Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Looking at how inner turmoil in Columbia Milvets led to dean intervention.
Columbia University Military Veterans is an organization whose activities and inner workings are largely unknown to anyone outside of it, especially to students from the other three undergraduate colleges. This privacy is much of the reason why the deans of the School of General Studies were able to take over the club last spring, with little to no notice of anyone else on campus. Complete upheaval in the form of a Facebook group brawl led to the removal of the executive board and emergency election of a new one, all supervised by the school’s deans.
According to a former member, one of the executive board members at the time posted a picture in the Milvets’ closed Facebook group of himself with Hillary Clinton in December of last year. Some in the group felt this aligned the club with Mrs. Clinton, or that the executive member had used his position on the board to meet her. These perceptions ignited a powder keg of political enmity, causing the vets to splinter into factions. But politics was only the match to the fuse, as the entire community would discover over the ensuing few weeks, while brewing discontent with the executive board boiled over. Or some might say exploded.
Milvets was formed in the 2003-2004 school year, when GS only had about forty veterans enrolled. Currently, according to School of General Studies Dean, Peter Awn, there are about 430 veterans enrolled at GS, which make up 23% of the entire GS student body, a huge growth from when the club was founded.
The group’s purpose is to provide resources and support to military veterans on campus. Much of those resources come in the form of career fairs and support from an alumni network. Dean Awn says the founding members are “some of the most active alums working with the student veterans.” Milvets currently holds events about once a month in addition to weekly board meetings and general body meetings. Events in the past have ranged from resume reviews to speakers to company recruitment.
The club includes members of every branch of the military from an array of service backgrounds, as well as veterans from other countries’ militaries, and non-veteran students. Membership is open to any Columbia student and is contingent only on joining the mailing list.
A Monolithic People Group
The conditions that led to the complete meltdown of the CU Milvets last semester were present before the club was formed, even before the seventy-year-old School of General Studies was founded. Much of the animosity amongst club members was a product of rivalries between different branches in the military which translated into disagreements that outlived these veterans’ service.
Though there is a certain commonality that comes with serving your country in any capacity, someone who served as a Army Ranger in Afghanistan likely experienced different challenges than someone who served in the Navy as a surgeon in Germany. These different experiences sometimes manifest as differing levels of respect for fellow servicemen, based on the capacity in which one served.
This is certainly not to say that every member of one branch of service dislikes every member from another—that is hardly the case. But the feelings existed in a small but vocal minority of members of Milvets.
One former member described the club as a “monolithic people group,” meaning that the club’s structure and treatment by the administration regards every veteran’s experience equal, irrespective of the capacity in which they served. Current Communications Director of Milvets, Mark Franklin GS ’17, confirms that veterans can have a “fundamentally different experience” from one another in the military, but he does not consider this a bad thing, or a weakness for the club. “There’s no tension, there’s no animosity or anything like that, it’s just a different experience and there’s value to having that depth of experience,” Franklin says.“We’re all here to learn, to get an education, to go on to the next chapter.”
Other Milvets members, both former and current, strongly disagree with Franklin on this point. They point to the hard feelings that exist between different branches of service as one of the issues at the heart of the removal of the club’s executive board at the beginning of last spring semester.
Peter Kiernan, GS ’17 and the former Vice President of Milvets, explains, “Veterans who fought in combat don’t like being represented by somebody who didn’t.” But Kiernan is quick to stress that this issue is “a problem the veteran community needs to deal with,” and “not what people on the outside should see.”
Tension between service branches is certainly not the only reason the Milvets community fractured in December. The club was increasingly burdened with functioning as a support group for veterans, especially when it came to mental health services. “Columbia has CPS, but they’re not trained in dealing with PTS (post-traumatic stress) and veterans’ issues,” says Kiernan.
Franklin adds, “You come into a very stressful environment like Columbia, with varying degrees of emotional trauma. That institutional stress can sort of trigger things and aggravate underlying conditions.”
Of the embattled executive board’s managing of the issue Kiernan elaborates, “We went out of our way to fill that need. We created a mental health liaison. But this is not stuff that students should be doing. We were filling a gap that we were over extended on.”
Dean Awn believes the blowup was more a function of growing pains than anything else. “It devolved last year into an issue that looked like it was about personalities, but I would argue it was that we hadn’t thought through the evolution of Milvets,” he says. The group grew exponentially since its founding, and it became difficult to represent the increasingly diverse body of members. The executive board “became very directive in how they approached the community, which caused a certain amount of backlash,” says Awn.
In addition to the over-extended board, a large, diverse general body brings a wide-ranging spectrum of political opinions to the dynamic. Staunch conservatives, hardcore liberals and everything in between belong to the club. Many of these factions became angered when executive board members seemed to be increasingly supporting one political ideology over another, not as private citizens but in their positions as Milvets leaders. Additionally, some members felt that the executive board was using their positions to promote their personal political agendas and aspirations. “That was part of the reason the board turned over,” Franklin explains, “things got political.”
“Behind the Keyboard”
What started with the picture featuring Mrs. Clinton exploded into an unmediated melee. Over the course of winter break, club members began taking to the Facebook group to air any and all grievances about the club, mostly harsh criticism of the then executive board. Kiernan, a member of the executive board under fire, said, “The coup was a small group who strongly disliked the president.” The president at the time was Brian Adam Jones, GS ‘16.
The hate that led to Jones’ and his fellow leaders’ resignations was launched from a distance.
“What was most shocking about the drama with Milvets,” says Kiernan, “was that it happened over break, so there was no way to address the issues in public, because they just spiraled out of control while we were away. It was a function of people having too much time on their hands and people who really hated the e-board. And this was all behind the keyboard—nobody was here at Columbia.”
At the height of the conflict, an anonymous group of members released a fifty-three-page PDF document titled “Crimes Against Community”, obtained by The Blue and White, rife with screenshots from the private executive board group chat. Among the messages are evidence of board members setting up a fictitious nominations process and misusing Milvets resources to boost engagement on their own Facebook pages. Facebook group infighting only escalated after the release of the document, and “it came to the point where alumni and corporations started to hear about it,” said Kiernan. Employers who recruit from GS contacted David Keefe, Senior Assistant Dean of Veterans Initiatives. They felt that the situation had gone too far and asked Dean Keefe to step in.
“After things had digressed for about three weeks, I got a phone call from the Advising Student Dean Keefe [sic] and he said ‘You have to resign. If you don’t resign, the administration will no longer support you in anything you do.’ Which was a big issue because we were expecting $30,000 for our military ball,” says Kiernan. Kiernan resigned from his post as Vice President, and the rest of the executive board members still remaining after the group chat leak followed suit.
Dean Awn describes the situation a little differently, not mentioning any alumni or corporations playing a hand. Rather, the deans suggested that it would be best if the leadership stepped down.
“The deans didn’t go in and say ‘Oh this is horrible we’re going to shut you down.’ We said ‘You have a quasi-rebellion from some parts of the community. Don’t you think now is the time to gracefully exit, have elections, get a new team in place and have them finish out the year?’” Awn recalls. For the most part, he says the executive board was receptive to the suggestion of resignation. He affirms, “Were we involved in the conversation? Absolutely. But was it the deans saying you have to resign, absolutely not.”
Keeping the Peace
Regardless, this level of involvement by the dean’s office in a student organization is unprecedented. The Activities Board at Columbia, the governing board which oversees Milvets, says that they cannot remember another time in their eighteen-year history that this has ever happened to one of their student groups. Similarly, the Student Governing Board, which oversees political, religious, activist and identity-based groups on campus and was founded out of the 1968 protests to give students more control over their groups, says they also cannot name a single time deans have interfered in group workings in their recent history. Current SGB Chair Karim Nader says, “ [Dean involvement] is extremely rare since any group would go to SGB Adjudication before going to administrative bodies.”
Nader also points out that this past semester, the undergraduate governing boards (SGB, ABC, IGC, and GBB) formed “an inter-governing board adjudication process through Undergrad Student Life making that even less likely.” The new adjudication process creates a structure for conflicts to go through student mediation before administration intervention, but it did not exist last spring.
The Milvets intrusion sets what could be a dangerous precedent for student groups on campus. Kiernan says that it was “alumni and an angry group of students” who “forced the hand” of the dean’s office.
But forced or not, what does it say to other student groups when one of the largest organizations on campus is swiftly dismantled and reassembled by administrators?
Dean Awn denies that the dean’s office forced anything. “Would we have quote ‘forced them out,’ no I don’t think I could’ve gone that far,” he says, “But would the whole thing have fallen apart? I think most probably and they knew that and that’s not what they wanted.”
He explains that Milvets is a “unique operation,” and the resolution of their drama last semester does not set any sort of precedent for other student groups on campus. Because Milvets is predominantly made up of GS students, the GS administration was already closer to Milvets than any other student group.
Indeed, many Milvets do not seem to mind the involvement of the deans. Kiernan does “not necessarily think it was a bad thing,” and one Milvets member who wishes to remain anonymous says, “The deans did a good job. They did what they’re supposed to do” and have made Milvets the “gold standard of veterans’ groups.”
The Milvets organization certainly seems better for the administrative involvement. Franklin believes the club has moved on from the schism, both due to the efforts of the deans and the reenergized body of the club.
“People got sick of the drama and were sick of hearing about it,” he says, “The membership of the club – either they’re brand new people who don’t know about this history, or the people that were there were sick of it and just wanted to move on.”
Franklin stresses that the hiring of Dean David Keefe in the fall of 2015 has been instrumental in fostering continued conversation and support between the administration and Milvets. “The administration support has increased significantly,” he continues, “We work very closely with [Dean Keefe] and have weekly meetings with him. I think the administration has done a very good job, especially with the growing number of veterans.” Whether this closer relationship is a direct result of the melee or simply due to the creation of Dean Keefe’s position is unclear, but Dean Awn affirms that the relationship is “much more comfortable” and that it allows for “easier access from both sides.”
Milvets is taking a new approach to programming this year, offering fewer, but more focused events, typically about one a month. Franklin says the “coolest thing” they have planned is hosting a Ted Talk. The topic will be “Warriors and Scholars,” and will coincide with the Milvets Ball, which is returning this year after being cancelled last year.
Franklin says the programming is based on what members want to see, and that the executive board is trying to take more of a supporting role as “facilitators, not administrators. And I think that’s where the future of the organization lies, in facilitating members to do whatever they want.”
The new executive board is also trying to work more with other veteran’s organizations, especially the Ivy League Veterans Council (ILVC), which Franklin referred to as, “the primary group [Milvets] engages with.”
The ILVC was actually founded by Kiernan, the former Milvets vice president, in 2015 with the goal of getting more veterans into the top undergraduate colleges in the country. According to statistics cited by Kiernan, veterans make up only about 1% of the student population at the top fifty schools in the country, even though they are 5% of the total undergraduate population.
Kiernan believes this disjunction comes from two issues; “one is that vets getting out of the military are not adequately informed on higher education. And on the other hand, schools don’t know what to do because they don’t have any veterans.” Because Columbia has GS, they have a system in place for admitting and supporting veterans, but there is no standard for other schools to follow. The ILVC aims to create a standard that schools can implement, including flexible admission, flexible enrollment, and integration into undergraduate classrooms.
“The core focus is exactly that – trying to work with various schools to come up with ways to create a model that would welcome a significant number of veterans at various institutions,” says Dean Awn, who believes much of the problem with getting veterans into elite schools stems from an admissions process that focuses on the quantitative more than the qualitative. CU Milvets, as one of the current ILVC member organizations, is working with the council to help change and create such standards.
When asked if CU Milvets has moved on from the issues of last semester, Franklin says, “I think we have, it feels like we have.” He does point out that the club learned a hard lesson when it comes to online interactions.
“We’re very visible and we’re very conscious of that visibility. You forget just how many eyes are on the organization sometimes, but it’s important to not forget that.”