‘Columbia Spectator’ Examines Student Rights at Columbia

March 11, 2010

A reflective opinion piece in the Columbia Spectator, published yesterday by student Derek Turner, examines the state of student rights at Columbia University and asks important questions about the range of rights and decision-making authority students should reasonably expect at Columbia. It is always a worthwhile exercise to assess whether one’s university is delivering on the promises it has made to students and faculty to lure them to campus, or whether the school’s administration is instead failing to meet the legitimate expectations it has created. Moreover, the article is timely in that Columbia students have recently sought to make their voices heard on campus issues such as gender-neutral housing, the university calendar, and smoking bans on campus, as the article discusses.

Turner writes:

As undergraduates at Columbia, we pay a lot of money to be part of the system here. Though we begin our relationship with this school as ambitious teenagers begging to be let in, we soon switch roles and start receiving requests for payment. We pay them and continue with our education. But what does that payment mean? Is it simply the transaction to get the product of a Columbia diploma, or is it the beginning of an investment? Are we not part of the institution as students here?

Granted, we don’t necessarily pay for all the costs of our education, but that doesn’t mean that we get this education for free. We’re all making a significant investment by being here. So what does that mean? To me, I think that means that we have some authority.

Turner asks important questions about student rights and expectations at Columbia University and elsewhere, and about the nature of a student’s relationship with his or her university. This passage is a useful reminder of the need to hold colleges and universities to the commitments they make in stated school policy with regard to student and faculty rights. The need for such accountability is especially important at private institutions, which are not legally bound by the Bill of Rights. At private colleges and universities, student and faculty rights, including the right to free speech, are defined by the school’s promises in recruiting materials, student and faculty codes of conduct and handbooks, and other stated policy. Students and faculty deserve to see their institution fulfill all of its promises, such that the campus community meets the expectations the college has created.

Sadly, this is not the case at Columbia with respect to the university’s stated commitments to freedom of speech. Columbia expressly promises robust speech rights on its campus, stating:

While the University as a private institution is not subject to the Constitutional provisions on free speech and due process of law, the University by its nature is dedicated to the free expression of ideas and to evenhanded and fair dealing with all with whom it conducts its affairs.

Yet one look at Columbia’s Spotlight page belies this promised dedication to free speech. The university’s speech codes earn it a “red-light” rating in Spotlight, given to those schools that maintain at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. (For a policy-by-policy analysis of Columbia’s speech codes, see Sam’s entry from last year’s “State of Free Speech on Campus” series.) Additionally, the high number of FIRE cases at Columbia over the years, in which the university has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of respect for the individual rights of its students and faculty, make clear that Columbia has not taken its commitments seriously enough or given them the priority they deserve. As such, articles like Turner’s, and the student awareness and engagement they reveal, are necessary to keep the pressure on the Columbia administration so that it may eventually live up to its worthy promises.

Schools:  Columbia University