In Defense of Orgo Night #10
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 margin on the right.
There is a Solution to this Problem
In earlier essays, we have shown that Orgo Night is, and should remain, a cherished and unique tradition at Columbia. Such a tradition should not be altered without sound and compelling reasons. We have also shown that the reasons articulated by the Columbia administration for banning the Marching Band from Butler library fail to withstand scrutiny. There were no complaints from students who would prefer to use Butler 209 for quiet studying on the night of the Orgo Night show. Even if there were such Quiet Study Requestors, the interests of the students who welcome the Band’s performances far outweighs the interests of the objectors, especially since alternate quiet study space is so readily available at minimal cost. There is no rational basis for the university to suppress the Orgo Night show. At least not one that has been articulated.
It does not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that, since the proffered reasons are mere pretexts and obviously false, there must be a different motive at work – one that President Bollinger cannot admit. This is, of course, the desire to censor the Band and muzzle its satirical commentary on the university along with other content that some might find to be inappropriate or even offensive. This content-based censorship of student speech is contrary to every public statement by the university, its charter and statement of ideals, and President Bollinger’s own public statements. And yet, that is obviously what is going on, and everyone watching the events can clearly see it.
But, at this point, President Bollinger, Dean Valentini, and the rest of the university administration have painted themselves into a corner by making their clandestine decisions without any public discussion or process. Certainly, they do not want to admit that their motive was censorship of the Band, but how at this point can they reverse field on the subject without embarrassment?
We can think of two courses of action that will reach the appropriate conclusion. First, the administrators can plausibly claim that the impetus for the decision was the new Head Librarian, Ann Thornton. Ms. Thornton has said that she feels that the Orgo Night show is inappropriate for the library. She says that she convinced the Deans to support her decision. At this point, what if Ms. Thornton changed her mind? What if, after reviewing the long and proud tradition of Orgo Night, of which she was not fully aware before – being new to Columbia – she comes to the realization that Orgo Night really does have value after all? What if Ms. Thornton comes to better understand the benefits of having a comic relief from the grind of finals studying, and that other universities have established their own traditions for stress-reduction activities so that the Orgo Night tradition is not so far outside the bounds of what is “accepted” practice for a university library? Considering the current atmosphere of tension on campus, perhaps allowing the Orgo Night show would be a welcome pressure-relief valve for students. If, after study and thought, Ms. Thornton decides to change her mind about Orgo Night, then she could go back to the Deans and solicit their support for reversing the decision. They supported her before, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t support her decision to change her mind.
Nobody has to admit what the true reasons were for banning the Band from the library, and nobody has to go back and discuss the alleged complaints or the other reasons that were offered. The change of course can simply be based on Ms. Thornton’s epiphany about the value of Orgo Night – to the students, to the alumni, and to the campus community -- and the relative ease of providing alternative study space, if needed, on that one night each semester. Nobody needs to be embarrassed, and the Band can play its normal Orgo Night show in May of 2017 in Butler 209.
A second option, albeit more cumbersome, would be for the administration to admit only one error – failing to follow a properly public process in the discussion about Orgo Night. Dean Valentini and President Bollinger could initiate a process now to openly explore whether there really is a shortage of quiet study locations in campus libraries on Orgo Night. This process would also investigate whether there really are a large number of students whose would prefer to use Butler 209 for quiet study and who would be significantly inconvenienced by using another location on this one night per semester. They can also seek input from interested alumni who view Orgo Night as an essential connection they share with current and future students. And the process would determine how many students would prefer to continue Orgo Night in the library. The process could also fully explore the history and value of Orgo Night to the university. The final conclusion that would be reached after a true evaluation and discussion of the issues is likely that Orgo Night should be restored to Butler 209, and any need for additional quiet study space should be addressed by keeping another available library open a few extra hours.
Here again, there would be no embarrassment to university officials, who would be admitting only that the original decision was made hastily and without sufficient study and data. This is not an admission of a nefarious motive nor an admission of any wrongdoing, but merely an acknowledgement that additional study is needed. All parties would be satisfied, and Orgo Night can be returned to its historical norm. Alumni who have resigned in protest from volunteer positions could return to the service of their alma mater. Alumni who have pledged to withhold donations would be able to write checks in good conscience again. Order would be restored, without any long-term damage to Columbia or to the involved administrators.
A solution, then, is not only possible, but readily available. All that need happen is for President Bollinger, Dean Valentini, and Ms. Thornton to realize that their original action was a mistake, and that it’s time to fix it while they still can.