When Ari Boosalis, CC ‘19, arrived at Columbia, he was struck by how much the campus environment differed from that of his Jesuit high school in San Francisco. “[Columbia] is a very high stress environment where you have to be very careful about what you do,” Boosalis says. “You don’t really see people vulnerable. People put themselves on this pedestal that they want to be, and some people succeed in that and some people fail.”
An economics and history double major and former professional ballet dancer at American Ballet Theatre and The New York City School of Ballet, Boosalis is also known on campus as the former president of Columbia University College Republicans, which, last year, garnered particular attention for inviting controversial speakers such as Tommy Robinson and Mike Cernovich to campus in the hopes of confronting Columbia students with more conservative perspectives. These events sparked protests attended by hundreds of Columbia students and community members; the disciplining of Columbia students who interrupted CUCR’s Tommy Robinson lecture and Q&A session; the harassment of Boosalis and his fellow board members by self-declared anti-fascists; and Boosalis being interviewed by Fox News. The events of last year and their effects on the campus-wide discussion about free speech have defined Boosalis’ time at Columbia and made him reflect on the community’s political polarization.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
“These ideas are going to be here no matter what, so why don’t you confront them?” he says. “If you don’t confront Trump and show why he’s wrong, and why his vision for America is wrong, and put forth a compelling case for why your vision is better, and people believe it, then you’re not going to change America or change perception.”
Boosalis points to Mike Cernovich, who gets 100 million views on Facebook per month. “You have to understand why this is happening, why people are believing him, and is it wrong or is it right? Is there something he’s missing? Is he not getting the complexity of the conversation?”
Boosalis is loath to differentiate hate speech from free speech. “Being challenged and having your identity challenged is okay,” he says. “It’s perfectly fine. I think it’s important… by people challenging our ideas it’s a way for us to have better ideas and think things out. If you believe that’s an injustice, fight it. Show people why that’s wrong… I think that’s the best way to fight it. It’s not restricting people, forcing people not to come because you feel oppressed. Personally I like being challenged on my views because at the end of the day I don’t want to have lazy views. I think at Columbia a lot of people are sheep and they don’t really form their own identity, and they’re never ever really challenged so they never really know what they believe in, and I don’t know if their ideas are actually right.” Although he acknowledges that he would now do some things differently, Boosalis has no regrets about organizing the CUCR speaker series. “Columbia’s a bubble… I didn’t always agree with the speakers…but just hosting those conversations was important,” he says. “For a student who wants to do what I did, just realize that your popularity is going to diminish, but that’s not what’s important to me. It takes a certain type of person in order to do what I did.”
At the end of the day, Boosalis believes that although he cannot claim to feel very welcomed by the Columbia community as a whole, he has learned that “you just need to realize the expectations you have and be okay to find your own route and not go with what everyone else does.”