With the rush of a new semester in a new year, it is easy to forget that last year, at least from Columbia's administration's perspective, was hellish. The campus made national news three times with three public-relations disasters, problems that exposed unpleasant truths about the University.
Last spring, students, during a week of protests, voiced their anger with a week of silence directed against a University they felt systematically discriminated against African-American students.
Soon after, graduate students launched the longest and strongest graduate student strike in Ivy League history.
The year concluded with the unveiling of "Columbia Unbecoming," a film that revealed a widespread unease among many Jewish students with several allegedly anti-Semitic professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. None of these issues has disappeared.
A university reflects the society that produces it, and the problems we confront aren't unique to Columbia. But, they do not divide other universities like they do here, because students at those schools have something that unites them: their university. Regardless of their background, each of those students has a sense of being part of something larger, something that brings them together and prevents these types of controversies from erupting.
Columbia's administration created an Office of Multicultural Affairs, handled the graduate student strike with grace and understanding, and formed an ad hoc committee to investigate the MEALAC controversy. But the responses to these conflicts address the manifestations of these problems, not their fundamental cause.
Today, many students feel no connection to those who are not in their immediate circle of friends, creating our present balkanization. That separation makes it easier for any kind of student to feel discriminated against, and it is easier for Columbia to discriminate against them. A community strong enough to overcome division and discrimination isn't built over night.
Offices and committees do not build community. Rather, the University needs to force itself into students' lives. Freshman orientation is Columbia's only active attempt a community building, but this effort lasts only one week. Uniting a famously diverse University requires that at least this much effort be expended for every student every day.
There is no better time to begin than in the exciting rush of a new semester in a new year.