Columbia and Elitism
Last Thursday, my classmates and I at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia received an e-mail from an associate dean informing us that the school had selected Tara Sonenshine as the featured speaker at our graduation ceremony next month.
Needless to say, the news disappointed a large number of SIPA students, including me. After writing a couple of snarky posts about the choice on Facebook, I was asked to write a short op-ed expressing my disappointment for Communique, a SIPA student publication. Several other students chimed in with their own views of the subject, both in agreement with and in opposition to my own.
The reaction to the piece, both in-person and in the comments beneath the Communique post, was decidedly mixed. Several students approached me at school and thanked me for expressing something close to their views on the subject. Other people disagreed, at times strongly.
The substance of the criticism was varied, but fell into four general categories. First, some of the students felt that Sonenshine was more than acceptable as a speaker and were excited by the selection. Others felt that the question of the speaker was irrelevant and unworthy of debate. Still others worried that raising a stink over the graduation speaker was beneath the dignity of SIPA students and would embarrass both the speaker and the school.
But the vast majority of the negative comments took issue with our attitude, accusing myself and the other op-ed contributors of being elitist and entitled. Here’s a sample:
“What a bunch of spoiled brats”
“I was disgusted by the stark tone of entitlement”
“The sense of entitlement and elitism is troubling”
“In general, it seems SIPA cares a lot more about branding and getting big names to teach here with less concern about substance and quality of content”
Taken out of context, my remarks were elitist and entitled. I wrote that because SIPA is affiliated with an Ivy League institution, and is located in New York City, the school administrators should have had the clout to attract a much bigger “name” as our speaker. Understandably, a few of my classmates feel I’m arguing that we deserve a celebrity speaker because of where we go to school. Or that I think we’re special and we’re better than non-Ivy League students and so we should have someone more noteworthy than a mere Undersecretary of State like Tara Sonenshine.
Alas, this misses the point entirely. The point is this: a large part of the value of our degree depends on the school maintaining its elite status and prestige. Graduate schools across America cost a lot of money, but few are quite as expensive as SIPA, where tuition plus living expenses come out to around $70,000 per year. Needless to say, all SIPA students could have received a perfectly adequate Master’s in International Affairs at a number of institutions for a small fraction of the cost.
People choose to go to SIPA in large part because it is elite. SIPA students take justifiable pride in being admitted to a school that rejects the vast majority of its applicants. We know that our degree confers immediate respectability and credibility upon us regardless of our other accomplishments. When I told people in China that I went to UC San Diego- a highly-ranked university with an excellent reputation- few had even heard of it. But this past summer, when I mentioned that I was a student at Columbia University, the nod of recognition was universal. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel proud. That may seem tangential to my education- and it is, in a sense- but it’s one of the main reasons why SIPA can justify charging so much in tuition.
So to those who accused me of elitism, consider me guilty as charged. Elitism is what attracted me to SIPA in the first place, and it is what I’m paying for above all else. I understand the inclination to recoil from the word due to it having a negative connotation, but I think a lot of my classmates are being disingenuous when they say that they don’t care about “name” and “prestige”. They might not, but they sure as hell should.
As far as having a sense of entitlement is concerned, again, consider me guilty as charged. Consider this analogy: you and your significant other save up for a year to go on a very nice vacation in France. You select a five-star resort that gets rave reviews and willingly pay full price for your room. Once you arrive at the resort, you discover that the restaurant only serves cheap diner food.
Now, I personally like eating cheap diner food, and in many cases prefer it to fancy French cuisine. In no way would eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking milkshakes diminish my intrinsic enjoyment of the vacation. But I would feel that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth, and that I had deserved more considering the amount that I paid. I’d be willing to bet that most people would agree, and would be less inclined to stay at that resort in the future. Few I suspect would chide me for having a sense of entitlement.
To me, the situation at SIPA is similar. I personally don’t care all that much about who speaks at graduation, and I have no reason to think that Tara Sonenshine will in any way be inadequate. Most likely, I’ll be hoping that her speech will be brief enough for us to wrap up the ceremony and get on with the inevitable after-party. But still, the choice of Sonenshine- and not someone with more stature or celebrity- does strike me as inadequate on the part of the administration.
SIPA’s prestige depends on large part on its cache as a school where presidents and statesmen are born, even if none of us ever reach such heights. The value of our degree depends in part on the school maintaining its reputation as a home to world-class scholars, visiting officials, and high-profile guests. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, that sort of thing matters- a lot. And given the amount that we have riding on this degree, I don’t think it’s in any way unreasonable to expect the administration to keep this in mind when selecting a graduation speaker.