by Leena Yumeen, a student organizer with Columbia-Barnard YDSA
Thousands of us at Columbia (and affiliates Barnard and Teachers College) are tired of being exploited by the institution that has disregarded our well being during a global pandemic and economic depression. We as students are tired of experiencing the dismissive attitude of the administration, while we watch our University inflict so much pain on the local community in which we reside.
That is why on January 22nd, the day that tuition is due across most schools at Columbia University, we will be withholding our tuition until our demands for fair costs and democratic procedures are met. Without a reduction of our tuition, an increase in financial aid, and restitution for our local community, we are no longer willing to be silenced.
We understand the power we are up against— Columbia’s Presidents and the Board of Trustees continuously undermine student activism—they have for decades. We also understand the urgency of students who are in desperate need for relief—students who double as parents, who face housing instability, and have families deeply impacted by COVID-19. The burden of tuition and student loan debt on many members of our University community is significantly impacting mental health and forcing some to consider dropping out. That is why we remain dedicated to organizing for a shift in the institution’s financial priorities and will condemn anything but concrete action by those in power.
Over the summer of 2020, amidst national tumult and community outrage over Columbia’s response to the pandemic, YDSA organizers asked students about their sentiments towards the University. In these conversations, tuition consistently arose as the biggest concern weighing on the group. And while the national crisis has served to compound student hardships, the problem of exorbitant costs at Columbia is one that has stretched back decades. We thus began to advocate for fair tuition, following in the footsteps of the University of Chicago’s campaign last Spring.
We were not, however, the first group on campus to advocate for tuition reduction and financial relief in 2020, and the precedents set suggested that we could not achieve all of our goals. In March, the Columbia People’s COVID Response (CPCR) coalesced around the same desire for economic relief. And although nearly 8,500 students signed onto their petition in support of their demands, the administration did not lower tuition and many students still faced housing and food insecurity.
To win, we need a tactic that will be costly for Columbia, leverage the power the students hold as tenants, workers, and funders of the University, and communicate that we will not tolerate a similar, inadequate response. Since the University prides itself on operating as a corporation, YDSA realized it could organize against Columbia in the same fashion as one—via a strike.
At the end of the summer of last year, our team organized with the aims of tuition reduction and an increase in financial aid. We aspired to generate a fair, equitable, and accessible University. Slowly, via social media outreach and one-on-one conversations, our movement grew. Virtual organizing proved itself difficult but far from impossible as we watched the number of responses to our tuition strike pledge climb (3,840 students have signed on as of publication).
It was around this time that I joined the movement, and I remain convinced that a tuition strike is the key to creating vast institutional change. But as we built more power, we realized that the institutional problem we were attempting to battle was rooted far deeper than the cost of tuition. When organizers looked back at other student movements, we saw that Columbia’s history was riddled with failures to carry out its responsibilities to students and simultaneous attempts to devastate the surrounding community.
In striking, we felt that we had an obligation to address this history. The movement was far from the sole work of our team, but rather a culmination of decades of student activism and institutional disregard of these movements documented by historians like Howard Zinn.
Indeed, we were confronting the same University that, as far back as 1947, helped form a corporation to develop the surrounding Harlem and Morningside Heights communities and to remove “undesirables,” as they labeled the working class people from around the neighborhood. In the 1960s, the University attempted to construct a segregated gym that students openly condemned as “Ivy Imperialism.” Then in 1994, despite student protests, Columbia had the guts to buy and demolish the Audubon Ballroom, which was the historic site of Malcolm X’s assassination.
In 2013, Columbia Prison Divest built upon student outrage over the University’s $10 million investments in two private prison corporations, one with a documented history of torture. As recently as last year, the University hired Kim Lew from Ariel Investments—a group that held shares in a company producing warplanes and rockets for the state of Israel—as the CEO of its investment company, despite the strong condemnation and campus presence of Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD).
Meanwhile, despite local outrage, Columbia has continued its $6.3 billion expansion into West Harlem that used eminent domain laws, typically reserved for the government, to displace residents and accelerate the gentrification process into hyperspeed.
This history reveals that student liberation from financial burden and debt is tied to the liberation of all people that Columbia has consistently disrespected through its corporate investments—residents in Harlem and Morningside Heights, those incarcerated by private prisons, victims in Palestine, underpaid campus workers, and more. Even with an endowment of over $11 billion, Columbia claims it is too cash-strapped to assist students, precisely because its funds are drawn into projects like those outlined above to bolster profits, prestige, and the domination of its community. Yet, the school can still pay President Bollinger $4.6 million a year.
Recognizing this, in November we sent out a survey to tuition strike signatories asking to expand our demands to address these years-long movements, and the majority voted to do so. Following this, we wrote our official demands letter to the administration, sent a message out to the entire student body about our campaign, and saw our numbers skyrocket.
Supporters of the movement recognize that the high cost of tuition is not necessary—it is simply a reflection of our University’s twisted priorities, its amoral investments, and its commodification of our education. The strike is our way to force reform for the University and to question its practices. The safety of students, the institutional change that past movements toiled for, the stability of the community, and the narrative surrounding higher education hangs in the balance as we work with student organizers and activist organizations to build a formidable coalition and propel this movement forward.
The more of us from the community that unite and support the tuition strike, the greater our power. If you believe in our vision and are in New York City, join us tomorrow (Sunday, Jan. 17) outside of President Bollinger’s house on-campus at Noon for a press conference followed by a socially distanced rally. As we are less than a week away from the beginning of our strike, join us and help build a future in which we can all be proud.