A Harsh Lesson at Columbia

Maui Time | May 2, 2012
Obama Snubs Hard-Working College Students

Shortly after becoming president, Barack Obama said that he strongly supports continuing education. "If we want to come out of this recession stronger than before, we need to make sure that our workforce is better prepared than ever before," he said in 2009. "Right now, someone who doesn't have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does. And so many of the Americans who have lost their jobs can't find new ones because they simply don't have the skills and the training they need for the jobs they want."

Things change.

Now it's an election year. The president's reelection team is making a play for the youth vote that was key to winning his first term. He's visiting colleges and universities, trying to attract support from the 18-to-21 demographic by accusing Republicans of wanting to double the Stafford student loan interest rate from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. (Not really true.)

As Obama brings his rock-the-youth-vote campaign to the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City, he wants to be photographed in a sea of adoring youthful faces. And yet, through incompetence or cynical calculus, he's throwing some of the most inspiring, hard-working students in America under the bus.

Maybe the president still likes the idea of adults going back to school. But apparently he doesn't want to speak to students over age 21—or be seen with them.

On May 14th Obama will deliver the commencement address at Barnard College, a women's-only institution across the street from Columbia University in upper Manhattan. Unfortunately no one noticed—or didn't care—that the elaborate security checks for the president's visit would bork the long-scheduled Class Day for Columbia's School of General Studies.

Columbia has four undergraduate colleges: Columbia College, for young (18-to-21) liberal arts students; the School of Engineering and Applied Science, also for traditional students; Barnard College (ditto on ages); and the School of General Studies, which mostly serves older students who are either beginning or completing their bachelor degrees. There's a big Columbia commencement ceremony where the entire university gathers to receive their diplomas; in addition, each school has a separate event called Class Day.

If President Obama is looking for an example of continuing education that works, he need look no further than Columbia General Studies. It's a special place, representing the pinnacle of continuing education in the United States. GS offers adult students from age 19 to 79 the chance to study at and graduate not just from college, but from an Ivy League school. Notable GS alumni include Isaac Asimov, Sandy Koufax, Hunter S. Thompson, Ira Gershwin, and Amelia Earhart.

Most importantly, GS has heart. It takes chances on people whom lesser institutions wouldn't consider. Six years after I was expelled from Columbia's engineering program, GS let me in.

Like most GS students, I held several jobs at the same time I attended classes, studied, and wrote papers. Also like most GSers, I paid my own way. GSers don't get much financial aid. Given my history, however, I was grateful for the second chance.

After I graduated—with honors—I got a job in the GS admissions office. One applicant, originally from China, said that she had no college transcripts. She couldn't even prove that she had attended high school. The records, she said, had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. "Let's bring her in," the dean of admissions said. "Let's hear her story." To my astonishment, they admitted her. GS's bet paid off. She worked hard and graduated near the top of her class.

If she were graduating this year, however, she and her parents might not be able to attend her Class Day.

Dean Peter J. Awn wrote in an e-mail to General Studies students: "We were informed last Friday that, if we were to continue with our original plan to have Class Day at 9 a.m. on Monday, May 14, your families would have to arrive at least three hours before the event (5:30 a.m.) to undergo a lengthy security check to attend a ceremony that is not associated with the President's visit. In fact, neither you nor your families would be able to remain on campus to hear President Obama speak."

Despite featuring tough admission and graduation requirements, General Studies students are accustomed to being treated like the ugly stepsister of the Columbia bureaucracy. Even so, the Obama snub was over the top. If the initial insult wasn't bad enough, the president's inconsideration would have subjected GS graduates and their families to Guantánamo Lite conditions, detained for hours. "We would also be confined to the Butler lawn with no ability to roam around the campus. Frankly, I find that unacceptable," wrote Dean Awn.

Unwanted, uninvited and evicted from their own space, GS has been forced to move its Class Day to Sunday, May 13th. Which happens to be Mother's Day. "I realize that, by this point, your families have made their plans and that, not only will this be an inconvenience, but that it also will force you and your families to incur additional expenses," said Dean Awn.

Jennifer Wisdom, a GS junior, told the Columbia Daily Spectator, "I can't help but question…if this was happening to Columbia College or the School of Engineering, would it be allowed to occur?"

"It's the president of the f—-ing United States," said Reina deBeer, a senior. "The Obama security would have had to know about the measures. It just seems odd."

They wouldn't have had to look far. Patrick Gaspard, Obama's political director from 2009 to 2011, now executive director of the Democratic National Committee, is a General Studies graduate.

The GS Class of 2012 is learning an important lesson: Courtesy and respect are for the little people. One percenters like Obama do whatever the hell they feel like. And if you get in their way, they'll squash you like a bug.

(Ted Rall's next book is "The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt," out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)


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