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.
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.