The Dawn of an Office
Updated: Jul 23, 2021
The early days of the Office of University Life.
By Virginia Fu
On April 13, Suzanne Goldberg, three months into her new role at the head of the Office of University Life, gave the keynote address at the Office’s inaugural event—a screening of the film Selma, followed by a faculty panel discussion. Formed in late January, the Office is still in its infancy, consisting of what Goldberg called “a small but dedicated office” of three staffers. It operates out of 208 Philosophy and Goldberg’s previous office in the Law School building.
Goldberg is still trying to find a way to communicate with students en masse and solicit input. When we interviewed her in April, she spoke carefully, frequently prefacing her statements with phrases like, “This is just what I’ve heard,” and “You can tell me if I’m wrong.” At the Selma screening, attendees were encouraged to tweet their questions, but Goldberg admitted she was “not much of a Twitter person.” She has also written posts for the Columbia Spectator’s blog, Spectrum. She uses her blog as a platform to “share information and reflect on ideas,” but recognizes that this approach has limited reach.
“From what I understand,” she said, “most undergraduates read the B-wog,” pronouncing the “B” as its own letter. “The question is just how to get the word out. If you guys have ideas, you should really just send me a list of things. Does The Blue and White have a blog?”
What in the World is an EVP?
According to WikiCU, the nine Executive Vice Presidents who report directly to the University President’s Office can be likened to the Nazgul who do the bidding of the Dark Lord Sauron in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The reality is much less interesting. After a wave of student activism and a title IX lawsuit against the university, President Lee Bollinger announced the creation of an Office of Student Affairs, which would be led by an EVP. It would be the first office created at the EVP level in over four years and the first directly responding to student needs. In an email to students, Bollinger wrote that the Office would be a “primary place of contact for issues relating to sexual assault.” Eventually, it would also respond to “numerous matters relating to students that call out for attention by an individual placed at the highest level of the University administration.”
CCSC was quick to note their expectations of the position and who should fill it. In spring 2014, they submitted a memo of recommendations that emphasized visibility and approachability through functions such as monthly office hours and town hall-style meetings. In an interview, CCSC President Peter Bailinson stressed the need for a high-level administrator “who actually understands the students.”
“I think there’s such a difference between how high level administrators think of the school and what students’ concerns are […] if you talk to students for just one minute, they’re going to be able to tell you.”
In many ways, Suzanne Goldberg was a logical fit for the position. Goldberg had been on the Law School faculty for eight years and had a background in legal advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community. After being appointed Special Advisor in July, she worked with the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault (PACSA) to reform the University’s sexual assault policy.
“It definitely helped to have an individual who was dedicated to this issue,” said CC University Senator Marc Heinrich, who worked with Goldberg on PACSA. But by the time she was made EVP in January, the position had been changed from “Student Affairs” to “University Life,” with little explanation as to why.
Advocacy, Accessibility, Visibility
The name change led student representatives to voice concerns that the office would be less student-centered.
“It’s a very nice bureaucratic name,” Bailinson noted.
Bailinson, like many other representatives we talked to, has clear expectations for the position. “When things get done, it’s not just students saying, ‘We really want to see this.’ It’s when students are also able to find allies in the administration who believe in the same goals.”
While concerns remain over the consequences of adding another layer to the administrative landscape, Goldberg has been, according to Law School University Senator Zila Acosta, “proactive in reaching out to student groups.” Acosta has worked with Goldberg on the Student Affairs Committee. According to her, student Senators occupy a “sort of in-between” position, “mediating the demands of activists with real concerns.”
Acosta adds that the name change reflects Goldberg’s vision of her role as “more expansive than just dealing with students.” According to a blog post, this vision of her office encompasses “three pillars”: student life, student conduct, and intellectual life.
“If University Life means taking away the student factor, that’s a problem,” said Acosta. “But if it just means adding more, I don’t see that as a problem.”
In our interview, Goldberg described what she saw as the Office’s sphere of concern: “I think issues of race, ethnicity, and justice fit naturally within the Office of University Life, as do issues related to sexual respect.”
She paused. “As do issues not related to identity at all. I mean, it’s an office with a very broad scope.”
“I just don’t know why an office needs to exist to put on a Selma screening.”
The Office is currently creating a committee on race, ethnicity, and justice, unveiled in an email from President Bollinger ambitiously titled “Expanding the Campus Conversation about Equal Justice.” According to Bollinger, the committee’s goal will be to “develop a slate of programs,” since “we should have discussions across campus to help us understand these critical issues better than we do.” He added that the project would “not only make Columbia better,” but also “realize the promise of our nation’s core principles,” and ultimately “bend the arc of history towards justice.”
In February, a planning meeting was convened, consisting of undergraduate students from CC, GS, and SEAS, graduate students, administrators, and faculty from the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Omar Abboud, SEAS ’16, who sat on the panel, recalls that Suzanne Goldberg, a legal scholar who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, appeared “terrified” of the students when they voiced their complaints. During the meeting, she sat in the front of the room full of student activists, who were, in Abboud’s words, “looking at her, ready to pounce.”
“[She] was describing things that she could do as this new EVP to address issues of ethnicity and race,” says Abboud, “and her ideas were basically, ‘Let’s host a conference or have panels and do things like that.’” Particularly, undergraduates, who were recommended as participants by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, were “very clear in pointing out to her that that just does not affect their experience.”
“The thing I don’t think she was understanding completely was that we can sit and have these high-level intellectual conversations, but that’s not going to change the fact that the university is fundamentally engaged in acts of violence against students of color and against communities of color.” To Abboud, these acts of violence include the Manhattanville expansion and an oft-cited instance last December when the NYPD was called to police a Black Lives Matter student demonstration.
“When students look back on their Columbia experience […] the incident that sticks out the most is when there is trauma, not this cool conference that the [EVP] organized,” says Abboud. “I just don’t know why an office needs to exist to put on a Selma screening.”
Evidently this was a conversation Goldberg was “not prepared to have.” A few months later, at the Selma screening, Goldberg quoted a tweet from President Obama: “[A]ction requires that we shed our cynicism.”
I Look Forward to Your Participation
So far, the Office’s other key project, sexual respect, has been met with cynicism. When informed of No Red Tape’s planned protest (entitled Arts and Crafts to End Rape), Goldberg remarked that, “I guess I would say that, having seen the work, it’s a certain choice to protest before having seen the work.”
Roughly 200 attendees came to the two-day Arts Option exhibition in Faculty House’s Presidential Ballroom, some of them to see their own submissions. (“About a dozen” students attended the protest, reports Spectrum.) Among them was Helen Chen, CC ’17, who bared her body in a Hamilton classroom as part of a video addressing her experiences with street harassment. Other works were similarly impressive. Untitled, by Anonymous, a video in which a man eats strawberries, inspired a juror—the group approving artistic submissions was called a “jury”—to wax poetic in his commentary.
Many of the pieces publicly viewable on the accompanying Arts Option website more directly critique the requirement. “Columbia doesn’t prosecute rapists but they made me make this dumb piece of art,” complained one submission, scrawled in red crayon on a notepad. A prose work entitled “Why have Sex?” takes a subtler approach, repeating its titular question for a page before concluding, “But seriously, people have germs.”
In response to these criticisms, Goldberg blogged, “Dissent, at its best, is yet another path to engagement.”
“Will [the requirement] meet everyone’s preferences or expectations? Probably not. Some may find the offerings burdensome, and others may find them not challenging enough. […] But is it good? Yes, certainly. By participating, you will gain something for yourself, and you will be involved in helping to create a new model for Columbia and beyond.”
As cheese, crackers, and squash were laid out in Faculty House for the exhibit, No Red Tape’s protest took place on Butler Lawn. Markers were provided, along with coloring pages depicting President Bollinger, President Spar, and the infamous “sexual assault prevention cake.” Noticeably absent were pictures of Suzanne Goldberg.
“But is it good?”
“When I was in law school, if you had told me I’d be a law professor and teach civil procedure, among other things, I would have told you you couldn’t be more wrong,” said Goldberg during our interview. “And if you had told me I’d be a [University administrator], I would have thought you were talking about someone else.”
Despite recent criticism, Goldberg is, according to Acosta, “pretty beloved at the Law School.” She was a beloved lawyer as well: “When I first met her I fell in love,” John Lawrence (the defendant in Lawrence v. Texas) says in Flagrant Misconduct, a 2012 book chronicling the 2003 landmark case Goldberg counseled. In 2009 Goldberg accepted the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Her introduction described her as someone who never missed a “moment for a pedagogical point.” Goldberg, in her acceptance speech, said, “With th[e] power [lawyers possess] comes great responsibility. If you don’t like the way the world is you have an obligation to change it.”
Goldberg’s experiences in these other roles undoubtedly inform the Office’s vision and purpose. She writes on Spectrum that she believes “that social change requires not only policy or legal change, but also—and importantly—engagement with the surrounding environment.” To Goldberg, questions about intellectual life and community citizenship “are fundamental to a great university.”
Building an office around these questions, for Goldberg, is the way to bring about “engagement,” conversation, and even “[d]issent.” But how does action come about from conversation, engagement, dissent? A movie screening, a panel discussion, committees, a blog, a conversation. These are all nice things that happen at universities—just not just “great” ones newly equipped with an EVP for University Life. For students who are hoping to find an ally within the administration in Goldberg, it’s still unclear how these conversations will lead to change, or bending, of arcs of history.
Students who know that the Office of University Life exists—some of whom work with the administration, some of whom work against the administration—have a clear vision for the change they want to see. Acosta imagines that the Office might “launch itself as a powerhouse at the University.” Heinrich, who will continue to work with the Office as SAC Chair, thinks that the first few months will be critical in establishing whether this will be the case.
“Once this office is created, that’s how it’s going to be operating for a long time. This is a unique opportunity to be part of that.”