Looking back, I guess many of us came to Colombia with the lure of equity and inclusion. We wanted to be surrounded by differences. After all, creative artists are among the most powerful contributors to social justice dialogue and change. We wanted to be part of it.
It seems, however, that Columbia has sold us a promise that they are not prepared to keep.
It was towards the end of September in the fall of 2021 when we received the email that the college has implemented a new policy regarding children on campus. For many who emailed the Faculty Senate, an advocacy body for which I was vice president at the time, it was a slap in the face to our realities as parents. Policies like this, which are passed down from the most privileged corners of our academic community, impact the lives of all who do not have the luxury of choice. Students, staff and faculty have complicated and beautiful lives that are heavily impacted by the unfair policies of an institution so adamant about diversity, equity and inclusion.
What we’ve found is that it’s so often about Columbia.
I could describe the ways in which professors have forced “ragility” (as the provost coined it in her welcome message in the fall) to adapt to our already fractured ecosystem.
We have been nimble working on campus during the height of the pandemic.
We were nimble when our lesson caps exceeded manageable loads.
We were nimble as the benefits dwindled…
As students circled around because we lacked proper mental health resources…
As sabbaticals have been interrupted…
While HR sent out newsletters with “self-care” tips but no mention of fair compensation, fair accommodations, and fair benefits adjustments…
As the guidelines sometimes changed on a daily basis…
As fellow staff lost their jobs in the College’s pursuit of the frequently used goal of “streamlining”…
Like a startlingly unfair one-off guaranteed bonus of $5,000 to top earners and $1,500 to bottom earners…
As leaders clamored for a business-driven future and worked harder when our hardest wasn’t enough…
As racism ravaged the outside, but the deafening silence of the leaders was the only loud thing we could hear…
We were nimble. What did it cost us?
It cost us everything.
Earlier this semester, a tenured colleague in my department told me how “unseemly” it was for me to “play the race card” in response to my suggestion that he use very derogatory tone and language towards people who don’t look like him. (specifically, I meant women of color). His advice was for me to “adapt to (my) environment”. However, what is most alarming is that this behavior has been displayed in full view of the administrators, who however do not want to remove this person from my tenure committee. I believe most might find it difficult to assume that such loaded opinions could objectively examine a portfolio of research grounded in critical race and gender theory.
Yet… I persist.
I have not lost sight that power dynamics can and always will be protected by institutions that go to great lengths to preserve a specific public image. So much so that intertwined in white, male, permanent privilege is a hostile job gift wrapped in an assumption of infallibility. A dear friend (Cara) whom I only got to know well after her sudden departure as a professor from Columbia, shared her story of being sexually assaulted by a tenured professor who she says happened on campus in a captivating situation Medium Publish. There is a lingering bitter feeling that what is accused of having arrived at Cara is indicative of a Campus a culture that allows abusive and harmful rhetoric and actions to simply be brushed aside under the silence of “personnel matters” until there is a public rebuke.
And yet… we persist.
The college recently announced a “Social Justice Summer Institute” aptly titled “Social Justice, Creativity, and Placemaking.” The name sounded familiar, and it should have been considered that three years ago I designed a CCCX course for Columbia called “Social Justice Creative Placemaking”. The institute plans to “explore the concept of critical race theory through the lens of Chicago’s Black and Brown festivals and performances, reimagine an equity-based future for the city’s public spaces, and select course topics on how artists engage with issues of power, privilege and justice through their work. The two women in charge of teaching these classes are neither black nor brown.
Recently, black students were quoted in The Columbia Chronicle saying they don’t feel included in this institution, a place that prides itself on proclaiming black lives but falls just short of “matters.”
When I sat down to write this letter, the end of one of the toughest semesters many of us have ever endured was approaching. In the midst of tremendous mental and physical health challenges, I decided to put my health and my family first. I asked for support to carry out collaborative projects in my role as director of graduate studies, but I did not receive the support I needed. I tried to plan outings for graduate students that could never be funded. I have chosen to forego multiple leadership opportunities to focus my next year on teaching, research, and ensuring our graduate students have a better and stronger experience. I applauded the new Marketing Program Manager, a role I left to focus on more as Director of Graduate Studies, at our last faculty meeting this week.
Immediately after that last faculty meeting, my supervisor invited the Dean of Graduate Studies to my end-of-year workload planning session (with a member of the administrative staff to take notes) and informed me that replaced me as director of graduate studies after a one-year term. Although my predecessor was able to improve year after year if he wanted to, I was reminded that such luxuries are not afforded black women at this college. Just four days after I was the first black woman in my department to “hood” graduating master’s students (placing master’s clothes over gowns), I was fired from my position. It was a scary moment to realize that I have no right to be less than perfect, and prioritizing my own mental health above college would most definitely cost me my job.
This is not a grievance about child care policies, nimbleness, a summer institute, white male privilege, or even assault. This is a call for the administration to recognize that self-interest and institutional structure far outweigh the greater good at Columbia, and to invite pledges of equity, diversity and of inclusion while systematically banning advances that make it possible is one of the great failures that only the less privileged have to endure.
Columbia, quite frankly, should strive to be better.
These are the systems, the circumstances, that we navigate as a community of faculty and staff at this college. While there are institutional inequalities that require creative strategies, there are also personal interactions that interrupt the very real change we can bring about. For every “our employees are ready to be back in the office and they’re missing hallway conversations,” there’s inevitably a blind side that those hallways produce trapped microaggressions in the minutes it takes for a elevator arrives for a welcome escape. Many faculty and staff have devoted countless hours and efforts to pursuing institutional change. I am lucky to have several of them among my friends. Yet the collective propagation of the experiences we work on creates little doubt as to why we are losing creative and exceptional teachers.
When asked why professors have exhausted their efforts to innovate classroom materials, stay adaptable, and spend god knows how many hours braving a resilient face to keep students engaged, it’s because we truly care of the people we teach. Colombia knows it. They know that even if our benefit costs go up, raises/sabbaticals/retirement dues are suspended (some are now reinstated) and morale is low, we will continue to outperform in the classroom. There is something inherently beautiful about seeing students capture their creativity and embrace their knowledge. However, what examples are we setting for students if performance to the peak of exhaustion is our goal, and a reward for an incredible push to effectively reduce our salaries by not adjusting salaries to meet rising l ‘inflation ? Our students, in turn, are working multiple jobs and taking on more hours than they can handle, as some cannot afford the tuition increases coming next year. We have a serious problem in that we do not apply the progressive, inclusive and anti-racist practices that we present as being at the heart of our mission.
The pandemic has highlighted a fundamental need to live and work in spaces that value our humanity. The unfortunate result of choosing institutional image over transformational change is that those of us who are really fighting to do a good job here are ultimately defeated. There is no greater sting than an illusion of acceptance obscuring the reader of dollars and cents.
We are not what we wanted to be.