Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #12
H
Low Library Speaks;
but chooses not to be honest with alumni


               On April 27, exactly one week before the spring Orgo Night show, which will be performed outside Butler Library because the Marching Band remains banned from performing the show in its traditional location inside the College Reading Room, Hamiltonius at last received a response from the Columbia administration.  After ten essays and one open letter to President Bollinger, the powers that be decided that some acknowledgement and response was necessary.  The email from Columbia is reprinted below, followed by our reply:

April 27, 2017.  1:13 p.m.

Dear Alumni,

We have read all of the Hamiltonius emails and appreciate that the concerns you expressed originate from a depth of caring about the Columbia community.

The University has been working steadily to build a stronger sense of community for all Columbians.  Moving the Orgo Night event out of the library is compatible with making the campus and its traditions serve all its students.  For some students, Orgo Night is an appreciated stress-relieving break from their studies.  For some others, it is an externally imposed disruption that is a source of stress.  We recognize that there are strongly held views about preserving the Orgo Night tradition in its entirety, and adjusting the tradition is difficult.  We also appreciate your feedback on the decision-making process we followed and are now working closely with the student members of the Band on future Orgo Nights.

In providing the Band with alternative settings where the Orgo Night tradition can continue, we hope to accommodate everyone who wishes to be part of the event and ensure that it is a choice for students about whether or not to participate.  It is with the differing needs and interests of students in mind that we have taken this step.   The Band continues to be an integral and valued part of Columbia.

Sincerely,
John H. Coatsworth, Provost
Amelia Alverson, Executive Vice President for University Development and Alumni Relations
Ann Thornton, Vice Provost and University Librarian

H

            The Columbia administration finally responded to our series of essays.  Perhaps this was prompted by continued press coverage on campus and by continued inquiries and expressions of concern by scores of alumni.  It seems clear from the list of persons copied on the email that it was intended both to tamp down concern among Trustees, faculty, and alumni groups and to get a positive message out to the university press corps – being specifically sent to Bwog and Spectator.  But the reply fails to address the substantive issues raised in our essays.

Even more disappointing is the statement by the administration that “we are now working closely with the student members of the Band on future Orgo Nights.”  This statement is not true.  It is “fake news.”  Bwog immediately reported that the Band had heard nothing from the administration about the scheduled May 4th Orgo Night show or about the long-term future of the tradition.  The Band released its own statement on the subject on May 2, confirming the absence of any engagement by university administrators.  We are saddened, but not shocked, by this prevarication.

            Why would President Bollinger and Dean Valentini – through this surrogated email – make such an obviously false statement?   Do they think that we are not in communication with the current Band leaders?  Do they think they can publish their letter in the next issue of Columbia College Today to rebut the letter in the current issue from leaders of the Band Alumni Association and pull the wool over the eyes of alumni around the world?  Do they really think that by falsely stating that they are engaged in a constructive process, they can avoid actually doing so?  The administration seems to think that students and alumni alike are to be treated like toddlers, who can be placated with soothing words spoken in a kind voice regardless of actual facts.  President Bollinger and Dean Valentini have apparently decided that suppressing Orgo Night is worth alienating hundreds of Columbia alumni and future alumni (as the Dean likes to call them) across the generations.

            The response from Low Library does acknowledge, although only inferentially, that the true motivation behind the administration’s action is to suppress content in the Orgo Night show about which “some” students have complained, and which causes these students “stress.”  As we have noted in an earlier essay, there is no evidence that any students have ever complained that they feel “stress” because of the need to find an alternate study space for that particular 45 minutes once per semester.  There is no evidence that any student has ever been surprised by the appearance of the Band in the College Reading Room on Orgo Night.  All evidence is to the contrary, and the administration’s reply email does not even assert the existence of any such actual complaints, which confirms our prior conclusion.

            There is, in the administration’s response, a grudging acknowledgement that the original decision’s lack of any public discussion or process was a mistake, but that acknowledgement is followed immediately by the false claim that the administration is now trying to “work with” the Band.

            Where does this now leave us?  No discussions have been initiated with alumni (either the Band Alumni Association or our Hamiltonius group) or with the Band’s student leaders.  The spring Orgo Night show will once again take place outside Butler.  Is this the “new tradition” that the administration wants?  It may work in May, but in December weather the outdoor performance is not a good, or reasonable, long-term solution.

            Perhaps the administration thinks that its disingenuous email will placate the many concerned alumni and make us (finally) go away quietly.  They are, again, entirely mistaken.

-        Hamiltonius
-  H


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

H
How to interpret silence from Low Library?

Dear President Bollinger:

            Since last December, concerned alumni have sent letters and emails to you, to Dean Valentini, and to University Librarian Ann Thornton, expressing confusion and outrage over the decision to stifle the Marching Band’s long-running Orgo Night show.  In response, they have received form letters essentially stating that the University administration knows best and that no action will be taken in response to alumni concerns.  Some of those form letters have repeated the specious justifications originally trotted out to explain the decision, as if repeating false information makes it true.

            Some alumni have attempted to raise the Orgo Night issue in personal conversations with university administrators, but have been politely rebuffed.

            This group of concerned and interested alumni has attempted to engage in a discussion of the issues through a series of essays, which you have received via email and in hard copy, along with Trustees, other high-ranking officials at Columbia, leaders of the Alumni Association, faculty, and Deans.  We have received no response.

            How should we interpret this silence?  Should we assume that the University administration simply has no interest in engaging in any meaningful discussion?  Should we assume that the same University administration that solicits and happily receives our donations has no use for us when we try to participate in how our Alma Mater operates?  Is this how Columbia cultivates interested, engaged, and active alumni?

            On the facts and substance of the underlying issue, there is simply no dispute.  In earlier essays, we have shown that Orgo Night is, and should remain, a cherished and unique tradition at Columbia.  We have also shown that the reasons given for banning the Marching Band from Butler Library fail to withstand scrutiny.  The interests of the many students who welcome the Band’s performances far outweigh the interests of the objectors, especially since alternate quiet study space is so readily available.  You have not articulated any rational basis for the university to suppress the Orgo Night show.  You (and that includes Dean Valentini and Ms. Thornton) have made no attempt to refute these facts or to engage in discussion with us or with the current Band leaders.

It is difficult for any observer not to conclude that the motivation for attempting to silence the Band is to avoid future controversy and appease the small number of individuals who periodically object to some portion of the content of the Orgo Night program.

President Bollinger, you are known as a fierce advocate for free speech.  You often say and do the right thing when that bedrock right is challenged on campus.  Yet, in this case it appears that you have opted for censorship over student speech, and have adopted a heavy-handed approach totally lacking in due process over an open public debate.  You and Dean Valentini have determined that placating anyone who objects for any reason to the content of the Marching Band’s program is more important than the ongoing value of the tradition and the interests of current students, parents, and alumni who support the continuation of Orgo Night.

We are truly puzzled by your seemingly inconsistent stance here, and we find the University’s disingenuous explanations disturbing.  If this is what our Alma Mater has come to, we are truly saddened.

            Where do we go from here?  We are alumni who love Columbia, who actively participate in alumni events and reunions, who return to Columbia for homecoming and Days on Campus, who interview high school students for the Admissions Office, and who attend athletic events to cheer on our Lions.  We are alumni who have in the past donated our time and our money, who purchase Columbia-branded merchandise from the school store, and who proudly announce our Columbia affiliation.  We are alumni who have proudly sent our children to Columbia and continued generational legacies, or who hope to do so in the future.  And yet it seems none of that has value in your eyes.

            What do we want?  We want you and Dean Valentini to stop ignoring us and putting us off with platitudes and form letters.  We want you to address the real issues we have raised and engage in meaningful discussion.  We have suggested two avenues of solution, but we’re happy to consider all options.

            It’s time to respond, President Bollinger.  If you want our support, our time, and our money, you must accept the responsibility of engaging with us when your decisions that affect our university give us cause to wonder whether the current administration still deserves our support.

Below are the names of just some of the many alumni who are waiting to hear from you. Some of us are onetime Band members; many are not.  The Columbia University Band Alumni Association (columbia.band.alumni@gmail.com) would be a good place for you to start an honest discussion.  Or reply to this email.  But continued silence is the wrong way to regain the trust that has been lost.  This is a self-inflicted wound that must be healed.
-  H
We are Hamiltonius:


Ziyad Abdelfattah CC ‘15
Barry Ableman  CC ‘85
Mike Abramowitz  SEAS ‘71
Hilary Baboukis  CC ‘11
Betsey (Fike) Benagh  CC ‘94, SEAS ‘94
J. Tyler Benedict CC ‘13
Joel Brockner  CC ‘14
Paul Bua  CC ‘93
Dan Carlinsky  CC ’65, JRN ‘66
Nicole Cata CC ‘11
Kevin Chapman  CC ‘83, P ‘18
Sharon L. Gerstman Chapman B ’83, P ‘18
Edgar Cheng  CC ‘94
Kathleen Christatos  B ‘07
Steve Coleman  CC ‘83
Michael B Cooper  CC ‘88
Tamsin Davies SEAS  ‘07, MS ‘13
Colin Felsman  CC ‘09
Ashley Kelly Fisher  B ‘04
Barbara Geary CC '87
Dr. David Gerstman  CC ‘56
Samantha Gilbert B ‘15
Barry M. Goldberg  SEAS ‘04
Adam Grais  CC ‘90
Steve Greenfield  CC ‘83
Ziyad Gower  SEAS ‘17
Melissa Harris  B ‘95
Joseph M. Harary  CC ’83, L ‘86
Jaclyn Henderson  B ‘12
Adam Heyman SEAS ‘91, MS ‘92
Howard Hoffman  CC ‘81
Corrington Hwong SEAS ’92, CBS ‘06
Lee Vibhusha Ilan  CC ‘87
Evelyn Jagoda  CC '14
Don W. Joe  CC ‘81
Ron Keller  CC ‘80
Dennis Klainberg  CC ‘84
Olivier Knox  CC ‘92
Alexis Bickford Lambert  B ‘95
Paul Lerner CC ‘11
Jason Lingxuan Li  SEAS ‘14
Michael Marubio  CC '87
Joshua Masur  CC ‘90
Kevin McDonald SEAS ’12, CC ‘13
Sam McPherson  CC '80
Daniel Miranda  SEAS '10
Alexandra Mitchell  B ‘15
Adam Peller SEAS ‘93
Liz Pleshette  CC ‘89
Roy Pomerantz  CC ‘83
Angela Richardson  CC ‘02
Jon Ross CC ‘83
Samantha Rowan  B ‘96
Zachary Ryan  GS ‘06
Joe Schwartz  CC ‘92
Justin Shubow  CC ‘99
Christopher C Sten  CC'77, B '79
Layla Tavangar  B ‘15
Constantino Tobio  CC ‘96
Tim Todreas  CC ‘83
Karl Wagner  CC ‘16
Catherine Webster  CC ‘87
Amanda Wild SEAS ‘11
Lyle Zimskind  CC ‘90, SOA ‘03



Sunday, March 26, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #10
                On Thursday, December 15, 2016, at midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band (“the cleverest Band in the world™”) performed a show of music and satirical comedy in sub-freezing temperatures on the steps outside Butler Library on the Columbia campus.  Vice-Provost and recently hired Head Librarian Ann D. Thornton, with the support of President Lee Bollinger and Columbia College Dean James Valentini, had banned the Band from performing the show in its traditional location inside the library.  Ms. Thornton stated that the reason for the sudden change in tradition was a desire to maintain quiet study space in the college reading room inside the library, and President Bollinger publicly maintained that it was based on “complaints” from students about the Orgo Night show.  University officials claimed that the ban was not related to the content of the shows and that they were not trying to censor the Band’s speech.  This series of essays, drafted by concerned alumni, addresses the university’s claimed reasoning for its decision, the process by which it was implemented, and the reasons why the decision should be reconsidered.
            Links to earlier essays are found in the margin on the right.

H
There is a Solution to this Problem

            In earlier essays, we have shown that Orgo Night is, and should remain, a cherished and unique tradition at Columbia.  Such a tradition should not be altered without sound and compelling reasons.  We have also shown that the reasons articulated by the Columbia administration for banning the Marching Band from Butler library fail to withstand scrutiny.  There were no complaints from students who would prefer to use Butler 209 for quiet studying on the night of the Orgo Night show.  Even if there were such Quiet Study Requestors, the interests of the students who welcome the Band’s performances far outweighs the interests of the objectors, especially since alternate quiet study space is so readily available at minimal cost.  There is no rational basis for the university to suppress the Orgo Night show.  At least not one that has been articulated.

            It does not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that, since the proffered reasons are mere pretexts and obviously false, there must be a different motive at work – one that President Bollinger cannot admit.  This is, of course, the desire to censor the Band and muzzle its satirical commentary on the university along with other content that some might find to be inappropriate or even offensive.  This content-based censorship of student speech is contrary to every public statement by the university, its charter and statement of ideals, and President Bollinger’s own public statements.  And yet, that is obviously what is going on, and everyone watching the events can clearly see it.

            But, at this point, President Bollinger, Dean Valentini, and the rest of the university administration have painted themselves into a corner by making their clandestine decisions without any public discussion or process.  Certainly, they do not want to admit that their motive was censorship of the Band, but how at this point can they reverse field on the subject without embarrassment?

            We can think of two courses of action that will reach the appropriate conclusion.  First, the administrators can plausibly claim that the impetus for the decision was the new Head Librarian, Ann Thornton.  Ms. Thornton has said that she feels that the Orgo Night show is inappropriate for the library.  She says that she convinced the Deans to support her decision.  At this point, what if Ms. Thornton changed her mind?  What if, after reviewing the long and proud tradition of Orgo Night, of which she was not fully aware before – being new to Columbia – she comes to the realization that Orgo Night really does have value after all?  What if Ms. Thornton comes to better understand the benefits of having a comic relief from the grind of finals studying, and that other universities have established their own traditions for stress-reduction activities so that the Orgo Night tradition is not so far outside the bounds of what is “accepted” practice for a university library?  Considering the current atmosphere of tension on campus, perhaps allowing the Orgo Night show would be a welcome pressure-relief valve for students.  If, after study and thought, Ms. Thornton decides to change her mind about Orgo Night, then she could go back to the Deans and solicit their support for reversing the decision.  They supported her before, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t support her decision to change her mind.

            Nobody has to admit what the true reasons were for banning the Band from the library, and nobody has to go back and discuss the alleged complaints or the other reasons that were offered.  The change of course can simply be based on Ms. Thornton’s epiphany about the value of Orgo Night – to the students, to the alumni, and to the campus community -- and the relative ease of providing alternative study space, if needed, on that one night each semester.  Nobody needs to be embarrassed, and the Band can play its normal Orgo Night show in May of 2017 in Butler 209.



            A second option, albeit more cumbersome, would be for the administration to admit only one error – failing to follow a properly public process in the discussion about Orgo Night.  Dean Valentini and President Bollinger could initiate a process now to openly explore whether there really is a shortage of quiet study locations in campus libraries on Orgo Night.  This process would also investigate whether there really are a large number of students whose would prefer to use Butler 209 for quiet study and who would be significantly inconvenienced by using another location on this one night per semester.  They can also seek input from interested alumni who view Orgo Night as an essential connection they share with current and future students.  And the process would determine how many students would prefer to continue Orgo Night in the library.  The process could also fully explore the history and value of Orgo Night to the university.  The final conclusion that would be reached after a true evaluation and discussion of the issues is likely that Orgo Night should be restored to Butler 209, and any need for additional quiet study space should be addressed by keeping another available library open a few extra hours.

            Here again, there would be no embarrassment to university officials, who would be admitting only that the original decision was made hastily and without sufficient study and data.  This is not an admission of a nefarious motive nor an admission of any wrongdoing, but merely an acknowledgement that additional study is needed.  All parties would be satisfied, and Orgo Night can be returned to its historical norm.  Alumni who have resigned in protest from volunteer positions could return to the service of their alma mater.  Alumni who have pledged to withhold donations would be able to write checks in good conscience again.  Order would be restored, without any long-term damage to Columbia or to the involved administrators.

            A solution, then, is not only possible, but readily available.  All that need happen is for President Bollinger, Dean Valentini, and Ms. Thornton to realize that their original action was a mistake, and that it’s time to fix it while they still can.

-         Hamiltonius

-  H

Saturday, March 18, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #9
                On Thursday, December 15, 2016, at midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band (“the cleverest Band in the world™”) performed a show of music and satirical comedy in sub-freezing temperatures on the steps outside Butler Library on the Columbia campus because Vice-Provost and recently hired Head Librarian Ann D. Thornton, with the support of President Lee Bollinger and Columbia College Dean James Valentini, banned the Band from performing the show in its traditional location inside the library.  Ms. Thornton stated that the reason for the sudden change in tradition was a desire to maintain quiet study space inside the library, and President Bollinger publicly maintained that it was based on “complaints” from students about the Orgo Night show.  University officials claimed that the ban was not related to the content of the shows and that they were not trying to censor the Band’s speech.  This series of essays, drafted by concerned alumni, addresses the university’s claimed reasoning for its decision, the process by which it was implemented, and the reasons why the decision should be reconsidered.
    Links to earlier essays are found along the right margin of the blog.  à
H

Why the Band matters to Columbia, why Orgo Night matters to the Band, and why preserving Orgo Night should matter to Columbia

            In the classic movie, Animal House, Dean Vernon Wormer, head of Faber College (motto: “knowledge is good”), has a conversation with the mayor of the fictional town in which the college resides.  The mayor tells Dean Wormer that he needs to “do something about that zoo fraternity of yours,” referring to Delta Tau Chi, which notoriously caused good-natured mahem.  Dean Wormer convenes a hastily arranged disciplinary hearing in order to expel the undesireable students and to revoke their frat charter.  At least Delta House got a public hearing, even if the deck was stacked against them.

At some point in the fall of 2016, Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Dean James Valentini had a conversation about Orgo Night.  Others might have been involved, but clearly Prezbo and Deantini (as they like to be affectionately known around campus) had to be the decisionmakers.  On the table for discussion was whether to “do something about Orgo Night.”  In this case, the “zoo fraternity” was the Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB) and, for reasons known only to the closed circle of administrators involved, December of 2016 was the moment when “something” needed to be done to quash the Band’s long-running Orgo Night show in Butler Library.

Previous essays have documented that the reasons publicly stated for this decision were either false or grossly overstated and that easy and obvious alternatives that would have entirely solved the alleged problems were ignored.  We have also documented the complete lack of notice and process surrounding the decision, as if Vallentini and Bollinger wanted very much to act swiftly and without any opportunity for consideration or discussion among the student body or interested alumni.  And we have documented that the obvious implication of these actions is that Bollinger and Valentini were really trying to muzzle the Band and suppress the content of the Orgo Night show.

But why did they feel this way?  Why didn’t the tradition and history of the Band have more value to them?  Why were the other considerations (whatever they really were) so much more important than the value of the Orgo Night show?  Until Bollinger and Valentini agree to discuss the issue publicly, we may never really know, but it is certain that the Band is important to Columbia, and Orgo Night is important to the Band, to a great many current students, and to an even larger segment of alumni.  And therefore, Orgo Night should be important to Columbia.
The Marching Band’s Unique Columbia Identity

Of all the many and varied student organizations on campus, the Marching Band is certainly one of the most visible—and colorful.  It entertains fans at football games, both at home and on the roard.  At Baker Field, the Band performs before games in the picnic area as well as on the field in pre-game and halftime shows.  The Band plays at all men’s and women’s home basketball games and on certain occasions makes an appearance for home contests in other sports.  More often than not, the Band section is leading the cheers and certainly the Band secton is always the most enthusiastic segment of the crowd at any Columbia sporting event.  The Band also makes appearances at reunions, alumni weekend/Dean’s Day, Homecoming festivities, orientation, April Fool’s Day, Tax Day, and many other events – at the administration’s sepcific invitation or otherwise.  The Band is a rallying point for student and alumni morale even when the major sports teams struggle to win games, as they have sometimes done on an epic level.  The Marching Band is usually at the center of any event where “school spirit” is being generated.

            One of the Band’s primary responsibilities is to entertain the football crowds with pregame and halftime shows.  Those shows have evolved over the years, but the one constant since around the time the Ivy League was formally established in the 1950s is that they have been satirical in nature, spoofing events or policies on campus or current events from the nation or around the world.  In approximately 1963, the CUMB first employed the “scramble band” approach on the field, partly in a mocking parody of the Harvard Marching Band, which at the time would run rather than march from formation to formation.  The CUMB pioneered the total abandonment of marching (and in some cases even formations) in favor of madcap running around and quasi-random, strikingly modernist arrangements of personnnel on the field, as in the famed “amorphous blob.”  The practice was so popular that the Band kept doing it, and around the same time adopted the catch phrase, “the cleverest band in the world™.”

While scrambling around the football field between songs, members of the Band in the 60s would sometimes shout “Schmok! Schmok!” In tribute to comedian Steve Allen.  In writing its halftime show scripts, the Band, in the spirit of the best comedians everywhere, has often tackled controversial issues through satire.  As the football team became ever more ragged over the years, the Band’s shambling on-field presentations grew to be firmly associated in the public mind with the university and seen as a devastatingly apropos symbol of the state of its most prominent athletic program.  The Band always acquitted itself well vis-à-vis other schools’ bands, even when the team on the field did not.

            Over the years, the Band’s achievements, and sometimes notoriety, got it attention in circles extending well beyond the confines of Morningside Heights.  The CUMB has received positive notices and has been featured in each of the three major New York dailies plus Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Dallas Morning News, as well as Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Associated Press, and United Press International.  The Band has made appearances on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the Late Show with David Letterman, the Howard Stern Show, MTV’s Total Request Live, and the Good Morning show from Tokyo and has had cameos in the movies Turk 182! and Game Day.  These citations and appearances helped to burnish the university’s brand and reputation as a crucible of creativity and cutting-edge humor.  Truly, the Band embodies the spirit of Columbia.



Columbia itself celebrated the Marching Band and its rich history in Columbia magazine, including the cartoon below depicting the band marching into Butler Library for an Orgo Night performance. 

The Band is one of Columbia’s jewels, and as an entirely student-run organization it represents an “organic” source of amusement and enthusiam on a campus notorioiusly lacking in school spirit.

Orgo Night, its tradition, and its meaning to the Band

            Orgo Night, began sometime around the middle of the 1970s; certainly, a December 1975 photo from the New York Times attests to its existence then.  The appearance by the Band inside the college reading room in Buter Library on the eve of the Organic Chemistry exam is a break – at midnight – from the grind of studying for finals, not just for organic chemistry students but for the entire assembled student population.  The Band’s show is advertised heavily around campus and is well known to all students.  Anyone not wishing to have their studies interrupted can easily choose a different library venue on that one night and thereby avoid the show.  But for the hundreds of students who look forward to the Orgo Night show, it is a celebration of absurdity and humor in the midst of an otherwise serious night of adademic intensity.

            The Orgo Night show includes both music and satire as the Band takes comic shots at everything from the quality of cafeteria food to the university’s stance on carbon diverstiture.  The Band pokes fun at other Ivy schools, other student groups, and political leaders.  The jokes are often raunchy, but always intellilgent.  The Band always finishes the show by making fun of itself, with the sign-off tag-line, “remember, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the Band!”  The Band then travels (this band seldom actually marches) around the campus, serenading the residence halls with renditions of “Roar, Lion, Roar!” “Who Owns New York” and other Columbia standards.

            As detailed in an earlier essay, Orgo Night has been recognized in almost every national compilation of quirky college traditions as one of the defining events at Columbia, one of the most unique college traditions anywhere, and something that sets Columbia apart from all other schools.

            For the Band members, the Orgo Night show is an opportunity to demonstrate how clever the Band can be, a chance to vent some steam at university administration, a time to connect with and share frustrations with fellow students, and a chance to show off to their peers how much fun it is to be part of the Band.  For one current member of the Columbia Alumni Association Board of Directors, Orgo Night was such a memorable part of the Columbia experience that he named his restaruant in Singapore “Orgo.”

Why Columbia should value Orgo Night

            And so, Columbia has a unique Marching Band, with its own traditions and idiosycracies, that has become part of the identity of the school.  And the Marching Band initiates every semester a unique event, attended by hundreds of students, that is one of very few campus traditions and something that helps frazzled students have a little fun and blow off some steam just before the grind of finals week.  It is such a wonderful part of the Columbia experience that as part of the university’s celebration of its 250th anniversary, the university administration posted on its official “C250” web site this memory from a young alumnus:  “One of my most memorable experiences at Columbia was Orgo Night in the undergraduate reading room in Butler Library. I attended Orgo Night in all eight semesters I was at Columbia. Each was an experience of its own.  The most memorable would have to be in the year 2000, at the end of my second semester of freshman year. The crowds started piling into the reading room very early in the evening and, by the time midnight rolled around, there were hundreds of students clogging the entrances and pushing their way into the main room. . . . [T]he show of school spirit was unmatched in the years following at all other Orgo Nights I attended. . . . Cheers to Columbia and its passionate students who continue to fight for our school's age-old traditions.” http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_perspectives/write_history/1062.html

            Columbia, which is generally lacking in events that leave alunni with warm memories of their college days, should welcome and embrace something like Orgo Night.  The students who participate (the Band) and the students who attend are all likely to be connected alumni (and those who donate their time and money to their alma mater).  To the extent that there are some students who have objected to the content of the Orgo Night show, President Bollinger and Dean Valentini have to ask themselves: are those complaining students the ones who are going to be future Alumni Association Board members?

And, yes, the location of the Orgo Night show matters.  Make no mistake that when Bollinger and Valentini decided to “do something about Orgo Night,” the intention was to kill it, not merely relocate it to a more appropriate venue.  Expelling the Band from Butler Library was in no uncertain terms a decree that Orgo Night is finished as a tradition at Columbia.

The Band held the show outside the library (in freezing cold) as a protest, and sure enough just about every student that was studying in the college reading room (Butler 209) took a study break and came outside to watch the show. 



(The photo shows a near-empty Butler 209 at 11:59 p.m. on the night of the December show.)  The act of “taking over” the reading room and performing the show in the study space during finals week is quintessentially part of the Orgo Night event.  Sure, the same show could happen anywhere on campus, at any time of the evening, but the Tradition that is so uniquely Columbia is not that the Marching Band has a performance, but that the performance is in the library.  When university administrators broke the news to Band leaders a few days before the scheduled show in December, the announcement was not that the performance was being moved, it was that the performance was being canceled.  The idea of sending the Band off to some other venue was an afterthought once there was protest, and even that was not well thought out, since the cost and inconvenience involved in opening up the auditorium in the student center for the show was disproportionate to the small inconvenience the show posed to the hypothetical students who allegedly objected to having their quiet study interrupted.

            So, why did President Bollinger and Dean Valentini feel that they needed to treat the Band like Delta House and “do something about” Orgo Night?  There is only one possible answer to that question.  The Dean and the President wanted to avoid controversy.  They wanted to avoid future complaints from students who might be offended by some joke put forward on Orgo Night, or by some off-color inuendo included in one of the Orgo Night publicity posters.  They decided, based on factors known only to them, that killing Orgo Night was a better option than dealing with it.

            But the Band didn’t put fizzies in the swimming pool during the big swim meet, or cause the toilets to explode.  The Band did not leave a dead horse in the Dean’s office.  The Band, in continuation of a long tradition, held its Orgo Night show outside the library, the content of which was nothing more raw than what any student can see any weekend night at Stand Up New York down Broadway.  Feel free to read it for yourself and judge.  But, for some reason, this university administration decided that that fraternity known as the CUMB had to be put in its place.

            The university adminsitration should value the Band more.  They should value Orgo Night more.  There is still time to rectify the situation by reinstating the Band’s permission to stage the May 2017 Orgo Night show in Butler Library, where it belongs.  President Bollinger and Dean Valentini should act to restore and maintain the colorful and memorable tradition that is Orgo Night.

-         Hamiltonius

-  H

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #8
                On Thursday, December 15, 2016, at midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band (“the cleverest Band in the world™”) performed a show of music and satirical comedy in sub-freezing temperatures on the steps outside Butler Library on the Columbia campus.  Vice-Provost and recently hired Head Librarian Ann D. Thornton, with the support of President Lee Bollinger and Columbia College Dean James Valentini, had banned the Band from performing the show in its traditional location inside the library.  Ms. Thornton stated that the reason for the sudden change in tradition was a desire to maintain quiet study space in the college reading room inside the library, and President Bollinger publicly maintained that it was based on “complaints” from students about the Orgo Night show.  University officials claimed that the ban was not related to the content of the shows and that they were not trying to censor the Band’s speech.  This series of essays, drafted by concerned alumni, addresses the university’s claimed reasoning for its decision, the process by which it was implemented, and the reasons why the decision should be reconsidered.
     Links to earlier essays are found in the right-hand margin.

H
Process is important
            In an honest intellectual environment, such as a top university like Columbia, one would expect that issues of importance would be discussed in a logical and open process before decisions are made.  For example, suppose that someone within the university had an idea to place a monument on campus commemorating Barack Obama as the first graduate of Columbia College to be President of the United States.  Certainly, few would dispute that some kind of recognition for President Obama is a legitimate and reasonable thing for the university to consider.  But, does anyone think that President Bollinger would make a public announcement on a Thursday that the monument would be installed and dedicated in a ceremony the following Tuesday, without any prior discussion or input from the university community, the Trustees, Alumni groups, students, or faculty?  Of course he would not to that, because process is important and constituent groups should have input into decisions.  Even if there were no objections to the general idea, there would be significant discussion about options for the monument’s physical location, size, content, what artist would be commissioned to create it, and even the proper timing for announcements and dedication.  Even where particular “due process” is not required by statute or by internal institutional rule or bi-law, process matters in significant ways that go beyond what is legally required.

            First, an open process and discussion allows for all relevant information to be fully considered.  When one person, or a small committee, makes a decision without any outside input or any consultation with interested constituencies, they are prone to overlook important considerations, either through neglect or ignorance.  Good decision-makers understand that they don’t know everything and that others may, through discussion, add important information that could be relevant to making the best decision.  Also, constituent groups bring different perspectives to already known facts and may offer ideas or express concerns that the small group would not have thought of.  And most importantly, constituent groups may raise issues or objections that either could change the ultimate decision or at least permit the decision-makers to fully appreciate the objections and thereby anticipate negative reaction.  Process, therefore, aids in making good decisions.

            Within this element is the opportunity for facts to be questioned and information tested.  If a preliminary decision is based on information that turns out not to be accurate, an open discussion permits all parties to vet the facts fully and make sure that all assumptions are valid.  Without open discussion, decision-makers may inadvertently base an action on inaccurate data.

            Second, process allows all interested parties to have the opportunity to give their input and feel that their views, concerns, objections, and suggestions are being considered during the deliberative process.  Of course, all constituent groups cannot expect to fully influence the decision and get their way, but there is tremendous value in ensuring that people with a stake in the outcome feel that they have had the opportunity to be heard and that their arguments and concerns have been considered, even if ultimately rejected.  Groups that have been included in the process will necessarily become more invested in the outcome and more accepting of the final decision even when it is not the decision they wanted.

            Finally, process ensures that after a decision is made, it can be fully and fairly evaluated by those who may wish to review it later.  Where the basis for a decision is hidden and not subject to open discussion, a subsequent reviewing authority, or even a successor to the same decision-making authority, will be left with no record of the reasons why the decision was made and no ability to properly evaluate whether facts or conditions have changed such that the decision should be reconsidered.

            When evaluating what process should be applied to any particular decision, the most important consideration is that any people who will be specifically affected by the decision should always be included.  It is critical to include those who will feel the consequences in the process.  The people directly affected have the strongest motivation to evaluate all the facts carefully, consider the possible negative consequences (to them), and dig deeply into the facts upon which the decision is made.  It is a universal maxim that people who stand to be directly affected by a decision are the ones who will evaluate the facts most carefully, scrutinize the assumptions most critically, and consider the possible negative consequences with the most jaundiced eye.  To exclude the directly affected group from the process is always a mistake.

            It is also always true that a group likely to be negatively affected by a decision will be particularly angry if excluded from the process.  To the extent that the decision-maker wants that group to accept the decision, despite its negative consequences, excluding the group from the process is not ever going to facilitate that acceptance.

            In the case of the university’s recent decision to alter the Orgo Night tradition by evicting the Band from Butler Library, the process was as much of the problem as the decision, and the poor process certainly contributed to the bad decision.  The Band leadership was informed of the decision only days before the planned show, and although the decision-makers met with the Band briefly, there was no disclosure of information about why the decision was made, no input in the process from the Band (or students, or anyone else), and all attempts to discuss alternatives were summarily rejected without explanation.  The decision was a fait accompli, leaving the Band literally outside in the cold for the December Orgo Night show.  This was the worst possible process – or indeed the absence of process.

The idea to end the Orgo Night tradition apparently originated with Ann Thornton, who was hired in 2015 to be the Head Librarian for Columbia.  Ms. Thornton seems to have reached a decision in her own mind within a year of being hired that the Orgo Night show should not be allowed to happen in her library.  It appears that Ms. Thornton then began a lobbying campaign, behind closed doors, in which she convinced the Deans of Columbia’s undergraduate colleges and President Bollinger to give her permission to execute her decision.  The entire decision-making process happened without any notice to the Band or to the University at large that there was a discussion happening.  This is particularly ironic since, when she was hired, one of Ms. Thornton’s objectives was to “strengthen channels for student input.” (Announcement published by President Bollinger, May 1, 2015)http://www.columbia.edu/content/ann-d-thornton-appointed-university-librarian-and-vice-provost.html.

            The failure to engage in any open process resulted in a number of problems.  First, Ms. Thornton failed to properly value the continuation of the Orgo Night tradition.  As a relative newcomer to Columbia, she may not have fully researched the issue or simply not fully understood how the tradition developed and how important it is to Columbia’s culture.  While she might have relied on the college Deans to check her on this point – and they should have – her initial decision was flawed from the beginning because she did not properly value one side of the equation.  As has been considered in greater detail in a different essay, Orgo Night is a unique tradition that gives Columbia students a shared experience that is unlike any other college.  It is one of only three “traditions” listed on the Columbia Wikipedia page, it has been featured in the University’s own web site and in Columbia magazine, and it is nationally recognized as a quintessentially Columbian tradition. 



Despite all this, Ms. Thornton failed to properly consider the value of Orgo Night when deciding that other interests were more important.  Because there was no process, Ms. Thornton did not have the opportunity to be educated about Orgo Night’s significant value to students and alumni.  Similarly, other University administrators who were involved in the decision missed out on the opportunity to be properly appraised of the high value that University constituencies place on the Orgo Night tradition.

            Second, the absence of proper process prevented other University officials from scrutinizing the premises of Ms. Thornton’s decision and evaluating her data.  Ms. Thornton claims that the decision was based on concern for students who would prefer to study for finals on Orgo Night in Butler 209, but who object to the disruption of the Orgo Night show and who, as a result, are forced to find alternate study locations. 

Ms. Thornton argued that the “stress” on such students of finding alternate study space is significant, and that such alternate space is scarce on campus.  Ms. Thornton also concluded, presumably, that making more alternate study space available on Orgo Night would be a problem.  And so, she reached a decision that banning the Band from the library was the best solution to the perceived problem.  If there had been open discussion of the issue, we would know what data Ms. Thornton collected to support her conclusion that there are a significant number of Quiet Study Requestors, and that they would be significantly inconvenienced and “stressed” by having to study elsewhere on Orgo Night.  We would know how many actual complaints were received, and whether those complaining students regularly study in Butler 209.  We would know whether Ms. Thornton conducted any review or study of the available alternate study space in other libraries to see if it was mostly filled or not on previous Orgo Nights. 


But, because of the lack of process, none of this data is known, and likely was not known to the University officials who ratified Ms. Thornton’s decision.

            We know that Ms. Thornton engaged in a lengthy lobbying effort to convince the Deans to support her scheme to oust the Band from the library.  We don’t know what claims she made or what arguments she offered in those discussions.  She may have claimed that she actually received a substantial number of complaints from Quiet Study Requestors, but we strongly suspect that such a claim Is not true.  She may have claimed that alternate quiet study space on campus was scarce or could not be made available easily, although we know that such a claim is definitely not true.  Again, we do not know what representations Ms. Thornton made to the Deans during her secret lobbying meetings, but we suspect that the subject of alternatives was either not brought up or not accurately represented.  If the information provided in secret was not accurate, then the Deans may have acted on incorrect or misrepresented information.

            In the final analysis, proper process in a case like this benefits everyone.  It benefits the Band and the students who want to continue the Orgo Night tradition by allowing them to be heard, to make their arguments, and to understand what arguments are really being made on the other side.  It benefits the University administrators by allowing them to have all the necessary information.  It benefits the broader University community, including alumni, by permitting a true understanding of the issues, alternatives, and factors being considered.  Even if the decision were the same after a proper process, the constituent groups would have less anger and frustration and would be more likely to accept the decision.  By depriving everyone of proper process, the Band, the students who value Orgo Night, and concerned alumni are left feeling that the decision was arbitrary, possibly motivated by an impermissible desire to censor the Band, and foisted onto the Band without any notice or opportunity to be heard.

            The solution to this problem is obvious.  President Bollinger should reverse the decision and permit the Orgo Night show to return to its traditional location in Butler 209 for the spring semester of 2017.  If Dean Valentini, Ann Thornton, and any other University administrators involved in the decision think that there are real issues that need to be addressed, then there should be an open and public discussion of the data, arguments, alternatives, and motivations before any final decision to alter the Orgo Night tradition is made again.

-         Hamiltonius

-  H