Friday, April 19, 2024

Norm Breaking at Columbia

David Pozen

Recent events at my home university have inspired a torrent of critical commentary. That Columbia’s leadership declined to follow various norms of campus governance does not, in itself, prove that it acted unwisely. But seeing the pattern of norm breaking helps throw into relief the potential costs of its decisions in the future as well as the present. 


First, during President Shafik’s testimony on Wednesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, she disclosed that several faculty members are under investigation for making discriminatory remarks. “President Shafik’s public naming of [these faculty members] to placate a hostile committee,” the American Association of University Professors observed, “sets a dangerous precedent for academic freedom and has echoes of the cowardice often displayed during the McCarthy era.” In setting this precedent, Shafik violated a longstanding norm of confidentiality regarding internal disciplinary proceedings. University rules provide that allegations of discrimination will be handled in a confidential manner. Often, these proceedings are handled so secretively that even the complainant is kept in the dark. To have an ongoing investigation revealed by a top administrator on live TV, in the absence of a subpoena or other legal compulsion, is a stunning departure from campus customs and investigatory best practices more generally.

Second, although President Shafik’s decision to invite the NYPD on campus to arrest students may have been within her formal authority, it breaks with an informal settlement that had been in place for more than a half-century. The last time the university called the cops on student protesters was April 1968;* that episode ended so bitterly and bloodily that it yielded a norm of police noninvolvement. Since 1968, student protesters have repeatedly occupied Low Library, blockaded Hamilton Hall, held sit-ins in administrative offices, waged hunger strikes, staged walkouts, and more. Some of these protests led to disciplinary code charges. None elicited a criminal law enforcement response. This week’s encampment on the South Lawn posed a difficult problem for the university administration, to be sure, but not one that was different in kind, duration, or disruptiveness from scores of post-1968 protests. When the next extended student demonstration occurs, it will be hard to resist pressure to call in the cops again. 


Third, the most serious charge that President Shafik leveled against the student protesters, that their encampment created a “harassing and intimidating environment,” was made without the benefit of any factfinding process.** “Discriminatory harassment,” defined to include the creation of “an intimidating … environment,” is prohibited by Columbia’s Standards & Discipline policy. But that policy, and the procedural protections that come with it, does not seem to have been applied here. This suggests that the university deemed the protesters’ expressive conduct, as well as their occupation of the lawn, to be in violation of the Rules of University Conduct. Yet while the Rules allow the restriction of “expression that constitutes a genuine threat of harassment,” President Shafik offered no examples of such threats, nor to my knowledge have any been reported. If this finding of harassment is based on the discomfort some feel from the presence or message of the encampment, then the harassment concept—intended to set an objective standard that preserves a wide berth for provocative speech—has become an engine of viewpoint discrimination. Either way, its application to this case indicates that the president’s office now believes it can make such fraught judgments summarily and unilaterally.


Other examples of recent ruptures might be added to the list. In the jettisoning of these institutional norms, one throughline is the prioritization of immediate objectives over longer-term considerations of academic autonomy and democratic self-governance—considerations that the norms had developed, however imperfectly, to protect. In the university as in the wider world, crisis has thus led not only to rising repression but also to the consolidation of presidential power.



 * Two readers have pointed out to me that this statement is incorrect, as students were arrested in 1987 for “chain[ing] the doors of Hamilton shut” and in 1996 for “blockad[ing] the five entrances to Low Library to prevent University employees from entering.” (A preceding sit-in in the office of the Columbia College dean was not met with a police response.) I thank these readers and regret the error. Notwithstanding these episodes, it is striking that the norm against inviting cops on campus to arrest peaceful protesters otherwise remained so robust and that both deviations from the norm involved the forced closure of a university building, unlike with this week’s encampment.


 ** Another reader contends that this sentence minimizes the seriousness of the trespass charges, which are not merely administrative but criminal in nature. But the basis for the trespass charges is that the protesting students had been suspended, effective immediately, for violating university rules—and therefore were not allowed to be on campus. And the most serious (though not the only) university infraction that the protesters were deemed to have committed, as far as I can tell, related to the creation of a harassing and intimidating environment.


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