Saturday, November 10, 2007
Statement of Solidarity: The 1996 hunger strikers & organizers for Ethnic Studies
Back to the future
Student strikers sleeping in tents outside of Butler. Rallies at the Sundial. Demands debated in articles and conversations. Conservatives joking about pizza and BBQs. In short, it's 1996 all over again.
Except it isn't. There are the amusing superficial differences, of course. Today's protesters all have cell phones; there is a strike blog and Facebook page. In 1996, we shared a single cell phone, and our virtual presence was limited to forwarded emails.
But there are also deeper differences. The strike in 1996 was about addressing a historical absurdity: the absence of Ethnic Studies at Columbia 25 years after most universities had recognized the importance of this field of study.
Today's strike is about having the University keep its promises.
Take expansion, for example. Columbia may need more space; it may even need to raze a neighborhood to build a brand-new campus (we are skeptical). Since 1968, however, the University has known that it cannot act like just another run-of-the-mill slum lord in its interactions with the surrounding community. Yet its draft environmental impact statement for the Manhattanville project downplays the direct displacement of 300 residents (a number that rises to 3,300 when it considers indirect displacements) and the loss of 880 jobs. Even if we set aside the important question of whether these are accurate estimates, this attempt at minimizing the human consequences of expansion is worrisome. The University must ensure that basic community needs--affordable housing and good jobs--are central to its expansion plans. We remember the redevelopment of the Audubon Ballroom. Where are the jobs Columbia promised the community then?
Or take Ethnic Studies, the issue with which we are most familiar. In 1996 one of the central issues was faculty hiring for Latino/a and Asian American Studies. We wanted the hires to be independent of the traditional departments, whose resistance to Ethnic Studies was (and is) well-documented. Instead, the University created lines to be shared between the Ethnic Studies programs and the departments. The result: a revolving door for promising junior Ethnic Studies faculty who are refused tenure by their "other" department, and a chronic inability to attract senior faculty who are put off by the University's complete lack of support for their field of study. Rather than becoming the leading Ethnic Studies center on the East Coast--given its location, a goal well within reach--the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race has spent a decade floundering. Another promise unmet.
In 1996, it took 15 days of striking, the overnight occupation of Low Library by several hundred students and subsequent arrest of 22 students by the NYPD, and a five day occupation of Hamilton Hall for the University administration to engage in meaningful discussions with student representatives. We can only hope that the current administration is prompter to listen this time around.
Jane Sung E Bai
on behalf of the Ad-Hoc Coalition on Ethnic Studies and the Core Curriculum