Sunday, February 12, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #4

                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.
              Earlier essays in the series can be accessed by the links in the right margin.
Quiet Study Requestors Probably Don’t Exist

            President Bollinger and Dean Valentini have assured us that censorship of the Band was not the reason why Orgo Night was suddenly canceled without notice or discussion.  The decision had nothing to do with the content of the show, according to Bollinger’s public statement to the university Senate.  Columbia would never censor student speech.  The only reason he has offered for why the university took this drastic action is the asserted existence of “complaints” from students.  Of course, attempting to cancel the show in response to complaints from students who don’t like the content of the Orgo Night show would be content-based censorship, and President Bollinger has assured us that this was not the case.  A future essay will examine the evidence suggesting that content-based censorship was, in fact, President Bollinger’s real motive here, but first we must investigate whether the asserted basis for the action against the Band has any plausibility.

The university administration is claiming that it received complaints from students who objected to having their finals studying “disrupted” by the Orgo Night show.  The Vice-President for Alumni Relations confirmed that the action was an attempt to avoid “a circumstance that would force students who are studying in the library to leave and disrupt their work.”  Head Librarian Ann Thornton wrote in response to an alumni protest that the Orgo Night show has been “a source of stress including the stress of having to find alternate space to study” and that barring the Band from entering the Library is an attempt to avoid “disrupting those who wish to study then” (meaning at midnight in Butler 209).

            When leaders of the Band met with Ms. Thornton and Provost John Coatsworth during the few days between the announcement that the Band was barred from the library and the scheduled December 15th show, the new Head Librarian stated only that she felt the show was inappropriate because it disrupted important study space.  At that time, Ms. Thornton did not even assert the existence of student complaints, casting into doubt President Bollinger’s later claim that there were, in fact, specific complaints about disrupted studies.

Thus, the argument put forward by the university for why there was a compelling need to alter the Orgo Night tradition in the fall of 2016 is that the performance is a “disruption” to students who would prefer to use Butler 209 as quiet study space on this important night during reading week and who feel “stress” about finding an alternate study location.  According to President Bollinger, at least some of these students have complained about having their studies disrupted.  We have referred to these students in earlier essays as the “Quiet Study Requestors.”  Elsewhere we have explained why, even if these hypothetical students really exist and really have raised complaints, the balance of equities tilts decidedly in favor of accommodating their quiet study in other library locations rather than disrupting the Orgo Night tradition.  Here, we will examine the question of whether the Quiet Study Requestors really exist and whether the concerns expressed by President Bollinger and Ms. Thornton are even possibly valid.

            We can postulate that the Quiet Study Requestors are students who: (a) would prefer to study in Butler 209 on Orgo Night, (b) have a good reason for that preference such that an alternate library location would be an inconvenience; and some of whom (c) have complained to somebody in university administration based solely on the disruption to their study time and not based on the content of the Orgo Night show.  University administration has decided that the interests of the Quiet Study Requestors outweighs the interests of the students who welcome the Band’s appearance in Butler 209 and the interests of the Band members.  As such, we would expect that there must be a lot of them.  But, all evidence suggests the contrary.

            We may assume that there could be some students who regularly study in Butler 209 but who avoid Butler on Orgo Night.  If Ms. Thornton were seriously interested in evaluating the number of such students, the process would be fairly simple.  Step one would be to survey students actually using Butler 209 during the course of the semester outside of reading week to ask them whether they planned to use that space during reading week, and whether they planned to be there for Orgo Night or, if not, whether they cared much (or at all) about having to use other space.   Those students who planned to avoid Butler on Orgo Night, and who indicated that they cared and would prefer to use Butler, could be counted as Quiet Study Requestors, whether they specifically complained or not.

            Of course, not all students who use Butler 209 during reading week also use that space at other times.  But, students being creatures of habit, the “regulars” in Butler 209 would be the logical place to start.  That is, if the administration were seriously attempting to gather relevant data about the issue.  Ann Thornton has not asserted that she conducted any such survey.  Since she would be the logical driver and/or accumulator of such a data gathering effort, we can conclude with confidence that no such data was ever collected.

            Assessing the actual study patterns of non-regulars in Butler is more difficult.  Such students, who don’t regularly study in Butler, should be considered of lesser value in the discussion since those students are not being displaced from their regular location on Orgo Night.  Rather, they are merely being deprived of one option among several for them to use that is already different from their normal study pattern.  While some students might, in the absence of Orgo Night, choose to join friends in Butler 209 despite not normally studying there, the displacement of a few such students for one night (or an hour or two) is of minor concern.  In any case, the university has apparently not attempted to identify any students who fall into this category.

            Based on the absence of any assertions by Ms. Thornton or President Bollinger that data exists to support the decision to ban Orgo Night from the library, it is a near certainty that no due diligence was ever undertaken.  While Ms. Thornton claims that she spent the better part of the fall semester lobbying university Deans to support her assault on the Band, we see no evidence that she spent any of that time conducting surveys, having discussions with students, or doing any other actual research to determine whether there was a real problem.

            Without any other data, Ms. Thornton and President Bollinger are left only with data from students who actually complained about the Orgo Night show interfering with their studies.  President Bollinger affirmatively asserted the existence of such complaints, and Ms. Thornton implied their existence in her written defense of her actions, if not during her discussions with Band leaders.  If there were complaints, they could have come to Ms. Thornton (or others in university administration) as oral statements, phone calls, or electronic communications.  A competent administrator would undoubtedly keep track of such complaints, at least after the first few.  Certainly, a competent administrator who was new to the school and yet seeking the approval of university Deans for her plan to alter a long-standing university tradition would do so only after compiling some compelling evidence that there is a problem that needs addressing.  Even if complaints were oral, at the point that Ms. Thornton determined that this was a problem of sufficient proportion to warrant severe action like banning the Band from the library, a competent administrator would begin to track the complaints and record them.  Certainly, telephone messages would be catalogued or retained, and emails or texts would be printed and/or retained electronically to document the magnitude of the problem.

            Further, if there were complaining students, Ms. Thornton would be expected to make two critical inquiries after each complaint.  First, she should ask whether the complaining student regularly studies in Butler 209 during other times of the year.  Second, she should ask why the student is objecting to the show – based on not enjoying its content, or just because of the interruption to their studies.  Without knowing the answers to the former question, Ms. Thornton cannot know the extent of the problem, and without the answers to the latter, she cannot know whether the objection to Orgo Night is based on the disruption factor or the content.  Of course, as a newcomer to Columbia, Ms. Thornton might be forgiven for not understanding that there have been past objections to the content of the Orgo Night show and she might not have appreciated the distinction.  Or, it is possible that if there were only a few complaints over a long period of time she might not have thought about the need to assess them critically.  But certainly, if there were many complaints, or upon reaching the point where it seemed to her that the issue was becoming serious, a competent administrator would begin collecting and retaining the relevant data.

Given the seriousness of this issue and the controversy it has generated to date, one would expect that if there were data, it would have been disclosed by now.  Yet, in many different communications with protesting alumni, and in many public statements from the individuals involved, nobody in a position to know has asserted that any data exists that documents the existence of a real problem.  The only logical conclusion to draw from the absence of any data is that the claimed complaints do not exist.  It is possible that there were a few complaints and that Ms. Thornton never bothered to investigate whether the complaints were based on the content of the shows and never bothered to inquire about whether the complaining students actually use Butler 209 as their preferred study location.  But, even the latter possibility would suggest only a few scattered complaints, and it is most likely that any complaints actually received were targeted at the show content and not at its disruption to studies.

The chimerical nature of the alleged complaints is further suggested by the absence of any in past years.  We know that there have been objections to Orgo Night raised over the years from angry students who object to program content.  Those students were heard from loudly and clearly via op-ed articles in Spectator and protests against Orgo Night posters.  Surely, a groundswell of additional objections to the Orgo Night show based on disruption of study space would have surfaced after past programs.  The available published material referencing Orgo Night, however, is devoid of any such quiet-study-based complaints.

If, as seems likely, the alleged complaints don’t exist and there is no data supporting the existence of any significant number of Quiet Study Requestors, the administration should admit that the action against the Band was taken prematurely and should be rescinded until such time as a reasoned discussion can be conducted based on actual information.  There are few events, operations, or food choices in the cafeteria that have not generated a few complaints over the years.  But competent administrators who are not hiding an ulterior motive do not take drastic action based on a few isolated complaints.  We are a data-driven society and the university is nothing if not a data-driven institution.  Certainly, important decisions concerning long-standing university traditions should not be made in the absence of the relevant data.
-          Hamiltonius

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