By Tarini Krishna
Khadija Hussain, BC ’21, wants students to think critically about the local—specifically, how we live in Morningside Heights. What is strikingly refreshing about Hussain’s character is her unwavering commitment to live by her morals. Although she derides her peers who unquestioningly believe that Columbia students are exceptional changemakers, she is acutely cognizant of her hypocrisy. And while her status as a student here makes her complicit in these attitudes herself, Hussain is indeed a changemaker—though not by virtue of her soon-to-be-completed Ivy League degree.
I met Hussain on a windy day in late March at Hungarian, where she was sitting with her usual coffee and a croissant. She affectionately described her favorite haunt as a place where she can be close to people without having to engage in awkward small talk—an ironic comment, considering that our interview was interrupted several times by friends of hers passing by our perch. Ali Hassani stopped to remind Hussain that they would be meeting up on April 1, to which Hussain responded bluntly that she would not be showing up. “April Fool’s.”
From across the table, I marveled at Hussain’s casual, witty personality as these short conversations punctuated our intense discussion about institutional hypocrisy. Places like Columbia claim that they will empower students to effect positive change as they continue to exacerbate wealth inequality and structural oppression, she told me. Hussain railed against this theory-praxis dissonance: “This is not a place that’s about education. These institutions are built as schools for rich kids to make connections. And in large part, they still continue to serve that purpose today.”
I originally reached out to Hussain about an article she had written for the Verso blog last May: “Can Elite Universities Justify Their Wealth?” At the time, the news cycle was replete with pieces about elite universities’ plunging endowments and pandemic-related economic turmoil. But Covid-19 illuminated an oft-neglected issue: long-festering socioeconomic inequities. Hussain’s article challenged these issues with fierceness and poise. “The wealthiest universities have, in theory, the most resources to be able to envision and fight for alternatives to our currently broken system,” she wrote. “But in practice … the wealthiest colleges help maintain class divides that undermine democracy. … In the face of a future in which only the richest schools thrive, it’s worth asking: what value do these institutions serve for the rest of society?”
Hussain hails from New Haven, Connecticut, a city all too familiar with the fraught relationship between an elite university and a community threatened by gentrification. As a History major focusing on the twentieth century, Hussain studies third-world internationalism. She is currently finishing up her thesis on solidarity-building political and economic movements in the Global South. When asked to compare Columbia’s and Yale’s relationships with their respective locales, Hussain told me that she was struck by the hypocrisy of both institutions. In both spaces, students learn about the violent histories of colonialism and territorialization, but the road to praxis stops there, as both universities’ gentrification efforts repeatedly demonstrate. She notes that this dissonance “is really integral to the structure of these universities.” In a twisted irony, students seem to believe their institutions act as a “public good” simply because they claim to benefit the communities they are situated in. Hussain has no patience for such myths of “exceptionality.”
In reality, Columbia is a driving force of gentrification and uses eminent domain in projects such as the Manhattanville campus. For Hussain, this issue confronts her personally with a Catch-22. “As a Columbia or Barnard student we are totally implicated in these processes of gentrification and displacement,” she said. “My ability to live in this neighborhood off-campus is completely predicated on the expulsion of people who lived in this neighborhood twenty years ago. The fact that Barnard is paying my rent and I wouldn’t be able to rent here on my own. … That’s because of the same forces.” As Hussain loquaciously expounded upon the larger capitalist system that forced her complicity in this process, her eyes would flit anxiously towards the birds awkwardly pecking around our feet.
Hussain described her confusion watching classmates discuss histories of economic exploitation, then accept job offers at McKinsey. She expressed her dismay at the Ivy-groomed students who claim to understand injustice in the classroom but pursue careers that actually promote it in practice. The concept itself relies on elite academic siloing: “It’s the scary thing about private school in general,” she told me. “You go to private school your whole life and come here. Your view of the world is so fundamentally—” she paused— “off, flawed. So limited that it logically could make sense to you to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go into this job to make more money than my parents.’” Insead of working to transform the world, students ultimately work within and reinforce existing structures of oppression, fueled by the exceptionalism that Hussain detests.
Hussain does not consider this to be a problem with Columbia specifically, but with privatized education in general. While it is easy to point fingers at universities with billions of dollars in their endowments, Barnard, with an endowment of around $360 million, is equally complicit in distorting conceptions of class and wealth. Although Barnard postures as the small liberal arts alternative to the research university across the street, Hussain sees through it. These “markers of alternative-ness are in some ways more insidious than Columbia just being like, ‘No, here’s a huge library with Homer and Virgil written on it,” she told me. “Whereas Barnard is like, ‘We have a Jenny Holzer bench. We’re cool.’”
Hussain’s comment is reminiscent of Mark Fisher’s theory of cynical distance. Fisher posits that consumers latch onto identity markers that allow them to passively perform anti-capitalism; for example, the History major who justifies their job at Bain with their labor history thesis. In other words, consumers will outwardly project that capitalism is evil while simultaneously consuming with impunity. They are under the illusion that they’re morally upstanding because they know what they’re doing is wrong. That distance they’ve created in their mind allows them to insincerely self-flagellate for being a corporate sellout while still climbing the ladder.
Hussain believes that to transform the current system, we must begin by questioning our local context. That starts with being critical of ourselves and the people around us and changing our behavior to lead us to a radical reimagining of community. She paused here to apologize for dismantling the croissant she had been picking at. The fluffy layers lay strewn across the paper plate in front of her.
Hussain argued that if one follows what one learns in the classroom to its logical endpoint, one arrives at a radical place: that Columbia University is a corporation because it monetizes knowledge. Instead, “you should be fighting for a public education system,” Hussain told me. “You should be fighting for the dismantling of places like Columbia.” Hussain told me that if we begin to recognize our collective complicity in the “gentrification and displacement and wealth inequality” our universities perpetuate, if we apply the theory and history that we learn in the classroom to hold the institution accountable, then “places like Columbia are not part of that story in the future.” She thought for a moment. “They’re not a part of the future, at least, in my head.”
By the time Hussain finished explaining all of this to me, it was not just her croissant that was dismantled. She had slowly crumpled the paper plate, placed it inside her empty coffee cup, and deconstructed the lid of the coffee cup. When I looked back at her, she was working on the seam of the paper cup itself. I wonder if this subconscious action was intentional given her vision of an ideal world in which capitalist structures are dismantled. It seems right that deconstruction should play a part in her daily routine.
After graduation, Hussain would like to continue working on housing justice issues. She is currently involved with the Right to Counsel New York City Coalition, a group of tenants rights organizations, organizers, and advocates. When I asked her where she sees herself in a few years, she told me that she desires to be part of a community that practices accountability and demonstrates a commitment to radical transformation. Hussain doesn’t just want this for herself—she encourages students everywhere to surround themselves with friends who will question them on whether their actions align with their values. Unsurprisingly, Hussain lives by her own advice. She is adamant that most of her collegiate learning has come not from the classroom, but from the people around her.