General Studies students expressed outrage about the University’s decision to reschedule GS Class Day at an emotional town hall meeting Tuesday night.
GS Dean Peter Awn announced on Monday that Class Day will take place May 13, a day earlier than originally scheduled, and will overlap with the Baccalaureate Service, where several GS students are slated to speak. Administrators rescheduled Class Day from the morning of the 14th because President Barack Obama, CC ’83, is speaking at Barnard’s commencement later that day, and Class Day guests would have had to arrive at 5:30 a.m. to pass through a security checkpoint.
On Tuesday, Awn told students in an email that he, University President Lee Bollinger, and Barnard President Debora Spar had created a “modest fund” to compensate graduating seniors for additional travel expenses their families and other guests incur because of the rescheduling.
But at the town hall meeting Tuesday night—which was sponsored by the General Studies Student Council—many students were still upset. Three administrators were in attendance—Dean of Students Scott Halvorson, Dean of Enrollment Management Curtis Rodgers, and Leslie Limardo, an associate dean for academic and administrative support services. Halvorson, the only administrator to speak during the meeting, said he was “very moved” by students’ responses.
“I just want to say that for the record that I, at least, do apologize to you and your families for what has happened,” Halvorson said. “With that said, we absolutely do care, and it’s been a difficult day for us … It means a great deal to us, and I’m very sorry that this has happened.”
Some seniors at the town hall said that they or their families would have to miss Class Day—which serves as GS graduation—and others discussed the financial burden of their families have to make new travel arrangements.
Santana Inniss, GS ’12, cried as she discussed her family’s situation. She said that in addition to the financial burden to her family, her father has cancer, and her mother is disabled.
“I really do resent this climate on campus—‘Oh, you guys have to stop being angry,’” Inniss said, referring to backlash to GS students’ reaction. “Honestly, if this was CC’s [Columbia College] graduation being displaced, I don’t think that this would be happening.”
As of Tuesday at 5 p.m., 135 of the roughly 350 graduating seniors had responded to a GSSC survey. Fourteen graduating seniors said they would have to miss Class Day, and slightly less than half of those surveyed said they agreed with Awn’s decision to avoid the 5:30 a.m. arrival time.
Thirty-eight percent said that only some of their family and friends would now be able to attend Class Day, and 24 percent said none of their friends and family would now be able to attend. The average financial impact of the rescheduling for GS students’ families was $500.
At the town hall, students discussed ways to alleviate those financial burdens.
Early Wednesday morning, student leaders from CC, SEAS, and GS—including several student council members—released a statement expressing disappointment over the rescheduling and the manner in which it was announced. They called for the University to hold a graduation event for GS during the originally scheduled time frame, paid for by the Columbia and Barnard administrations.
“President Bollinger’s e-mail did not acknowledge the enormous emotional and financial burdens the move of GS Class Day places on the families and friends of GS seniors,” students wrote. “We request a formal apology to those students and their families that have been affected by the move.”
Arakel Minias, GSSC’s international students representative, suggested at the town hall that the University help students by offering inconvenienced families some of the money it would have spent to move Class Day to a different venue. Class Day is still being held on South Lawn, where Obama will speak the next day, though administrators had considered finding a new location instead of rescheduling.
Guy Tower, GS ’12, suggested appealing to alumni for donations, and Senior Class Vice President Kyle Riggle suggested the administration help out with housing for guests, which Halvorson said was possible.
Ayla Kalani, GS ’12, said that she has “hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to repay,” and that the financial burden should be placed on those responsible for the rescheduling. Elizabeth Littlefield, GSSC’s alumni affairs representative, agreed, saying that it would be “appropriate for Barnard to chip in for a part of this.”
GSSC passed a resolution calling for “guaranteed financial compensation for all fees incurred from altering planned travel and lodging,” citing issues such as financial and logistical burdens, the last-minute nature of the announcement, Bollinger’s “unsympathetic message,” and the University’s plans for “modest” financial reparations.
Quite a few students at the town hall questioned why it took Columbia so long to make the decision to reschedule. Obama was announced as Barnard’s commencement speaker March 3.
GSSC Comptroller Benjamin Briggs said that he realized right away that Obama’s presence would cause a “massive security situation,” and that administrators should have better understood that fact.
“I knew that, and I don’t know anything about how to do this [security],” Briggs said. “I don’t doubt for a minute that the deans and that the president are very intelligent people. They should have known that.”
“While it is comforting and inspiring that the student council has invited us here to express our concerns, I am here to hold Bollinger, Awn, and Spar accountable for this situation and to insist that they actively and diligently participate in finding a solution and a conclusion,” Jessica Durdock, GS ’12, said. “This is not blame. This is about the leaders of this University taking responsibility.”
Tower said he was concerned about the tone of the emails sent out concerning the decision.
“Every single one of them says that it’s nobody’s fault,” Tower said. “I would like to know why this happened.”
In their statement, students leaders said that they were “disappointed with the manner in which this change has been communicated to the GS student body.” Riggle expressed concerns about GSSC being “left in the dark” about the decision.
“If we’re not given that information, then how are they [students] going to get it?” he said.
Another running theme throughout the town hall was the perceived marginalization of GS students, compared to students in other schools across the University. Adam Gentle, GS ’15, said that the marginalization “must be coming from the very, very top of the University.”
“I think for all of us that are not graduating, the best thing that we can do is support those who are graduating in whatever way they ask us to,” Gentle said.
Students from the other undergraduate schools came to the town hall to show their support for GS seniors as well. Barry Weinberg, CC ’12 and former Student Governing Board chair, said that he “actually gasped out loud” when he learned of the rescheduling, calling it an “affront” to the seniors at GS.
“It’s not just GS alumni or GS students who stand behind you, but also a lot of your classmates at CC and Barnard and SEAS feel that this is deeply unfair,” said Weinberg, who signed the student leaders’ statement.
Engineering Student Council Vice President for Policy Logan Donovan, SEAS ’13, said she appreciated all of the experiences she has had with GS students, describing them as “an integral part of this university.” Donovan, who also signed the statement, called for “more work to be done with integrating the schools.”
Jose Robledo, GS ’12 and a University senator, though, said that some students who feel marginalized are not aware of the administration’s efforts to help them.
“We’re not being marginalized, but it sure as hell feels like it, and it sucks for it to feel like it so much, time and time and time again.”
Also on Tuesday, GS Equal Treatment—a new group seeking to end what its members perceive as unfair treatment of GS—announced its GS Equality Fund ahead of a scheduled summer launch. The fund, a senior fundraising campaign similar to the Columbia College Fund, seeks to finance projects that try to close the perceived gap between GS and other undergraduate schools. Trexy Ching, GS ’12, pledged the first donation to the fund, and Gentle donated later in the day.
Scott Bacon, GS ’13 and GSSC’s vice president of student events, said that he hopes that the rescheduling will lead to the four undergraduate schools “uniting in solidarity, with common causes under a common good.” The student leaders wrote in their statement that “Representatives and members from all of the undergraduate schools stand in solidarity with graduating seniors of the School of General Studies.”
“Though there are four separate undergraduate schools, we stand as one undergraduate student body,” they wrote.