November 16, 2006

 

A Special Report on Columbia Universityís Manhattanville Expansion

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Dear fellow Senators:

 

We recently had the benefit of hearing President Bolinger and his administration speak on the topic of Manhattanville and the Columbia Expansion at the previous Senate Plenary and Town Hall.I would like to further this dialogue with a report that purports to reflect the general consensus of the student body perspective and the current deliberation that continues to occur on campus regarding the issue of Manhattanville.The issues addressed may be considered controversial still they remain the opinions and thoughts of the student body at large to be respectfully considered through further discussion.

 

Some students agree that limited campus space is a legitimate rationale for expansion and due to specific needs for housing, or expectations of new academic facilities and resources support the expansion of Columbia.Other students on campus do not take a position at all on the issue or hold a position of indifference or apathy.Yet Columbiaís proposed expansion into West Harlem is still a major concern for the majority of students on campus.The reality is that a position taken by many students is one against the expansion of Columbia.However, this position takes many detailed forms and will therefore be the focus of this report.Some students argue the expansion should not happen at all. Others are less opposed to the expansion itself, but disagree with the approach Columbia is taking to achieve its goals.Still others disagree with the specific processes and proposed plans of the expansion.And a significant number of students have particular grievances with Columbiaís approach and response to the student body itself in regards to this issue.

 

As students who live amongst and work with members of the local community their stance includes concern for the residents and history of the area that is to be rezoned and altered.Harlem is a historically renowned area of New York that is known nationally for its rich traditions and culture.Likewise, Columbia University is also nationally recognized as a stellar institution of academic learning.It is this juxtaposition of two iconic areas of the City that each have so much to offer the greater community that causes students to feel so passionately about the potential consequences of sacrificing one for the other.In altering West Harlem so dramatically, students fear that an irreplaceable part of American history will be lost, as will the cultural foundations of a significant segment of the current population and generations to come.

 

Students for Community Involvement (SCI) is a student organization at the School of Social Work who work to open dialogue and strengthen community ties between the student and greater Harlem communities.Their members are actively involved with the community and have had regular attendance at many of the local Community Board 9 meetings.Reports taken at these meetings indicate that while community members are not directly opposed to having Columbia enter the community, they are opposed to how it is being accomplished.Members of SCI along with many other students at Columbia share similar concerns and have expressed that Columbiaís approach is intrusive and appears to take advantage of the limited bargaining power of the community.

 

Furthermore, students have expressed concern with Columbiaís attempt at community outreach and information dissemination.Specifically, students who have participated in the tours sponsored by Columbia have been disappointed in the lack of information and genuine responsiveness given by the university on specific topics such as eminent domain and environmental concerns.In some instances, it has been reported that students who originally supported the expansion have since changed their views after taking the tour and leave feeling more skeptical than informed.Many students are concerned that similar outreach will have the same impact on Harlem residents.

 

As students who attend Columbia University, students are concerned about the reputation Columbia receives both within the community as well as nationally.Students believe that how Columbia approaches Manhattanville will further determine CUs reputation. And while even concerned students recognize the efforts CU has made to develop and maintain a relationship with the community and its efforts to continue to develop and support outreach programs, in general students feel that it is not enough.There is concern that the facilities proposed to make the new campus community more inviting are not sufficient means to counter the effects of what most students consider gentrification.Students claim they already experience institutional barriers that discourage them from inviting members of the community into CU facilities.Students are concerned that this current red tape that prevents interaction and relationships will only be amplified through the expansion.

 

Furthermore, students find their passionate concerns regarding Manhattanville are met by the administration with avoidance and deflection.In general, students do not feel their questions are ever given genuine and honest consideration.Students feel Columbia is not taking responsibility for its actions and instead is placing sole responsibility of mending the ďus / themĒ mentality and damaged community relationships onto the students.And while it may not be the responsibility of Columbia to consider all issues that impact the surrounding community, students feel Columbia should take the opportunity to take an innovative approach, as a renowned academic institution, and at the very least consider its best practices within the community.

 

Students hear the words of Columbia leaders say that the expansion will benefit the Harlem community through the creation of inviting venues, open spaces and parks, and by providing jobs and housing for local residents.Still the student body consensus is one of doubt and precaution.The primary area of concern for the majority of students is less to do with Harlem and the expansion and more to do with Columbiaís transparency of the issue.Students are specifically concerned that Columbia will not meet the promises it has made to the local community.Students want to know who is holding Columbia accountable for its actions to ensure that promises made to the community are upheld. Students are skeptical of the answers that Columbia provides to student and community based questions.Students are further skeptical of Columbiaís intent and question its sincerity and genuineness.Students feel there is a disconnect between what is being said to them and what is actually going to occur.Despite the proposed attempts by Columbia to meet the needs of the community students are not convinced that community interests are a primary concern.While it can be debated whether or not they should be, it remains that many students feel that to some extent it is Columbiaís responsibility to acknowledge its own power and privilege and decide how it will exercise that power as an institution.Despite the many efforts made by Columbia to be available and transparent with the issues students are claiming that they do not trust the very institution with which they are affiliated.

 

Given these very real concerns from students it is apparent that the issue of Manhattanville cannot be taken lightly.Therefore, I hope to continue this dialogue on behalf of the students by inviting feedback from the Senate.

 

Respectfully,

 

 

 

Kimberly Gaston

University Senate

School of Social Work