PrezBo's Fireside Chat

On February 13, 2018, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger hosted another Fireside Chat at the President’s House. At Fireside Chats, which occur once per semester, students are provided a meal and the chance to ask President Bollinger questions they have concerning the University. I entered the lottery to attend the event and received a ticket. A million possible questions I could ask about the plethora of social and class issues on our campus immediately occurred to me; however, I eventually decided to use this opportunity to pressure the administration about the food insecurity and student contribution fees burdening many students at this institution.

I was inspired to address these issues due to Alexa Roman’s articles “Let’s grab lunch, Prezbo” and “A faux full ride.” Roman is a current sophomore at Columbia College, who works with the First-Generation Student Advisory Board and writes for her column “You’re Still Not Middle Class” for the Columbia Spectator. In the first of these articles, Roman questions the reasons that may be behind President Bollinger’s silence on the issue of food insecurity on campus. In the second article, Roman connects the problem of food insecurity with the student contribution fees still required of low-income students. Students paying these fees are sometimes forced to choose between eating enough food and continuing to pay for classes.

With the issues of food insecurity and student contribution fees in mind, I pressed President Bollinger to break his accused silence on these problems during the Fireside Chat. His response?

“A criticism of [the] University is [that] it’s not been sensitive. On the contrary, I’ve had multiple conversations…and we are trying to make sure that students are not needy in these kinds of ways…Now, it is also important to realize that people are adults here and that we don’t control their lives completely and that there are ways in which people can get themselves into trouble that, you know, is not the institution’s fault, but we want to help.”

President Bollinger then continued on to question whether the University can take responsibility for students’ food insecurity, yet he assured his audience that the University still cared about the problem and remained open to suggestions for a solution before deferring to his colleagues for elaboration.

Scott Wright, Vice President for Campus Services, then mentioned the campus food bank that “we were able to establish this year,” only briefly mentioning that the food bank was initially founded by Columbia students themselves rather than the administration and that it is students who continue to manage the bank. Wright also mentioned the University’s commitment to providing housing and meals plans for full-aid students, which guarantees that students opting into these options do not face homelessness or food insecurity during the school year (apart from winter break, when dining halls are closed). Next, Wright reasserted President Bollinger’s position by stating, “Again, it is [full-aid] students’ choice that they wouldn’t have food insecurity” by choosing whether to opt into the housing and meal plans offered to them.

Wright failed to mention, however, that not all students facing food insecurity are receiving full aid from the University. It is these students that are forced to weigh the individual benefits of paying for tuition, housing, meal plants, etc. when attending this institution; it is these students that must often neglect their needs for shelter and food in order to continue taking classes. Moreover, both President Bollinger and Wright did not respond to the second half of my question regarding the link between food insecurity and the student contribution still required of low-income students.

Wright ended the conversation about my question by offering to continue listening to students in the future about their ideas for improving food security on campus. “If there’s ideas or things you hear other people are doing that we’re not, let us know so we can go figure out how we can do it here,” Wright concluded, again placing the responsibility of initiating solutions on the students of the University.

Following Wright’s statements, President Bollinger ended the Fireside Chat. Before students exited the room, he jokingly added that students could pack up and take as much of the leftover food as they pleased. Well, I suppose President Bollinger’s offer is, at most, a beginning step toward resolving food insecurity on this campus, and as of now, this offer seems to be the greatest extent to which Bollinger intends to handle the issue himself.

I challenge the Columbia administration to take greater action and initiative in tackling this campus’ problems of food insecurity and homelessness. Many of the students of this University will support each other as necessary and as able, but at an institution with such a disproportionately wealthy student population, low-income students are often forgotten, overshadowed, or ignored. There is a limit to how many students are willing and capable to provide for each other and themselves. The burden of securing the fundamental rights to food and housing should not be placed on Columbia students when the University has claimed to be need-blind when admitting low-income students. The administration is obligated to assist the low-income students that are suffering for the sake of their degrees, and the administration should provide such aid by its own initiative, not merely when prompted by Columbia’s student population.

Thanks for dinner, Prezbo.

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