BOLLINGER'S FIRST RESPONSE
March 1, 2004
Audrey Sue-June Chan
Dear Student Leaders,
I feel the need to begin by restating both our anger over the deeply offensive comments you, and the entire Columbia community, have had to endure in the recent past and our unwavering institutional commitment to ensure that diversity at Columbia is a positive source of personal and collective growth. It is disturbing and ironic that in this year of celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education we should still be engaged in the struggle for equal respect for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.
At the same time, I want you to know that we respect and admire the dignified and thoughtful way in which you have brought your concerns and proposals to us for discussion and action. I also hope and expect that these discussions will be ongoing in the months and years ahead, at every level of the University.
None of us, it should be emphasized, wishes to censor public debate. Issues such as the criteria for University admission whether involving geography, legacy, socioeconomic standing, athletic ability, or race and ethnicity-are clearly matters on which reasonable people may disagree. We know that in the course of public debate passions and misjudgment may lead people to say bad things, and, yet, in order to maintain an atmosphere of free and spirited inquiry and discussion, we must choose to forego our natural instinct to punish those who are intemperate and even offensive. This is never easy, but it is part of our larger commitments to academic freedom and freedom of speech.
That said, nothing in these basic principles prevents us from expressing our own disagreements and disapproval of verbal misbehavior, and we should do so when the occasion demands. To be sure, an atmosphere of free exchange requires an attitude – as well as an official policy – of tolerance. And, while the University, as such, must be cautious about intervening in public debates and condemning points of view, there are clearly times and circumstances for speaking out when some participants in discussion have crossed the boundaries of good will and fairness. Furthermore, there are certainly some limits on speech acts that can be implemented consistent with our basic commitment to free speech. We should make sure that Columbia is ready and able to react to such instances of personal abuse.
I realize that responding appropriately to incidents such as those we have recently experienced is only part of what Columbia needs to do so that all students feel comfortable, safe, and fully included in the life of the University. I believe that we also need to do more in two other important areas that our students have called upon us to examine. One is what I would call the infrastructure of diversity, which seems to me less well-developed at Columbia than it should be. The other is the composition of the faculty and the structure of our curriculum.
To create institutional support for students of color at Columbia, I propose that we create a new Multicultural Affairs Office for undergraduates in the College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. This office would, among other things, offer support and advising for groups and organizations; initiate and support cultural programming; act as an advocate for the needs of minority populations; facilitate peer mentoring programs among students of color; and provide diversity training to constituencies within the College and SEAS to ensure that the institution deals sensitively and fairly with all its students. Such an Office should not be isolated within the University, but rather should be closely associated with the Division of Student Affairs in Columbia College and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science so as to have maximum influence on and receive maximum support from the Deans and administrators who most directly work with these undergraduates. This proposal has the firm support of the Deans of the College and SEAS.
I will also ask that the special-interest housing for cultural groups rollover automatically for the 2004-05 academic year and that we begin promptly a serious conversation about the nature of such housing and its future. We will also begin an examination of the Intercultural Resource Center and the Intercultural House to determine whether we should consider changes in their structure and location. Provost Alan Brinkley and I will also consider how the central administration can best participate in these and other efforts.
The things we must do to increase the diversity of our faculty and the breadth of our curricular offerings are not achievable quickly, but there are steps that we must begin to take. A committee of faculty from across the University has been examining these problems already for many months, and I will meet with them soon to chart a strategy for achieving several important goals. The first is to increase the racial and gender diversity of our faculty, something Columbia has been doing for many years but which it must continue to do, with even greater energy. The second is to increase the representation of issues of multiculturalism in our curriculum and to strengthen the programs that are dedicated to exploring those issues – including the Institute for Research in African American Studies, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. We will, moreover, continue to examine all areas of our undergraduate curriculum and consider ways to ensure that it serves our multi-racial and multi-cultural student body more effectively.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to have a series of more specific proposals on these and other matters as we continue – with the help of our students and faculty – to discuss the important issues that the events of recent weeks have demanded we confront. In the meantime, I want to express again my deep appreciation again to the students who have helped bring these issues to the forefront of our attention. Columbia will be better for your efforts.
Lee C. Bollinger