In Defense of Orgo Night #5
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. Since 1975 the Band has performed a similar show, dubbed “Orgo Night,” (because the show happens on the eve of the organic chemistry final) in which the Band skewers university administration, other Ivy schools, rival student groups, and the world in general in a witty and often raunchy program. The location of the show on December 15, however, was unusual. Traditionally the band marches into the main College Reading Room inside Butler Library, known as Room 209, to the strains of the school fight song before launching into its program. This scheduled study break for the assembled students who choose to study for finals in that room typically lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. This fall, however, 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 the library. The ban, which was not discussed with the Band or with university students in advance, was announced only days before the scheduled event. 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. The university offered to permit the Band to stage the show in a different location at midnight, but the Band chose to stage its show outside the library as a protest, which was attended by several hundred students.
Since the sudden and unexpected eviction of the Band from the library, all four undergraduate student councils have called for reversal of the decision, the editors of the Spectator and BWOG have issued statements of support for the Band, and many alumni have sent letters of protest. University officials have remained resolute in their decision, however. 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.
Suppression of student speech is abhorrent to the Columbia community
A “hypocrite,” according to Miriam Webster, is a person who acts in contradiction to his stated beliefs or who puts on a false appearance of virtue. So, for example, someone who states his support for free speech rights and claims to abhor censorship, and yet who acts to censor speech when expedient, would be a hypocrite. A university that claims to be a sanctuary for free expression and a bastion of critical thinking and intellectual honesty would similarly be hypocritical if it censors and suppresses student speech. Such a university’s administration would also be accurately criticized for being disingenuous if it hides its actions behind a façade of false justification in order to avoid admitting that its actions are in fact censorship and suppression of student speech.
President Bollinger has repeatedly congratulated himself for being a great protector of free speech. At the University Senate meeting on December 15th, during a discussion about how a university should handle “hate” speech, the university President stated as follows, according to the official meeting minutes:
“[A] lot of hurtful, harmful things happen because of free speech. . . . Part of the challenge is for institutions and society to be prepared to help people who are the victims of this great principle. So routinely something horrible is said that is really hurtful to some group on campus. We think that’s bad, but we’re not going to censor the speech. We have to be there ready to answer it, to help the victims of it, but also to draw a line and not go too far in helping these people because then we may be chilling or discouraging the very temperament and character we want.”
And yet, the university’s action against the Band’s Orgo Night show is an obvious attempt to suppress the content of the show and diminish the Band’s ability to speak on campus. In recent years, the show script routinely has included barbs directed at university administration and quips about embarrassing campus events. Perhaps there was trepidation in December about how the Band would treat the wrestling team’s sexual harassment scandal or what statements would be made about the resignation of Barnard’s President. For some reason, President Bollinger wanted to muzzle the Band, but he is not willing to admit that his actions are nothing less than censorship.
In earlier essays, we have shown that the reasons articulated by the Columbia administration for banning the Marching Band from Butler Library and altering the long-standing Orgo Night tradition fail to withstand scrutiny. President Bollinger specifically claimed that Head Librarian Ann Thornton received “a number of complaints” from students who objected to the disruption of their quiet study time in Butler 209. The evidence (or lack thereof), however, suggests very strongly that there were no complaints from students who feel displaced by the Orgo Night show, but whose objections have nothing to do with the content of the program. If there were such “Quiet Study Requestors,” Head Librarian Ann Thornton would have records of them and she would have done some due diligence to investigate the nature of the complaints and the number of affected students. No such due diligence was done and all the evidence to date suggests that the asserted complaints don’t really exist.
Additionally, there is no logical reason why the response to any actual complaints would be to cancel the Orgo Night show rather than find alternate quiet study space for the hypothetical Quiet Study Requestors. Since alternate space is so readily available, and at minimal cost to the university, the decision to ban the Orgo Night show as the first response to a few complaints (even if they really existed) is both odd and suspicious. Neither President Bollinger nor Ms. Thornton have explained why a few complaints would somehow take absolute precedence over the forty-year tradition of Orgo Night and trump the desire of hundreds of students who welcome the show in Butler 209, especially when accommodating the quiet study needs of the few complainers without kicking the Band out of Butler would have been so easy.
In December, University Senator Ronald Breslow criticized the Band for wanting to “play games instead of studying.” Thus, one of the purported justifications for suddenly terminating the Orgo Night tradition was that the show was not an appropriate use for the library. Recently, however, Ms. Thornton announced some new initiatives to help reduce stress among college students by using the libraries as the venue for “pop-up” programs. The stress-reduction programs include free hot chocolate, cookie hand-outs, Frisbee throws, and adult coloring books. Ms. Thornton said that “It’s so important to note that even the small things make a big difference in student life.” Ms. Thornton also pointed out that, “One of the things we do have is space, so the question now is how can we make that available, especially in collaboration with student groups who really care about those things?” And yet, we have heard no discussion of returning the Orgo Night show to the library, despite the fact that the Band has been “really caring” about stress reduction during finals week for over forty years. Why not?
President Bollinger even trotted out the ridiculous argument that “ if other people decided to commit some other disruption [in the library], the University would be hard put to justify having permitted one disruption but forbid[ing] another.” Of course, the Band is allowed on the field during halftime of football games, and yet the university has no problem prohibiting other groups from storming the Baker Field turf without permission. Allowing the Band’s scheduled performance does not in any way undermine the university’s ability to prohibit disruptive conduct. While an authorized Frisbee throw inside the library might be deemed both “disruptive” and also a violation of library use policy, Head Librarian Thornton does not seem to have any problems allowing those on a “pop-up” basis without any apparent fear that the university would somehow be prevented from prohibiting Ultimate Frisbee games from springing up at will.
For anyone viewing the situation objectively, it is abundantly clear that there is a motivation at work here besides a desire to protect quiet study space in Butler 209 on one night for a few hypothetical students. At some point, some group of administrators made a decision to put a stop to one of the few long-standing traditions on the Morningside Heights campus. Somebody decided that the Orgo Night show needed to be changed. There can be no doubt that banning the band from Butler Library, combined with the last-minute timing of the announcement, was punitive. It was not required by any exigency nor was it a response to any specific need – it was an attack on the Band.
The administrators who made the decision, and who chose to spring it on the Band with no advance notice, must have had some reason to want to end Orgo Night, or at least reduce its audience. This hidden agenda is what former Dean of Columbia College and current university senator Robert Pollack articulated at the December 15th Senate meeting when he stated that it was appropriate to reconsider a tradition like Orgo Night “for the sake of the greater good.” The “greater good” comment was an admission that Dean Pollack considers the Orgo Night show to be something “bad.” Thus, even as Ms. Thornton tries to decide whether giving out coloring books or having pop-up game nights in the libraries is a better stress-reduction method, there is something about Orgo Night that keeps the Band off the list of in-library options.
The inevitable conclusion is that some or all of the involved decision makers dislike the Orgo Night show and would be very happy to see the tradition die because they object to its content. A corollary reason may be that the university administrators would prefer not to deal with the periodic complaints about the Orgo Night content or the Orgo Night promotional posters. Dislike for the show, and feeling that “the greater good” would be served by ending it is censorship and content-based retaliation against the Band. There is no getting around it. The university officials who were privy to the secret discussions about ending Orgo Night must take responsibility for their actions. The decision can only be explained by a hostility to the Band and a desire to muzzle the content of the program. No other explanation makes sense.
Even if censorship was not the actual motivation, the appearance that the university is suppressing the Band’s speech casts a shadow over the university’s reputation and over all other student groups who will get the clear message that content can and will be attacked by this university administration. This is a subject for a future essay.
President Bollinger would claim that moving Orgo Night out of Butler is not suppression since the Band was able to perform in an alternate location and could start a “new tradition” somewhere other than Butler 209. But banning the Band from the library with less than a week’s notice was a calculated effort to diminish or effectively kill the event. There was no need to reserve the space for quiet study, and so what motivated the decision if not animosity toward the show itself? The ability to articulate a plausible rationale may help President Bollinger sleep at night, but if the administration supported the show’s messages, moving the Band out of the library would never have been on the table.
Asking students to leave the library and schlep across campus at midnight to another location in order to attend the show can only be an attempt to reduce the audience for Orgo Night. More significantly, kicking the show out of the library is an attack on the fundamental nature of the event. The library venue is as much a part of the tradition as the jokes or the music. A midnight satire show in the student center is simply not Orgo Night. As noted in pamphlet number 2, the university should value the tradition of Orgo Night, but President Bollinger has instead launched an assault. The claim that expelling the Band from the library is no big deal and that Orgo Night can live on in the student center without being a suppression of the Band’s speech is as ridiculous as the claim that if the Band is allowed to continue its tradition in Butler 209 then the university would be compelled to allow all other groups to party in Butler 209 at will.
The indisputable facts are that (a) the reasons articulated by Ms. Thornton and President Bollinger for their action against the Band have no support and are not based on any data or evidence, (b) President Bollinger has provided no adequate explanation for the last-minute announcement with no advance notice, discussion, or process, and (c) there is no possible explanation for why readily available alternative quiet study space was not even investigated before evicting the Band from the Library. An objective observer cannot help but reach the conclusion that what is actually going on here is thinly-disguised censorship of student speech.
It looks, talks, walks, and quacks like a duck. President Bollinger and Dean Valentini need to stop telling us that their decision was intended to be an umbrella shielding the quiet study space in Butler 209 from the Band’s disruption. It was, rather, an umbrella shielding the university administration from complaints from students and faculty who have objected to the past content of the Orgo Night show’s content. By banning the show from its traditional location in Butler 209, the content is suppressed, complaints about the content are lessened, and President Bollinger doesn’t have to worry about interest groups criticizing Columbia for not providing a bubble of completely safe space where no uncomfortable ideas or statements can be heard.
This is entirely contrary to the heart of the Columbia education. President Bollinger cannot admit that he is censoring the Band because he has attempted to build a reputation as a protector of free speech and this decision reveals his hypocrisy. But those who are paying attention see censorship when it slaps them in the face and when those attempting to justify it instead hide behind false explanations seeking to camouflage their true intentions.
It is not too late for President Bollinger and Dean Valentini to reverse course here, quietly and without creating any more ill will among alumni. Since the university is actively seeking to promote stress-relief programs inside the library, Ms. Thornton can decide to bring Orgo Night back to its rightful home. If Ms. Thornton, President Bollinger, and Dean Valentini want to duck the issue and claim that they never censored the Band, that’s fine. But for now, the quacking is getting louder.