Bollinger Speaks Out Against 'Offensive Speech'

Bollinger's Statement First of its Kind Since 'Million Mogadishus' Controversy Last Spring
By Morgan Sellers
Spectator Staff Writer
February 24, 2004

After weeks of administrative communication with student groups, University President Lee Bollinger is prepared to issue a statement to students this morning over a series of events that he called unusually offensive.

Last Friday, six students met with Bollinger to discuss three events they saw as racist and to offer suggestions. "We wanted to understand the administration's viewpoint on these issues and find out what steps could be taken to create substantial change on campus," the students said in a statement to Spectator.

"There has been a lack of visible response from the administration," said the group, which consisted of Eric Andrew, CC '04, Audrey Chan, CC '04, Nell Geiser, CC '06, Reggie Gossett, CC '06, Robert Harmon, CC '04, and Cathleen Miles, CC '04, all representatives of various campus groups. The students declined to speak individually, electing instead to make statements as a group.

The last few months have seen an increasing level of controversy over events such as the Columbia University Marching Band's Orgo Night last semester, the Columbia College Conservative Club's bake sale, and the "Blacky Fun Whitey" cartoon published in the latest issue of The Fed.

Student leaders from both the CCCC and The Fed have issued formal apologies for their actions.

"We'll be forced to have a better script next year," CUMB director Dan Binder, CC '05, told Spectator last month. "We learn from our experiences. [It's] time we wake up and realize that these are issues within the band also."

Yesterday, members of The Fed's executive board pasted fliers around campus with an apology for what editor-in-chief Kate Sullivan called "a massive mistake."

In a statement released last night by Bollinger and scheduled to be e-mailed to the student body this morning, he stressed the importance of reaffirming "this University's commitment to a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect, to the value of diversity within our community, and to the importance of affirmative action in the pursuit of both these goals." The statement is the first from Bollinger about issues of offensive speech since Associate Professor of Anthropology Nicholas DeGenova called for "a million Mogadishus" at an anti-war teach-in last spring.

Bollinger, who is currently in California, said in a phone interview last night that he felt compelled to respond after The Fed cartoon. "I am always very hesitant to comment on issues of offensive speech," he said, "but this has reached a level that really concerns me and I wanted to say something about it."

Immediately after the bake sale on Feb. 5, various students began to discuss how they should respond. That night, the Black Students Organization held a meeting, and within a few days had delivered a letter to Bollinger's office calling for a public response to the bake sale.

In the two weeks since then, groups ranging from the Columbia College Democrats to the Student Organization of Latinos to the Intercultural Resource Center have held events promoting discussion and dialogue, and the issues highlighted by the bake sale have been discussed internally by groups including the Columbia College Student Council and the United Students of Color Council.

"These are not isolated incidents," said Zac Frank, CC '05 and the president of the College Democrats. "Students of color on this campus feel like there is a larger issue, and they're right. This is not a matter of one event or one cartoon. There is something here that we need to examine ... a broader context that we need to address."

The meeting with Bollinger last week was preceded by another meeting that the same students held with other administrators, including Deans Chris Colombo, Austin Quigley, Corlisse Thomas, and Director of Student Development Activities Kevin Shollenberger. Chaplain Jewelnel Davis also held a Common Meal in her apartment last week to which she invited students from the BSO, USCC, CCCC, Student Governing Board, and Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge.

At the meeting last Friday, the students brought various ideas to the administration that they had gathered from meetings of various student groups. These included the establishment of a director or office of multicultural affairs, the establishment of a diversity council, and the development of a policy for reporting and handling individual incidents of harassment or hate-speech.

While the administration did not make any concrete commitments during meeting, the students reported that Bollinger had recognized the concerns and had agreed that there needed to be a more systematic process for addressing these issues. They quoted him as saying, "I acknowledge that I have abandoned your community."

Bollinger said that he was thinking of establishing a task force on gender, ethnicity, and race, and said that he had "been considering a number of ideas that [the students] have raised about a physical space for persons of color on the campus. I think that is something we should think about very seriously," he said.

Colombo pointed out that the administration had considered each event--the CUMB flyers, the bake sale, and The Fed cartoon--as it occurred.

"We knew of these events," Colombo said. "What we were not aware of was the intensity of the concern."

He also cited the wide range of organizations, including the IRC, the Chaplain's office, and the office of residential life, that already run programs dealing with issues of race, gender, and discrimination.

"There are programs out there that have been very successful," he said.

While Bollinger made it clear that the administration planned to act, Colombo cautioned that dealing with the issues would take time.

"This is going to take a long time for us to address. You need to give us some time to think about this and move forward," he said.

The students stressed that they were cautiously optimistic. "More important than students is how the administration reacts and responds to our requests," said Harmon. "Organizations change from year to year. The administration stepping up means a lot more than CCCC making an apology."

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