Friday, February 24, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #6

               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, 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 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 on the right margin of this blog.

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The appearance of censorship is nearly as bad as actual censorship

            Across the country, public and private universities struggle with the proper response to objectionable speech and whether to discipline students and faculty based comments regarding social and racial issues.  In one of the most publicized incidents, two members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity were expelled from school after a video was posted of them leading others in the singing of a racist song.  At Tufts, students in fraternities and sororities were warned of “serious disciplinary sanctions” if they wore Halloween costumes “that could offend others.”  Missouri law students passed a speech code that Above the Law called Orwellian.  Amherst students called for a speech code that could have sanctioned students for displaying an “All Lives Matter” poster.  At Duke, student activists demanded disciplinary sanctions for students who attend “culturally insensitive” parties and called for denial of tenure for faculty whose speech or writings “could potentially harm the academic achievements of students of color.”

            The litany of incidents and reactions (some would say over-reactions) at universities around the country has become almost routine.  As noted in a Time magazine article on the subject, “our universities have taught a generation of Americans [that] If you don’t agree with someone, are uncomfortable with an idea, or don’t find a joke funny, then their speech must be suppressed.” 



The Wall Street Journal reported on a survey of 800 college students that found 51 percent favored speech codes.  The University of Chicago famously responded to this trend by admonishing its freshmen that there are no safe zones there and that students should be ready to face ideas that might make them uncomfortable.  In a commencement speech last year at Howard University, President Obama (CC ’83) said: “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.”

            Columbia University projects an image to the public that it is a pillar of intellectual integrity and a sanctuary for free speech and the open exchange of ideas. “The Rules of University Conduct, found in Chapter XLIV of the Statutes of Columbia University, are intended to ensure that all members of our community may engage in our cherished traditions of free expression and open debate.   Like society at large, but even more so, the University has a vital interest in fostering a climate in which nothing is immune from scrutiny.  Columbia has a long tradition of valuing dissent and controversy and in welcoming the clash of opinions onto the campus. (Free speech statement posted on https://www.thefire.org/schools/columbia-university/.)  The University’s statement of principles continues as follows:

To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return.

University President Lee C. Bollinger stated at the 2016 Convocation for new students that “We don’t censor speech.”

            To be clear, private universities like Columbia are entirely within their legal rights to restrict speech.  This is not a First Amendment issue because private universities are not government actors and are not bound by Constitutional principles.  However, the reputation of a college or university is significantly affected by the way it handles student and faculty speech.  Those, like Columbia, that purport to be defenders of free speech rights and who claim to welcome discussion of controversial topics must practice what they preach in order to maintain the reputation they desire.  President Bollinger recently stated that if the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was invited to campus to speak, he would allow it, because Columbia does not censor speech.

            It would be damaging to the university’s reputation in the eyes of prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty and potential faculty, and the public generally if the university engaged in censorship of students or student groups, in contravention of its stated ideals and principles.

            What, then, are we to make of the university’s decision to try to muzzle its sometimes controversial Marching Band?  Certainly, over many years, the Band’s shows on Orgo Nights have generated protests, cries of outrage, and condemnation from students and student groups who have claimed that the programs, or in some cases the posters advertising the show, were offensive to some groups or individuals.  But, despite calls for action against the Band, university administration did not retaliate based on the Band’s speech and permitted the Orgo Night’s performances to continue without interruption – until December of 2016.



            If the university administrators responsible for the action against the Band were actually motivated by a desire to censor the Band’s content and reduce its audience based on objections to the messages that they thought might be included in the program, such censorship would violate university principles.  For this reason, the administration cannot admit such an improper motive, and in fact President Bollinger has specifically denied that censorship of the message was the motive behind the action.

            And yet, the facts surrounding the decision strongly suggest that censorship was actually motivating the university’s actions.  The evidence for this conclusion is set out in detail in an earlier essay.  The involved administrators, of course, will deny such an actual motive, as they must.  But the motives asserted as being the basis for the decision are demonstrably false and lack any rational foundation, leaving any objective observer to wonder: what was the real motive that the administrators don’t want to admit?  The only conclusion is that the real motive is, indeed, censorship, because if there were another motive the university would be willing to articulate it.

            In addition, the university must deal with the very real appearance of censorship.  It is possible that Ann Thornton, Dean Valentini, President Bollinger, and the other members of the secret cabal that made the decision to ban the Band from the library acted not out of an overt intent to censor the band, but rather out of a mistaken understanding of the facts, or based on incorrect information provided by others, or based on some other invalid reason.  But observers, including other student groups, will view the assault on the Band as clearly the censorship of the Band’s speech.  This appearance of censorship is as bad for the university as actual censorship.

            Consider this example.  An associate professor at Columbia gives a speech on campus in which he makes statements that are later the subject of protests claiming that the statements are demeaning toward a minority group.  Student groups on campus boycott his classes and protest around university buildings, but the university President issues a statement of support that the professor has the right to speak and that Columbia welcomes controversial discussion as part of its intellectual mandate.  The protests die down after a few weeks.  A few months later, the professor is denied tenure and effectively fired.  In the process of discussing whether to issue tenure to the controversial professor, his Department Head states that the decision was based on the professor’s failure to publish substantial articles, the poor reviews of his classes by his students, and peer reviews by department professors.  After the decision is announced, an independent investigation concludes that the professor published more articles, which were more critically praised, than three other professors who were granted tenure in the prior year, including one who was granted tenure in the same review cycle.  The investigation also shows that the professor’s classes received higher student ratings than the other professor who was granted tenure, and that the person granted tenure received lower scores in peer reviews.

            It may be true, in this example, that the tenure committee had incorrect information, or it may have been that some information was misrepresented or misinterpreted.  Regardless of the truth, it appears that tenure was withheld in retaliation for the professor’s controversial speech, despite assurances to the contrary.  Other potential faculty members will see this and wonder whether free speech is really protected at Columbia, or whether protests by students will result in adverse action that will be cloaked in false rationales.  The appearance of adverse action based on controversial speech is a black eye for the university even if there really was another reason.

 
  

        Appearances are important, and perception is reality for many.  The appearance of censorship by university administration is a serious problem.  Whether warranted or not, the university is at risk here of fostering an image of Columbia as a university where controversial speech is met by retaliation and censorship.  The transparently false justifications offered by university administration for the cancellation of the Orgo Night program leaves the impression that censorship is the true motive, and correct or not, inflicts a black eye on Columbia that is difficult to remove.

            The solution to this problem is simple, but is the one thing that university administrators resist most – admitting that they made a mistake.  The decision regarding Orgo Night was made hastily and without sufficient data or discussion.  There is little shame in admitting these realities and returning the Orgo Night show to its traditional location in Butler 209.  If in fact there is a problem that needs to be addressed, the administration can properly study it, consider it, and take action based on facts that would not present the same appearance of censorship.  Admitting error is a sign of intelligence, not weakness.  Facts were not complete, analysis was not thorough, and contrary information and alternatives were not properly considered.  Admitting this is not an indictment of the university, but failing to admit it will leave a lasting mark.

-         Hamiltonius

-  H

Friday, February 17, 2017

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.

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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 fa├žade 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.

-         Hamiltonius
-  H
-                  In Defense of Orgo Night #1
-                  In Defense of Orgo Night #2
-                  In Defense of Orgo Night #3

-                  In Defense of Orgo Night #4

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.
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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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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.)

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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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