Freshman Meal Plan? last year's sky-high tuition hike? However, it's always worth a try. Pay George Rupp a visit during his office hours, and bring him your proposal. Try to write down his response, it's usually worth a laugh. Maybe bring along a Spectator reporter. At the same time, publish your proposal in the Spec, perhaps as a guest column on the Op-Ed page (call ahead to make sure they'll print it). To put it simply: ask politely and reasonably for what you want, because you just might get it.

  5. Organize the university community. You just might get what you want by asking, but you probably won't. What is the best way to get the entire campus fired up around this particular issue? Form a student organization to get your hands on some of those precious Activity Fees. Hold an open forum to discuss the problem, and get community input on the proposal. As your organization starts to grow, hold floor meetings and study breaks. Fill the Spectator with letters to the editor, columns, and even news articles. Get yourself a copy account, and flyer the hell out of campus on a weekly basis.

    Consider a petition drive. Historically, student groups at Columbia have thought of the petition drive as a necessary step in making change. This may not be true: a successful petition drive takes an unfathomable amount of time and resources that can sometimes be better spent elsewhere. Petition drives are only useful if the petition is being used as a tool for organizing. That is to say, if the goal of the petition is to educate people about the problem and agitate them into working towards a solution, go for it. If the only goal of the petition drive is to present thousands of signatures to George Rupp the next time you visit him during his office hours, don't waste your time; there are other ways of getting names and phone numbers and email addresses of your supporters. The university responds only to pressure, and a petition in and of itself is not pressure. Remember, you've already asked for what you wanted, and were denied. Now it's time to demand it.

    Some things to remember as you begin your organizing campaign: Columbia students' encompasses far more than just undergraduates. A movement that bridges undergraduate with graduate with professional students will be much stronger than one consisting only of Columbia College, SEAS and Barnard. Think of ways to reach out to students who do not live in the dorms. Strong support in General Studies and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences can make or break a campaign. Organize among the less obvious schools, as well: some students in Social Work, Teachers' College, and Union Theological Seminary are among the most radical on campus. Law students can be unbelievably useful. Try to get faculty involved, too: they will not want to be part of a student organization, but can form a sympathetic faculty caucus. And definitely organize among the sector of the community that is both the most radical and, in the end, the most powerful: not the Board of Trustees, but the unionized workforce. Clerical workers, cleaners, custodians, all have been screwed by Columbia in ways you can't even begin to imagine. They articulate a trenchant critique of the university, and are always willing to support student movements that address their concerns and treat them with dignity and respect.

  6. Escalate. Once you've organized, it's time to turn up the flame and let them boil. Plan a number of actions, don't just rely on one strategy alone. Make sure your actions are specifically targeted: know what you want done, and more importantly, know who has the power to do it. Focus your pressure on that person or office. Don't be afraid to publicly embarrass the university, in front of tour groups, The New York Times, visiting conferences or meetings, the Board of Trustees: to maintain its cultural capital of prestige the university must look sagacious and wise; it fears nothing more than being made to look foolish. At the same time, keep open lines of communication: remember, your goal is to get your demands met, and you should always be looking for a negotiated settlement. Don't accept compromises that concede to some of your demands while leaving the root causes of the problem unchanged; at the same time, allow them the room to make a counter-proposal that you would find acceptable.

    Make sure you have the resources to pull off an effective action. If you only have ten people willing to come out, don't call a rally; instead, think of something less traditional that ten people can easily pull off, like a banner drop or a roving guerilla theater piece. But if you do have a broad base of support, by all means, don't be afraid to show it. Call a march or a rally. It isn't at all embarrassing to have a rally with 30 people, so long as 50 show up to the next one. Enlist help from progressive student organizations at NYU, City College and Hunter College: take advantage of the fact that as far as the administration is concerned, you are essentially faceless. Recognize that "a broad base of support" in no way means that everyone actively supports you, or even that most people do. It just means that you have a strong core of committed activists, and that a good number of people generally favor you. Never underestimate your strength: whatever you're planning to do, it doesn't take that many people to do it. A consistent policy of smoke and mirrors has never failed. Armed with enough posters and masking tape, fifteen people can look like five thousand.

    Likewise, if there is student opposition (College Republicans, for example), never overestimate their strength: there's probably only two or three of them, and when push comes to shove, they really don't care that much about the issue to put their precious Wall Street careers on the line over it. They're not activists, they're toadies for the administration. Remember: above all, if you keep organizing as you move into this phase of escalation, then your organization will grow, making your actions more and more effective.

  7. Bring the issue to a head. You've presented the administration with a reasonable proposal supported by research and evidence, and you've given them long enough to think about it. Also, you've demonstrated (no pun intended) that your proposal has strong community support, which is growing ever stronger. Now, make it clear to them that if they don't do what you want, you're going to rain down fire and brimstone upon Morningside Heights. Again, whatever you're envisioning doesn't take as many people as you think it does. It doesn't take a hundred people to occupy Low Library; armed only with determination and a cell phone, six people can take over an office, as long as there's sixty people outside on the front steps rallying in support of them. But you don't have to take over an office just because that's what they did at Johns Hopkins; in fact, there are often better ways to bring the issue to a head. What you need to do is show the university that unless your demands are met, and fast, business as usual will not go on. Ultimately, you are threatening the administration with the one thing that they cannot handle: total disruption.

    Here, the threat of radical action is often more potent than the action itself: sometimes, you may want your action to take the administration completely by surprise, but other times you may want to publicize your action weeks in advance to give them a sort of deadline. Consider holding a public Civil Disobedience Training for your supporters, and invite the Spec. Practice barricading doors, chaining yourselves to furniture, going limp - tactics you may or may not use - to keep them pissing in their pants. But remember, if you issue the university an ultimatum, you'd damn well better be prepared to act on that threat if the deadline passes without progress. They can and will call your bluff. Once you bring the issue to a head in this way, the administration can no longer stonewall you; they will negotiate in good faith, and you can work out ways to institutionalize your proposal as university policy. Then, you can throw a victory party; but don't hang up the flag and go home, there's still a lot of work to be done in ensuring that the university makes good on whatever it promised you. Build off of your victories, and safeguard what you have already won, because as soon as you aren't looking, they'll take away everything you fought so long and hard for.

The above represents but one of many models for realizing change at Columbia. Other models include taking it through the proper channels (the Committee on Filibustering and Delaying, but unfortunately they're not meeting until December, and their decisions are merely advisory to the Vice-President for Screwing Over Students); complaining loudly and hoping that someone hears you (most people seem to favor this method, even though it has never worked); or setting yourself on fire on South Lawn (unless Columbia starts napalming villages, this method might be overkill). But any successful model for institutional change boils down to one thing: organizing. If you organize the community, you cannot fail to win. If you fail to organize the community, you cannot win. Don't get so carried away by planning actions that you forget to build a sustainable progressive movement. Do have fun with it, and remember that you are part of a great legacy of Columbia student organizing that begins in 1754, escalates through the 1960's, and culminates in you. Ain't no power like the power of the people, 'cause the power of the people don't stop!

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