Thursday's release of the ad hoc grievance committee's report, which recommended a complete reform of grievance procedures within the Arts and Sciences at Columbia, has catalyzed and amplified the review process of these procedures already underway at many of the Arts and Sciences' schools.
As the report has made clear, the MEALAC controversy's most lasting effects on the University will not be the accusations made by Columbia Unbecoming or the resolution of Middle Eastern conflicts but the overhaul of many existing structures for the articulation of grievances.
The ad hoc grievance committee, consisting of Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International Affairs; Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature; Jean E. Howard, vice-provost for diversity initiatives; Mark Mazower, professor of history; and Chair Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of History and Political Science, was appointed in December 2004 by Vice President of the Arts and Science Nicholas Dirks. They were charged with investigating "cases where there appear to be violations of the obligation to create a civil and tolerant teaching environment in which opposing views can be expressed," as Dirks wrote in his charge to the committee. The committee's charter was largely sparked by allegations of classroom intimidation levied against pro-Palestinian professors by Zionist students in the externally-funded film Columbia Unbecoming. The committee was explicitly bound to investigate only issues of instruction, not of politics, and returned on March 28, 2005, with a report that identified confusing and underdeveloped grievance procedures as the key problems which contributed to the controversy.
The committee's report, which dovetailed with the Arts and Sciences' own ongoing investigation into its grievance processes, articulated five proposals for change within grievance procedures: each school should review its grievance procedures, and the University should work to educate the community about the existence and use of these procedures; each Dean should undertake a review of advising within his or her school; Arts and Sciences should familiarize all faculty, particularly departmental chairs and directors, of their responsibilities vis-a-vis grievance; the office of the University Chaplain should review its responsibilities and interaction with other offices; and a central, common University site with powers beyond mediation should be established as a venue for community concerns.
The Arts and Sciences' schools are all currently undertaking their respective reviews and addressing their existing policies while more central administration addresses the committee's larger-scale suggestions. New policies, according to Dirks, will be announced within the next two weeks and will involve the establishment of a standing committee to address grievances, which will be organized by Arts and Sciences faculty and will report to the Vice President's office. "The standing committee would be there to hear grievances, should other modes fail," Dirks said.
The formation of this committee constitutes only part of the Arts and Sciences' reform of grievance procedures. Revisions will continue to take place at the levels of individual schools. "We've asked schools to review their procedures to make sure they are transparent, concise, and speedy," Dirks said. "The schools will continue to house a range of ... other mechanisms. For most cases, those mechanisms work, and lead to resolution and satisfaction. What we are introducing is more transparency, and a new layer that we hope will complement existing procedures."
These revisions will also coexist with existing and less formal avenues for voicing complaints. "The experience that we've had around this whole set of allegations hasn't in any way invalidated the importance of informal modes of recourse and redress, but it has made clear that [existing] procedures and mechanisms are probably insufficient," Dirks said.
Indeed, he noted, some of the insufficiencies might have their roots in the nature of recent complaints. "This is a new kind of grievance. Maybe existing grievance procedures were not in a position to adjudicate these issues," he said. Others, including former Provost Jonathan Cole and Anthropology Mahmood Mamdani, have said in the past that the particularly politicized nature of Columbia Unbecoming's claims separated them from other kinds of grievances or academic concerns.
"What we're doing in effect with grievance procedures is also protecting faculty. What the committee has demonstrated forcibly is that grievance procedures can distinguish politics from pedagogy. We can obviously not address politics with grievance procedures, but we can hold ourselves to the highest standards of pedagogy," Dirks said.
The ad hoc committee also addressed the decentralized nature of the University's existing policies which, its report said, left students without definite or receptive venues for their complaints.
This decentralization was, to some extent, intentional: Columbia's existing grievance procedures are part of an integrated conflict management system, according to Ombuds officer Marsha Wagner. "The whole idea is that people have a lot of choices," she said. "The situation is that Columbia has a lot of choices with multiple access points. The logic is that people are different, and will make different choices ... there are different kinds of situations and solutions."
She differentiated between formal and informal procedures, as well as rights-based options, including judicial and adjudication resolutions, and interest-based options, including conciliation, peace-building, facilitation, and counseling. For academic concerns, she said, "There actually isn't one fixed grievance procedure ... [this is] a way for organizations to surface more complaints."
"Sometimes it's misunderstood as being deliberately confusing," Wagner said.
The Ombuds office is currently the only office that addresses the grievances of the entire University community. It is intended to be a neutral venue for complaints, advice, and impartial investigations, and neither arbitrates nor adjudicates conflicts. Wagner noted that part of her job is to inform people of other offices to which they can address their concern. "It's hard to understand [the grievance procedures] ... I try to help people decide what the advantages and disadvantages of different options are. There are parts of this procedure that are required to be publicized and clear," she said. "Sexual harassment, for example."
Although the catalysts for the ad hoc committee may have been allegations of faculty intimidation, Wagner noted that grievance is a fluid and broad term. The Ombuds office deals with between 700 and 800 grievances per year, according to Wagner, and although approximately half are from students, it is difficult to assess how many of these complaints are academic, she said. "So often the concerns that people bring to this office have so many different levels," she said. "There are a lot of unfair grading complaints, but these aren't academic freedom complaints. Reasonable people can disagree about a curve, for example."
In fact, she said, the biggest category of plaintiff, she said, is comprised of administrators and University officers with complaints about their supervisors. Indeed, statistics from July 2001 to June 2002 indicate undergraduates constituted just 13 percent of all visitors to the Ombuds office, while graduate and professional students made up 28 percent, and administrative, research, and library officers of the University represented 31 percent. Furthermore, only 13 percent of all concerns from that year were academic, while 26 percent concerned employment issues. The expansive category of "offensive behavior"—not necessarily pedagogical, but interpersonal—constituted 19 percent.
The Ombuds office was conceived to supplement other ways to raise complaints: for most undergraduates, these avenues are through the office of the Student Affairs, through the Office of Academic Affairs, through advisors, and through departmental procedures. The ad hoc committee's report indicts these resources as poorly publicized and difficult to navigate.
Students concurred with the ad hoc committee's conclusions, particularly noting how little most of their peers knew of existing structures for expressing grievance. The system's primary failures seem to have been that students did not know about the multiple routes available to them and that these routes often seemed inaccessible.
"Most people were not aware of the status quo," Ganesh Betanabhatla, CC '06, said. Betanabhatla, president emeritus of the Columbia College Republicans and local chapter president of Students for Academic Freedom (a group separate from Columbians for Academic Freedom in goals and membership), worked to collect and facilitate testimonials for the ad hoc committee on behalf of both groups.
"For most people, the only avenue that they really know about is going to the department chair or the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The Ombuds office is entirely unknown. Most people don't know that you can lodge a formal complaint with the University that leaves an archival record ... that was an overarching trend [to the collected testimonials]," Betanabhatla said.
"An external organization shouldn't monitor the scholarship or norms for the University, but the University also needs to recognize that if the student doesn't feel they can go to the Department Chair, they should have some objective place to go," Betanabhatla said. "The University's a big place. You don't need to have an external group to have impartiality. Also, there should be proper ways to handle these things respectfully, so that all complaints don't become publicity campaigns ... I would say that hasn't happened in this case due to the leadership of the University, but it's not a risk that's worth taking again."
The College Republicans, he said, worked to spread awareness about the process of submitting testimonials to the ad hoc committee, although they did not launch a concerted campaign to solicit them. "Most people were unaware of the fact that they could send a testimonial if it did not relate to Professors Massad, Dabashi or Saliba," Betanabhatla said.
Deena Shanker, BC '05, appeared before the committee to discuss a now well-known Spring 2002 encounter with Joseph Massad, Professor of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures. Shanker's account elicited the Committee's only direct criticism of a professor. When asked whether or not she considered a formal complaint, Shanker said, "I never even heard of a grievance report until about two days ago, when the ad hoc committee came out with its report. I didn't even know that there was a system in place for that." Shanker added, "I got yelled at in class, and it was embarrassing, and it sucked, but I was a freshman. I thought that was maybe just the way things worked at college... I didn't forget about it, but I didn't really think about it again."
The ad hoc committee's report on grievance advocates better education about grievance procedures for all member of the Columbia Community, as well as the creation of a "common, central University site to which students, faculty, and administrators could turn to express concerns, though not necessarily grievances, about the quality of their experience at Columbia."
Individual schools are still in the process of reviewing their existing procedures, while central administrators work to find larger institutional solutions and applications for the specific suggestions made in the committee report.
As for what to expect from the Arts and Sciences, further announcements will be made in two weeks, "with the understanding that we have made a lot progress, and that there will be revisions later," Dirks said.
"We take these things very seriously at this point. We don't want to allow things to go unattended. We're going to try to get things underway, and we're going to try to do this as soon as possible," he said.
University-level changes are also in the works from the University Senate, which passed a resolution at its meeting last Friday to establish official procedures for student grievances.
These resolutions are ideologically a great distance from the fiery debate over the Middle Eastern conflicts that catalyzed them. "When there are such hugely competing notions of truth, I think we have to be careful to preserve the professional status of professors, of faculty, departments, disciplines, fields, while working much harder than we have in the past to maintain workable relationships with students, [with the understanding that] questions of truth and objectivity will be more contested than they have been for, say, 30 or 40 years," Dirks said.