Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #3

               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.
               (Links to earlier essays can be found on the right margin of this blog.)

Columbia Administrators Have Failed To Properly Weigh and Balance the Competing Interests of the Relevant Stakeholders.

            President Bollinger, Dean Valentini, and new Head Librarian Ann Thornton have decided that the interests of a few hypothetical students who might object to having their quiet study in the Butler Library Reading Room (Room 209) interrupted by the Marching Band’s Orgo Night show are more important than preserving the Orgo Night tradition.  This also means that the Columbia administration values the preferences of these “Quiet Study Requestors” over the preferences of the students who look forward to the Orgo Night show and who would prefer to continue the tradition in Butler 209, including the students in the Band.  Even putting aside whether the Quiet Study Requestors really exist, which will be the subject of a later essay, this decision to end the Orgo Night tradition is an incorrect choice based on a balancing of the relative interests of the involved students.

            Suppose two hundred orthodox Jewish students told the head of the athletic department that they were offended by their inability to watch Friday night basketball games and protested that the men’s basketball games on Fridays should be moved to 3:00 p.m. start times to accommodate their religious observances.  And then let’s say that the AD, being sympathetic to those complaints, went to her superiors at the university and lobbied for a change in the start times for Friday basketball games to 3:00 based on these sincerely brought complaints.  Do you suppose that the powers that be at the university would say “sure, let’s do that” and agree to the change?  No?  Why not?  Women’s games routinely start at 6:00 p.m. and even have included an 11:00 a.m. start time on a weekday.  Soccer games often start on weekdays at 5:00.  Swim meets start at noon or 2:00 without problem.  Of course, starting at 3:00 would guarantee smaller crowds and lower revenue.  And so, the university would have to balance the legitimate and sincere objections of the orthodox Jewish students (and other students whose religious observance includes Friday nights) against the competing interests of the athletic department, alumni, and the university generally.

            A balance is always necessary in such cases.  Merely because one, two, or a hundred students complain about a particular issue does not mandate that the university take action to satisfy their complaint or objection, or grant them the precise remedy they request.  Certainly, the number of those complaining is one factor in this balancing exercise, as is the seriousness and significance of the objection.  If, for example, a dozen students from African countries objected to a newly placed sculpture on the grounds that it was offensive and demeaning toward Africans (readers can use their imagination as to what kind of image might generate that reaction), the university would undoubtedly take the complaint quite seriously because it has racial/cultural overtones and although someone in the university administration approved the purchase and placement of that sculpture, significant consideration would be given to removing it.  The balancing of interests would include how difficult it would be to remove the sculpture and replace it with something else, how much bad press the university would absorb if the complaints were ignored, and how likely future students would be to similarly object to the sculpture.  There are likely more factors that would be considered, but the point is that there would be a weighing of interests and the students’ concerns would be weighted quite significantly.  There would also likely be public debate and discussion about the issue.

            Now suppose that a different group of a dozen students advised a vice-provost that they were offended by the statue of Alma Mater because of the existence of some symbolism within the statue that is demeaning and derogatory toward their cultural heritage.  Here, university administration would likely utter statements of sympathy and understanding, but there would be not the slightest discussion about removing Alma Mater from her perch in front of Low Library.  The feelings of these students would be given little weight.  Why?  Because Alma has occupied that space for several generations and is an established iconic part of the university landscape.  It was there when the students matriculated, and although the university regrets their hurt feelings, they are just going to have to get over it because the value to the university of maintaining Alma far exceeds the concerns of those students.  It’s still a balance, but in this case all the weight is on the side of not removing the sculpture.

            A mere objection, offense, or inconvenience does not automatically trigger action when there are other considerations, no matter how sincere the complaint and no matter how many students share the same feelings.  While some types of claimed offense will certainly be weighted more heavily, none are so overwhelming that they trump all other factors.

            In the present Orgo Night discussion, on one side of the scale is the value of Orgo Night.  Another essay has addressed this factor at greater length, but for present purposes all sides in the discussion must agree that maintaining the tradition of Orgo Night has value to the university, which promotes it as a venerated Columbia tradition.  And at least some students enjoy the program and appreciate the brief break from their studies.  We will call this group the “Orgo Night Audience.”

            On the opposite side of the scale is the value of having quiet study time during finals week, which is interrupted by the Orgo Night show for those students who prefer to study in Butler 209, but who don’t want to see the Band’s show.  We have already dubbed this group the “Quiet Study Requestors.”  We will further assume that these hypothetical students have no objection to the Orgo Night program content, but only with the disruption to their studies that accompanies the program.  The value of accommodating the Quiet Study Requestors weighs in on the other side of the scale.  How many such students exist is a question, and will be addressed in another essay, but we will assume for now that they are real and that their concerns are not immaterial.

            If Butler 209 were the only available study space, the requests from the two competing groups would be mutually exclusive and the value of each side’s interests, along with the costs, would have to be weighed against each other.  Perhaps reasonable minds could differ as to the proper outcome of the balance, but, the available alternatives must also be weighed and factored in.

            The first question that should be asked is whether there is alternative quiet study space for the Quiet Study Requestors.  The answer is yes.  Space is already available in Lehman library and in the Science and Engineering Library as well as in dedicated study space in dormitory buildings after midnight on Orgo Night.  This space has undoubtedly been used for many years by Quiet Study Requestors.

The next question should be whether there is any reason to think that the alternate space is not sufficient to accommodate the Quiet Study Requestors.  A competent Head Librarian would surely have usage statistics about her library space and would know for a fact when and where students are using the spaces and whether there really is a shortage at any point in time.  Surely a competent Head Librarian would conduct a survey, or at least dispatch some minions to eye-ball each of the open libraries at midnight on Orgo Night to see how much space is really available.  In this case, Ms. Thornton came to a conclusion, without any support or data, that midnight study space on campus is “in even higher demand,” presumably as justification for the need to free up space in Butler.  The absence of any data to support that statement suggests that it is speculation and not an actual fact.

But, even if this were a true problem, it is easily accommodated by alternative options.  If there really were a shortage of midnight study space, other libraries that are already open until 11:00 or midnight on Orgo Night could be kept open an extra hour or two so that there would be no such shortage.  The cost to the university of a few extra hours of open library space in Avery, Mathematics, or Business and Economics is a minor factor in the equation.  Moreover, since the university was willing to absorb the cost of opening the Roone Arledge Auditorium as performance space for the Band, the cost of keeping another library open for a few hours would be substantially less and so the university has conceded that the cost of providing alternate study space is not a problem.

            So, there is other quiet study space available for the Quiet Study Requestors, or alternate space could be easily made available on Orgo Night.  But, there would be some amount of inconvenience to the hypothetically disrupted students in having to study somewhere other than Butler 209 for one night.  Of course, it is necessarily true that these hypothetical students, unless first semester first-years, have in the past studied somewhere other than Butler 209 on Orgo Night, so for them the status quo is already an alternate location.  Changing the Band’s location would allow those hypothetical students to change their historic studying location and move to Butler 209 instead.  This is the remaining value and cost on the side of changing the Band’s venue – the number of Quiet Study Requestors, the minimal cost of providing some extra library hours outside of Butler (if that is even needed), and the inconvenience factor of not permitting them to study in Butler 209, where they have never studied before on Orgo Night, but where they presumably would prefer to study.  While these values and costs are not zero, they are not substantial.

            On the other hand, a change in venue for the Orgo Night show would inflict a great inconvenience on students who want to attend the program – the Orgo Night Audience.  They would be required to exit the library and move to some alternate venue at midnight, and then return to the Library afterwards if they wanted to continue studying in a library environment.  Or, they would have to forego attending the Band’s show and miss out on its value.  The balance would seem to favor not changing the Orgo Night venue simply because the relative inconvenience to the Quiet Study Requestors of choosing an alternate location is significantly less than the inconvenience to the Orgo Night Audience of having to get up and move across campus at midnight and then come back again.  Thus, even without factoring in the value of the tradition of Orgo Night, a change in venue would not be warranted solely based on the balancing of interests of the two affected groups.

            We know that the Orgo Night Audience is substantial.  On December 15th, hundreds of students came outside in the freezing cold to watch the show.  Despite Ms. Thornton’s off-the-cuff observation that the audience for Orgo Night has “declined in recent semesters” (which we seriously doubt about that assertion in the absence of some actual data that Ms. Thornton certainly does not have), the most recent Orgo Night audience dispels any idea that the size of the Orgo Night Audience is insignificant.  Certainly, it is larger than the hypothetical Quiet Study Requestors.

            And, even aside from the interests of the Orgo Night Audience, the Orgo Night show has independent value to the university, as noted in Pamphlet #2.  Moving Orgo Night out of Butler 209 fundamentally changes the nature of the event and alters the tradition.  The whole point of Orgo Night is to interrupt the grind of studying with a funny and irreverent show that reminds the audience of students that there is life beyond their finals and that it’s a good thing to take a few minutes to laugh.  The alternate location for Orgo Night, therefore, substantially diminishes the value of the Orgo Night event and destroys its essence.

The balancing of interests, then, is not close.  The interests of the hypothetical Quiet Study Requestors can be wholly satisfied by other quiet library space with minimal inconvenience to the students and minimal cost to the university.  When the alternatives available to satisfy the interests of the Quiet Study Requesters are taken into consideration, the value of the continuation of Orgo Night in its traditional Butler 209 location for the Orgo Night Audience far outweighs the minimal inconvenience to the other group.

Did university administrators engage in a reasoned and careful balancing of these values and costs?  It is difficult to know, since the decision was made behind closed doors without any input from the Band or from students.  We can only assume that a careful analysis was not conducted, since there appears obvious that kicking the Band out of Butler 209 was neither necessary to solve a real problem nor the correct option given the weight of the competing interests.  An intelligent and impartial administrator, without some ulterior motive, could not evaluate these facts and reach a conclusion other than to accommodate the Quiet Study Requestors by providing alternate space and maintaining the status quo for the Orgo Night show.  Since it seems that a proper evaluation of the interests never happened, it should be a simple matter for the administration to re-evaluate the issue and reach a different conclusion for the spring semester.
-        Hamiltonius


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