The Price of University “Impartiality”

By Isabella Nilsson

Columbia University is a political place. The day after Donald Trump was elected, the campus was dead silent, cold and gloomy—a marked contrast to the primal screams and effigy-burning that had taken place in the dead of night only hours before. Out of concern for the sleeplessness as much as for the psyche of their students, some professors postponed midterms—an action ridiculed in such publications as the National Review as catering to “spoiled Ivy league babies” who refused to “get it together”. On campus at least, though, this postponement of normality felt less like an infantile tantrum than an appropriate mourning for the death of a certain kind of American idealism. It felt like a wake.

To be clear, when I say that Columbia is a political place, I mean a Democratic place, like the vast majority of US colleges. According to the Brookings Institute and the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of 18-29 year olds voted for Trump in the 2016 elections, and college graduates in general backed Clinton by a nine-point margin. The Washington Post recently published an article detailing how liberal professors at leading universities outnumber conservative ones by a ratio of twelve to one. While this example of our country’s increasing political extremism could be questioned as—and probably is—troubling, it exemplifies Columbia’s status as an extremely liberal institution, at least demographically.

Our fears for the future seemed confirmed in January, when President Trump passed his controversial and oft-challenged Executive Order 13769, which suspended border entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and temporarily suspended entry of citizens from seven other Muslim-majority nations. Trump himself has not been shy about his distrust of Muslims and general xenophobia, calling while campaigning for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and drug traffickers.

On campus, both professors and students were aghast. We held seemingly endless rallies and candlelight vigils. One grew so large that NBC livestreamed it via helicopter. Downtown, CUNY students protested for the return of a student who had been deported to Iran on her post-break return to classes. Many, including myself, felt like the president’s ban was not only abhorrent, but also a clear violation of human rights—for example, of Article 9 of UNESCO’s Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”, or Article 13, “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”, or even Article 2: “no distinction shall be made on the basis of…the country or territory to which a person belongs”.

The injustice of the ban felt especially clear and visceral from the perspective of a college student. So many of my international friends and peers—who had toiled throughout high school to attend my college, and who had nothing but positivity to offer both the United States and their home countries after graduation—were thrust into frightening limbo.

In comparison to our outrage, the reaction by the administration felt surprisingly tepid.

Students received a single email regarding the ban from University President Lee C. Bollinger, which “decri[ed]” the ban as “discriminatory” and “contrary to our nation’s core values and founding principles.” However, Bollinger went on to repeat the importance that the university, “as such”, not “take stands on ideological or political issues”, and must only voice objection when “policies and state action conflict with its fundamental values”.

Why? In the face of both an outraged community and an obvious violation of fundamental human rights, why not take a stand? In 2017, the distinction between an ideological issue and a value conflict seems almost moot when the issue or conflict at hand involves a rejection of the rights of human beings.

Lee Bollinger might offer a few explanations. One is that Columbia University, like almost every other institution of higher education, is classified as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, which precludes participation in political campaigns. However, 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to practice “legislative or issue advocacy”—in this case, concerted action as well as further speech against the (amended in language but not in spirit) ban. Besides, Donald Trump is no longer campaigning for any political position. Unfortunately, he is our president.

Another explanation is that it is traditional for universities to remain “apolitical” in an effort to protect free speech. This effort does have a rationale, and violent protests against guest speakers like Charles Murray and Ann Coulter at campuses like Middlebury and Berkeley are troubling and illogical. But should this effort extend to refusing to condemn a human rights violation, simply because the violator is president? In addition, fighting Executive Order 13769 does not violate Trump, or anyone else’s, first amendment rights. He is as free to design cruel legislation as we are to oppose it.

Thusly, there is nothing keeping Bollinger—and the university as a whole, and universities across the country as a whole—from taking a stand, from voicing an objection and putting the force of age, reputation, and endowment behind it, from going out on a limb and doing not only what is representative of student body opinion, but what is right. There is nothing in our way but calcified tradition and fear of criticism. And these obstacles seem not only minute but even repugnant in the frightened face of those denied return to their adopted home simply because of their location of origin, or their expressions of faith.


Isabella Nilsson is a student at Columbia University, and a prose editor of The Adroit Journal. Her writing can be found online at Litro NY and in print within Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2015, among other locations.


Works Cited

Bollinger, Lee C. “Response to Executive Order on Refugee and Immigration Policy .” Message to the author. 29 Jan. 2017. E-mail.

Hendrickson, Clara, and William A. Galston. “How Millennials voted this election | Brookings Institution.” Brookings. Brookings, 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

“Limits on Political Campaigning for 501(c)(3) Nonprofits.” Www.nolo.com. Nolo, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

“Protests at Columbia University in Wake of Trump Order.” NBC New York. NBC New York, 03 May 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.

Richardson, Bradford. “Liberal professors outnumber conservatives nearly 12 to 1, study finds.” The Washington Times. The Washington Times, 06 Oct. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

“SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR DONALD TRUMP.” Make America Great Again! | Donald J Trump for President. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Timpf, Katherine. “Classes Being Canceled Because Trump Won Is Why Trump Won.” National Review. N.p., 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

Tyson, Alec, and Shiva Maniam. “Behind Trump’s victory: Divisions by race, gender, education.” Pew Research Center. Pew Studies , 09 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

“UNESCO Declaration of Human Rights.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

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