COVID-19 has accelerated the politics of austerity at Columbia. So we organized our student body.
In April 1968, Columbia students stormed and occupied Hamilton Hall in response to the administration’s retaliation against anti-war student-activists and plans by the university to build a segregated gym in Morningside Park. These protests received widespread support from the student body but came at the cost of hundreds of injuries and arrests perpetrated by the NYPD. Ultimately, the 1968 protests culminated in the scrapping of the proposed gym plans and the formation of a university senate composed of faculty, students, and staff intended to democratize Columbia’s governance. These protests had long-lasting effects on Columbia but, most importantly, they showed who truly holds power on college campuses: students.
Similar to the tumultuous period of the late 1960s, Columbia experienced a plethora of issues in 2020, some of which resulted from problems that long preceded the pandemic. Throughout the 2010s, Columbia has actively ignored the voices of students on a wide range of issues such as affordability, sustainability, student governance, and acts of hate on campus. The pandemic has caused a flashpoint to occur where the systemic injustices that Columbia has perpetuated for years have been made fully transparent.
Adding onto these issues is the fact that students, workers, and instructors have faced overwhelming stress to adapt to the demands of life in the pandemic while university administrators have failed to provide adequate support and financial resources. Despite receiving funds from the CARES Act, many students have failed to receive any support due to the overly bureaucratic nature of obtaining this emergency aid, and, even with these additional funds and a large endowment, it has still refused to concede to or even acknowledge demands by students to lower tuition. Columbia currently has an endowment worth more than $11 billion that they could leverage to easily alleviate every student’s urgent financial needs.
These financial difficulties are in addition to both the refusal by the administration to fully embrace popular reforms and the ongoing attempts by the university to further gentrify the Harlem area. Columbia has recently made inroads into Harlem through the creation of its Manhattanville campus and is in the process of expanding that campus by forcing out local residents. This expansion has imposed an increased presence of police and public safety agents within the community, expanding the same racist institutions that abolitionist organizers are fighting to dismantle. University administrators have also failed to adhere to the democratic referendums passed by the student body asking that Columbia divest from companies profiting off of Israeli apartheid.
Due to Columbia’s lackluster response, we have followed in the example of the 1968 protests: taking direct action to seize the levers of power and democratize our university. Our organizing efforts took off in the summer of 2020. Due to the nascent status of our chapter, we began by making efforts to recruit a core body of members to build organizing power.
After our cadre of organizers was recruited, we then focused on rallying the support of the student body. We accomplished this through classroom announcements, social media postings, and email blasts. We also held biweekly meetings to field questions students had about striking and to formulate new organizing strategies. After exceeding our initial goal of 1,000 signatories on our strike pledge, we then began to reach out to student councils and tried to garner the attention of news agencies by reaching out to reporters. So far, our organizing has been successful due to our tireless efforts to recruit students as well as continued outreach to other student organizers and the media.
Our strike initially centered around the student body’s demands for a reduction in tuition and an increase in financial aid for all students. However, as our numbers grew, we realized that, for many of our demands to be met, our movement would need to address a long-standing issue: a lack of student governance at Columbia. While there are multiple senate bodies within the university that collaborate with administrators to address students’ concerns, almost all such bodies lack actual policy power, except for the one formulated in the aftermath of the 1968 protests. The university senate was formed to give students a voice in policy formulation at the university-wide level; however, since its inception, it has been co-opted by the hegemonic influence of university administrators and the board of trustees. However, by lobbying members of the university senate, we would be able to force the university administration to vote on many of our demands. So our organizing strategy was two-fold: recruit the collective power of students to force administrators to the negotiating table, and lobby pre-existing institutional bodies to fulfill students’ demands.
The tactics and strategies that we have employed in our strike can certainly be replicated at other universities. If our efforts during COVID-19 have revealed anything, it is that effective organizing can occur even when in-person organizing is impossible. We believe that one of the key factors in replicating this movement is a comprehensive understanding of the grievances and needs of students. By adopting demands with wide appeal — in our case, demands that had been campaigned on for years — you can attract the support of broad sections of your student body and even that of local community members.
We also cannot overstate the importance of obtaining the attention of local and national media organizations as well as effectively utilizing social media to highlight your university’s shortcomings. Far more important to universities than their endowment is their public image. Such a tactic may be even more useful to those that attend universities with more limited budgets.
Lastly, all of our organizing efforts were backed up by extensive research into Columbia’s budget, policies, and previous student-led strikes. Past student-movements at Columbia, like the one in 1968 discussed earlier and those throughout the 2010s, had a big influence on us. While other colleges may not have a history of extensive student activism, students can always look to protests at other colleges as well as broader movements such as College for All. And, of course, you and your chapter can always strive to make history at your college. The students of tomorrow will thank you.
This article was written with the help of multiple Columbia-Barnard YDSA members.
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