Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #1

            Just a few days before the Columbia University Marching Band’s “Orgo Night” show was scheduled to occur at midnight in Butler Library’s College Reading Room (Room 209)—a tradition every semester dating back at least four decades—university officials decreed that the Band was prohibited from performing in the Library.  This decision was sprung on the Band with no advance notice and no opportunity for discussion.  The stated reason for banning the Band from the Library was to preserve the room as a quiet study space for students who might be disturbed by the Orgo Night show.  Here is a picture of the students taking advantage of that opportunity for quiet study at 11:59 p.m. on the night of the scheduled show, December 15. 

There were a few, but we suspect that they were just getting ready to go watch the Band’s show, which was staged outside on the Library steps in sub-freezing conditions.

The timing of the announcement, the dubious validity of the claimed reasons for the action, and the administration’s total unwillingness to discuss the issues or consider alternatives all strongly suggest that the real issue was not quiet study space or the sanctity of library rules.  Rather, President Bollinger and Dean Valentini were actually attempting to deny a forum for the Band’s hilarious but often outrageous barbs at the university and its commentary on current and sometimes sensitive events.  The decision to censor the Band was ill-conceived, wrongly executed, and inconsistent with the ideals of our Columbia.

In order to show support for the Band, to shine a bright light on this unjustified action, and to demonstrate that alumni as well as students are extremely angry about the university’s ambush tactics, a group of concerned alumni have collaborated to draft a series of pamphlets to elucidate the issues.  This initial installment outlines the controversy and the reasons why alumni, Trustees, faculty, and students should be concerned.  Later installments will investigate the critical issues in greater detail.  At bottom, the university’s stated reasons for taking this sudden action are false and not supported, nor would they have justified terminating the Orgo Night tradition even if they were true.  Since there is no legitimate reason to have made this decision, the inevitable conclusion is that the university administration’s objective is censorship of student expression.  This is unacceptable.  We are hopeful that, even if President Bollinger and Dean Valentini have no qualms about taking a heavy-handed approach against students, they will take the time to read these discussions and reconsider their decision in light of the views of concerned alumni.

            The truest indication of intelligence is the ability to admit when you are wrong and to change your mind.  As Abraham Lincoln famously stated, “So soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”  Although university administrators are notoriously loath to admit error, particularly in the face of protests by mere students, this is one instance where a bad decision needs to be reversed and reversed quickly. 

Orgo Night Is A Proud Columbia Tradition

There is no dispute that the Orgo Night event has been a tradition at Columbia since approximately 1975.  Each semester at midnight on the night before the Organic Chemistry final exam, the Band crowds into Butler Library and performs its program.  The format of the show has varied over the years, but has historically included both music and satirical/comedic monologues.  The program is advertised around campus and anticipated by hundreds of students who welcome the comedy break in their finals preparations.

For years, the University has not only allowed these programs every semester in Butler Library, but even promoted Orgo Night as a proud and unique Columbia tradition.  During on-campus days for prospective students and in published guides and brochures aimed at high school seniors, the office of undergraduate admissions cites Orgo Night as a positive experience at Columbia that entering students can look forward to enjoying or even taking part in by joining the Band.  In a Winter 2012-13 Columbia magazine article about the history of the Marching Band, Orgo Night was prominently featured in a cartoon showing the Band marching into the Library to the applause and laughter of the assembled students.

That article described Orgo Night as “one of the best Columbia arts traditions.”  In the spring of 2014 a Spectator article described the Varsity Show and Orgo Night as “competing for Columbia’s laughs.”  The Vice-President for Alumni Relations acknowledged that alumni “honor and treasure the tradition of Orgo Night.”

Orgo Night is more than merely a tradition.  For the students who attend, it is a welcome break from the stress of upcoming finals and an opportunity to laugh along as the Band skewers university administrators and other Ivy League schools with a mix of campus-specific “inside” jokes and broader political and social satirical commentary.  For the Band, it is one of the central performances of each semester and an opportunity to connect and share with the broader campus community.  It is a quirky and unique event that exemplifies Columbia’s history of irreverent criticism, free speech and, in the midst of serious studies, a little bit of fun.  Orgo Night is one of the things that makes the Columbia experience something students remember fondly after graduation as a quintessentially “college” activity.

After the university’s announcement that the Band would not be permitted to perform in Butler Library, support for the Band came pouring in.  The Spectator and BWOG objected to the change and supported the Band.  All four undergraduate student councils supported the Band and urged the administration to change its decision.  Letters and emails from alumni similarly objected to the change.  And when the Band staged a “protest” show on the steps of the Library, hundreds of current students left their studies behind and showed up in sub-freezing temperatures to cheer on the Band as it attempted to carry on the tradition under brutal conditions.

Orgo Night is venerated and valuable; supported by current students and alumni alike.  A future pamphlet will document the Orgo Night tradition in more detail.  Such an institution should not be interfered with or discontinued without careful consideration and open discussion, and then only based on clear evidence of a compelling reason.

The University’s Claimed Rationale Is Obviously False

The principal reason given for banning Orgo Night from Butler Library is that the performance disrupts the quiet study space during reading week.  University administrators, however, have not substantiated the claim that students have complained, that anyone’s ability to study quietly is actually disrupted by the Orgo Night show, or that alternative quiet study locations are not readily available.  The university’s stated rationale is intentionally deceptive and demonstrably false.

Vice-Provost and Head Librarian Ann Thornton and her boss, Provost John Coatsworth, delivered an edict to the Band in December that the show could not take place in the Library as scheduled.  Ms. Thornton told Band leadership that she had decided the Orgo Night show was inappropriate for “her” library.  Although Ms. Thornton did not expressly base her objection on the show’s content, she provided no other rationale for the sudden decision apart from her concern that Orgo Night interfered with the Library’s “proper” use as study space.  Later, in a written statement, Ms. Thornton asserted that the show “has been a source of stress” for some students because the show is “disrupting [to] those who wish to study.”  Ms. Thornton’s statements imply that these concerns were expressed to her by actual students.  President Bollinger then stated expressly that there were “a number of objections and complaints” that prompted action regarding Orgo Night.

Certainly, over the years some people have complained about the Orgo Night programs’ content.  It is likely that university administrators would prefer to avoid complaints that some student or student group were offended by something the Band said during the Orgo Night show.  We, of course, are not privy to all private complaints received by university administrators, but until now the university has never asserted that any students have griped about the diminished opportunity to study in the College Reading Room or complained that they felt “stressed” by the need to find another location to study.

For decades, students have known that at midnight on the night before the Organic Chemistry final, the Orgo Night program will take place in the College Reading Room.  The Band publicizes the program throughout the campus in famously comic posters.  It is not credible to believe that any students find themselves suddenly surprised by the arrival of the Band on Orgo Night and are therefore interrupted in their studies for a short time without their knowing consent.  As the Spectator editorial board stated on December 15, “to claim that students would be irreparably distracted from their studying by a publicized event in a place they could easily avoid for one hour a semester is absurd.”

In a letter to alumni who objected to the Band’s eviction from the Library, Dean James Valentini stated that the decision was based on “established library use guidelines.”  Of course, those same library use guidelines have existed for the entire history of Orgo Night, which is an established exception to the normal rules.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a violation of New York City traffic regulations, but the City permits it annually as an exception to the normal rules because it is a valuable and traditional event.  So too, Orgo Night has been permitted for decades despite not complying with library use policy.  This thin reed of a justification is even flimsier than the disruption-to-studies claim, and the fact that Dean Valentini would not even assert the existence of quiet-study-based complaints speaks volumes about the chimerical nature of President Bollinger’s claim that student complaints about study disruption were the basis for this decision.  A future essay will address in more detail the evidence that the university’s claimed reason for banning the Band from the Library is false.

Any Actual Concerns About Quiet Study Space Easily Could Have Been Addressed Without Evicting the Orgo Night Show from Butler Library

If there were actually a need for more quiet study space, the university easily could have addressed those concerns without attempting to cancel Orgo Night by evicting the Band from Butler Library.  Other locations were available for students who wanted to study quietly somewhere other than Butler 209.  The Lehman social sciences Library and the Science and Engineering Library were both open until 3:00 a.m. on December 15th.  These spaces, along with dedicated study space in dormitory buildings, provided ample quiet midnight locales for students who wished to avoid the disruption of the Band’s performance.  Signs could have been posted outside of Butler 209 reminding students that the Orgo Night show would take place at midnight and advising them of alternate quiet locations where they could study, to relieve the “stress” of finding other space.

Ms. Thornton has asserted that quiet study space is limited at midnight as part of her reasoning for wanting to keep Butler 209 free of distractions.  Even assuming that other available midnight study space is overcrowded (and we seriously doubt that), arrangements could have been made to keep space in other library buildings open slightly later than otherwise scheduled on this one night.  Avery Library and the Mathematics Library were open until 11:00.  The Business and Economics Library was open until midnight.  Keeping one of these buildings open an extra hour or two would have been a minimal expense to Columbia, and certainly less costly than opening up Roone Arledge Auditorium at midnight as an alternate site for the Orgo Night show, which the administration said it was willing to do.  Certainly, the interests of the students who look forward to the Orgo Night show should be weighed more heavily than the interests of the hypothetical students who might be disrupted by the show or slightly inconvenienced by needing to find alternate space. 

A future essay will investigate this issue in more detail, but the bottom line is that the university’s proffered reasons for the sudden change in policy are entirely suspect and likely a mere façade shielding a much more invidious motive that the university cannot openly admit.

Censorship of the Band Is the Real Issue

Since the university’s publicly stated reasons for the last-minute change in policy about the Orgo Night show are so obviously fatuous, and since the administration was totally unwilling to consider alternatives that would have fully solved the claimed problem, the logical conclusion is that university administrators were really trying to muzzle the content of the Band’s program.  Although President Bollinger stated at the 2016 Convocation ceremony that, “We don’t censor speech,” the university seems to be trying to quash the Band’s show based on objections to its content.

Apparently, President Bollinger and Dean Valentini were happy to use the new Head Librarian’s desire to keep the Orgo Night program out of her library as an excuse to suppress the content of the Orgo Night program without having to admit that the intent is censorship rather than protection of quiet study space.  Or perhaps the scheme was hatched by Bollinger and Valentini, who enlisted their new Head Librarian’s assistance so they would have a cover story to shield them from criticism.

Certainly, the plot to suppress Orgo Night included a specific strategy to mute any objections by waiting until only a few days before the scheduled fall show to notify the Band.  Ms. Thornton and the Deans anticipated that alumni objections as well as student objections could not be mobilized effectively in the few days between the announcement and the show.  They also no doubt calculated that, after the event, it would be finals week followed by winter break, allowing any passions to wane.  They were willing to absorb a short period of controversy over their censorship of Columbia students, but no doubt hoped that the controversy would be soon forgotten.

Ms. Thornton’s explanation that she had to line up support among the Deans, and it just happened that she obtained the needed agreements at the very last minute, is exceedingly disingenuous.  The December Orgo Night program could have been allowed to proceed as scheduled and then an announcement could have been made in January that the administration wanted to explore an alternative location for future Orgo Night performances.  This would have permitted open discussion and would have allowed the administration to assess the level of support for the performance among students (and alumni), to determine whether there really is a shortage of quiet study space, and to weigh the interests of the affected students in an open and reasoned way.  But President Bollinger did not want a reasoned dialogue because the claimed rationale for the decision would not stand up to even slight scrutiny.

During discussion of the Orgo Night controversy at the University Senate meeting on December 15, President Bollinger stated, incredibly, that the announcement to prohibit the Orgo Night show from happening in its traditional location had been made “with ample time to allow for discourse with the students.”  This statement shows either an amazing capacity for self-delusion or a remarkable lack of respect for the intelligence of his audience.  Other comments at the Senate meeting reveal the administration’s true motives.  Former Dean Robert Pollack stated that it was appropriate to reconsider a tradition like Orgo Night “for the sake of the greater good.”  “Greater good” being an obvious euphemism for the administration’s objections to the program content of Orgo Night and not a reference to a few hypothetical students whose study time might be interrupted.  Senator Ronald Breslow, a chemistry professor, was more transparent, objecting to Orgo Night because “that’s not a good message . . . the right to make fun of people who actually come here for serious reasons.”

The conclusion one must draw from these facts is that the university administration acted to diminish the Band’s ability to hold its program and reach its target audience because of the content of the program.  The administration, of course, is unwilling to admit that it engaged in censorship of student speech, but no other conclusion is logically possible.  A future essay will focus more specifically on this issue, but it is clear that suppression of the Band’s message and content is the university’s goal.

In recognition of the appearance of censorship, the university offered the Band the option of holding its program in the Roone Arledge Auditorium as an alternative to the College Reading Room.  The offer, however, fails to acknowledge that the eviction of the Band from Butler 209 changes the nature of the event and destroys the tradition.  The fundamental premise here is that the tradition of Orgo Night – including its location in Butler in the midst of the students cramming for finals – should be preserved unless there is a compelling reason to make a change.  The essential nature of Orgo Night is that it does represent an interruption of the grind of studying in the Library and, as such, it is welcomed by the students who assemble there in anticipation of the show.  Telling the students that they need to pack up and move to a different building in order to hear the performance and then migrate back to the Library afterward (if they want to continue studying) was unquestionably intended to reduce the audience, end the tradition, and thereby silence the content of the Orgo Night performance.

President Bollinger’s position that it was too much bother to keep another library open a few extra hours and that banning the Orgo Night show from the Library was the only way to accommodate the needs of a small number of hypothetical students who might be disrupted in their finals preparations fails to pass the “smell test.”  It smells bad.  It smells like censorship.

The Solution

The solution is for the administration to reverse this misguided policy and to restore Orgo Night to its traditional Butler 209 location.  If additional study space is needed on the night of future performances, and if the university determines that already open space is not sufficient, then another library should be kept open for a few extra hours.  It really is that simple.

Action is needed now.  Discussion, if the administration wants to have some honest discussion, should take place openly and with full disclosure of the motives, facts, and evidence.  Anything less is unbecoming of Columbia.


-        Hamiltonius

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