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  • Writer's pictureMichaela Sawyer

Power Concedes Nothing

Against the hegemony of Big Blue.

By Michaela Sawyer

“Columbia University in the City of New York. A formidable institution focused on intellectual prowess and social aptitude.” This is how I described Columbia in my Common Application about a year ago. It’s staggering just how much can change in 365 days. In the whirlwind of political and social strife the campus has endured since I applied, I would never have predicted that what I once believed to be my greatest achievement to date would so quickly become warped and qualified. In this one trip around the sun, Columbia devolved from the apex of all my aspirations to a cesspool of crass capitalism and bureaucratic bludgeoning.

Contrary to popular belief regarding so-called Gen-Z Activist Culture, I did not go searching for trouble on Columbia’s campus. Back in the old country of Atlanta, Georgia, I joined my fair share of protests and community organizing efforts for one struggle or another, but I and so many like me knew the trials and tribulations of effectively branding yourself as an activist. So I arrived at the Student Workers of Columbia’s rally as an open-minded supporter, ready to absorb their stories and empathize with their movement from a marginal but sympathetic perspective.

I was not enlivened. I was not encouraged. I was not empowered. I was impacted. I was impacted by these educators’ fortitude and determination despite the institution's consistent devaluation of their work and passion for learning. It was the stories of their struggles to pay for basic necessities. It was the common disposition of working two or even three jobs to make ends meet. It was the accents of a group with a patchwork of origins, funneling their genius into this stringently American cauldron of capitalism and exploitation of people of color. As the testimonies came to a close and the rallying cries died down, the first thoughts that flashed across my mind were questions. What do we do? Whom do we talk to? Whom do we piss off? Who is responsible? In a perfectly timed but serendipitous appearance of an old wise man—a mystical moment of almost biblical proportions—Kenny Schaeffer appeared.

Schaeffer stood approximately four and a half feet away from me and had the body language of someone who’s seen this all before. The vintage UAW pin on his lapel told me that this was the person I was looking for. He would have an answer or two to some of the questions clogging my cerebral cortex. Schaeffer, CC ’76, is a practicing property-rights attorney who has admirably battled Big Columbia throughout his four-decade career. Not only did he attend and protest Columbia during one of the most socially agitated eras of its history—that of South African divestment and the Vietnam War—he also continued to give the blue hell with his work representing underprivileged and under-considered Harlem residents whom Columbia exploited and pillaged for their land. “Columbia is always trying to expand their feudal domain,” Schaeffer told me, and my interest was piqued. To me, he’d perfectly captured Columbia’s fanatical concern with ownership of both real and symbolic wealth, while disregarding the largely intangible but far more meaningful asset of intellectual and pedagogical integrity.

As expected, Schaeffer painted a beautiful but unsettling picture of who Big Columbia is and why it is so damned difficult to force them to do the right thing. He framed his work fighting Columbia not as law but as “civil disobedience with a tie.” The only way to get anything done around these parts, it appears, is to make Goliath a little uncomfortable. Once, Schaeffer recounted, Columbia attempted to kick people who were not consistently associated with the University out of rent-controlled apartments, despite a clause that held that if an individual was associated with Columbia in any capacity, they had a right to live there. In true Goliath fashion, Columbia flagrantly disregarded the rules and brought the case to the courts, which sided with Columbia and largely ignored their obvious reframing of the law.

It was in the appeals process that Columbia’s true hegemony over the legal system was displayed: “We’re going to argue,” Schaeffer recalled. “And as soon as I got up to start speaking, the presiding judge got up and left the room.” How deeply must justice be perverted, I wondered, for a judge to leave the bench before even hearing the prosecution’s case? “All these judges went to Columbia,” Schaeffer explained. “They want their kids to go to Columbia. They’re just afraid of Columbia.”

Unlike Schaeffer, though, the current undergraduate and graduate workers who are stepping on Goliath’s toes lack the occupational or financial foundation of a full-time lawyer. My first question to Connor Joseph Martini, a Ph.D. candidate in the Religion Department who has devoted his intellectual prowess to the project of emboldening humanities students at Columbia and Barnard, was: Would you advise anyone to continue their post-grad work at Columbia knowing what you know about the treatment of yourself and others? “No,” he said plainly. “No, I would not.”

Martini went on to qualify his statement by distinguishing the great Religion Department from the not-so-great Columbia. From there, we talked extensively about the American tendency to idealize institutions of higher learning and the dissonance between Columbia’s self-branding as a hearth of learning and its consistent refusal to adequately pay the people who facilitate that learning. Our discussion did not hinge on whether Columbia was to blame, but rather how this institution has contradicted and undermined its proclaimed values throughout this labor struggle, to the point of squarely and shamelessly placing itself on the wrong side of history. As third-year doctoral History student Shakti Castro framed it, “What we do is labor, and it’s work. And I don’t know that I’m going to get fed off. Columbia means someday, right? Tenure-track jobs are so hard to come by and people will say, oh, well, you know, you’re at an Ivy League.”

Illustration by Vanessa Mendoza

For a moment, we celebrated our Ivy League’s efforts, through the Core, to ensure that students encounter the humanities in a meaningful way before “entering the real world.” I think that there is something to be said for the Core,” Martini said. “Columbia is absolutely committed to austerity and the humanities; there are gestures to it. And you know, if anything, that makes it hurt even more because, as you know, in the humanities, the institution clearly derives a lot of its identity and value.” The Core was perhaps the reason why I decided to attend Columbia. It was invigorating to know my school put so much emphasis on the humanities—yes, white humanities, but the human condition nonetheless. However—and it’s a big however—it’s hard to believe in Columbia’s commitment to the humanities when this commitment is selectively applied across departments, and when the majority of Core courses have been effectively canceled due to the administration’s refusal to adequately pay student workers. Martini also pointed to the preferential treatment of STEM graduate student workers relative to those in the humanities. Columbia is entitled to a large percentage of federal grant money when science graduate students decide to continue their studies here, he explained. “So the investment in the sciences is also not reflective of some intellectual endeavor. It is motivated by financial interests.”

“Motivated by financial interests” seems to be Columbia’s true motto, not “In thy light shall we see the light,” or whatever bullshit is inscribed around campus. Not only are our professors, TAs, and undergraduate workers under attack, but everyone teaching and working and learning and living alongside us is being misappropriated for capitalistic ventures.

For those who may be unclear on the nitty-gritty of how Columbia’s recent purse-string tightening affects student workers, let second-year political science Ph.D. candidate Mayaki Kimba offer a simple explanation. “Normally, we get [a] stipend as a lump sum at the beginning of the semester, and then a wage is paid every two weeks,” she said. “But what Columbia did three weeks before the semester started, they said that they were no longer going to pay the stipend as a lump sum, but that they were going to kind of spread it out over the course of the semester.”

“That creates real problems for us,” she continued. “When you were anticipating $13,000 to be deposited in your bank account at the start of September and then that doesn’t happen, that kind of throws a lot of things into crisis.” A crisis indeed. As Columbia pointed a $3.3-billion finger at the financial losses of Covid to justify this alteration, student workers scrambled to keep their heads above water in the most expensive city in the world. “Making $34,000 as a person with a master's degree in New York City—it’s not a whole lot of money,” Castro said. It does not take a tenured Math professor to conclude that $34,000 is approximately $10,000 below the living wage in New York: $45,000.

I’m afraid my disappointment did not end with my discovery of Columbia’s capitalistic priorities. It’s true that my view of the school as an intellectually driven institution was tamped down by their unwavering adherence to profit margins and assets, and this was in itself a shaky revelation. But the true catharsis arose when I was tracked down by Big Blue Columbia Goliath, LLC.

On Oct. 27, the rally that started it all for me concluded at Schermerhorn Hall, where a group of students entered President Bollinger’s famed lecture on the First Amendment, chanting “When our TA’s are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”. I may or may not have been a part of this cohort of inspired protestors. Columbia seems quite sure that I was one of them, so I got a letter. Yes, Blue! I got a letterrrrrr! After a string of platitudes and pleasantries, my secret admirers proposed I meet with the “University’s Assistant Rules Administrator” to discuss my alleged misconduct and alleged disruption of other students’ ability to learn—allegedly. It was upon reading this letter that my interactions with Big Columbia could no longer be objective and exploratory. I was no longer just a face in the crowd of student-worker supporters. I was being pursued.

In addition to capitalism, profit, and assets, Columbia cares deeply about power. Kimba described the ambiance of bargaining sessions for a proper labor contract as condescending. “The kind of comments that are continuously made by Columbia’s bargaining team have an antagonizing effect on me,” she said. “It motivated me to fight the administration that is just so intent on treating us with disrespect.” Columbia is interested in being an indomitable authority with the power to direct and redirect the winds of socio-political change. Thus, Schaeffer’s charge of feudalism: Feudal overlords not only owned the land everyone inhabited, but owned their sovereignty as individuals and mercilessly threatened to punish any slippage outside the boundaries of feudal decorum.

Before I even had the chance to finish Lit Hum or find the owl on Alma Mater, I’ve already been dealt with by Goliath. I was perceived as a threat and picked right out of my litter of excited, activism-oriented first-years. They made an example of me. I must say, it felt damn good to see the beast in all its glory. There’s no more Pantone 292-dyed wool that Columbia can pull over any of our eyes. As we embark on the next stages of this labor struggle in lockstep with our undergraduate and graduate workers, we must remember that Columbia will never change of its own accord. It’s a lesson Kenny learned in the ’70s, a lesson Martini learned a mere three years ago, and a lesson I prematurely but effectively learned within my very first semester on campus.


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