Columbia and Elitism

Posted on April 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 9 comments

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.







9 Responses to “Columbia and Elitism”

  1. Jascha says:

    Resisting urge to make anti-Ivy League rant…. nope can’t do it.

    Sorry, I have to.

    The Ivy League elitism which you definitely do pay for and certainly helps your career is not good for academia as a whole. You aren’t in academia and are in a professional school, so it’s different as all that matters is the brand name and getting the next job. But the perspective that “Oh it’s Harvard so it’s good” is harmful to science in my opinion. At the undergrad level, the grade inflation is ridiculous and is at least well known within the US. I knew a professor on an admissions committee at neuroscience who admitted that they take Ivy League GPA’s with a grain of salt compared to a good public school. And I have seen the former Ivy League undergrads in grad school… if anything they are less prepared. My take is that they get better jobs and get into better schools because of the perceived elitism of the school, but in actuality do not get a better education. It’s just you pay more for a much more valuable piece of paper with all the elitism attached, but have no extra knowledge in the tank.

    But where it really hurts is academia. Bad papers get pushed through the best journals simply because they are from Ivy League labs. A lot of the research is top-knotch and really does push the field, but it’s not always easy to discern which because you know that when an Ivy League lab publishes something, it does not have to go through as rigorous a review as from a public school. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that a prominent Harvard professor recently got caught fabricating data on monkey behavior… the pressure is so immense you simply have to publish in the best journals.

    In any case, I can see individual value for the perceived elitism, which is exactly the case you are arguing. That elitism is very valuable to an alum as it is an entry ticket to many opportunities. But I think it hurts academia overall.

  2. matt_schiavenza says:


    I can’t speak from personal experience about academia but what you write sounds spot on. I don’t think that I necessarily have received a much better education than someone at a less prestigious IR program, but the perception that I have is what counts, as troubling as that is.

  3. Mister says:

    You say that it is in your interest that columbia and sipa maintain an elite image, true. But you think that having one speaker can change the brand value of these institutions, when they are a household name in places as far away as China? To say that a single choice of speaker has anything to do with the reputation of a prestigious institution like Columbia is plain nonsense and empty rationalization.

    The real question is: when you found out who the speaker was, why did you care more about the miniscule scratch on Columbia’s reputation than the most obvious thing: what is he or she to talk about! It shows that for you, the event is just a PR exercise, of no instrinsic value whatsoever. THAT is the damning thing about your opinion on the choice of speaker. It shows that you are well on your way to being a hollow professional who cares more about ceremony and reputations than actually making any kind of difference to the world.

    It has nothing to do with elitism, it has nothing to do with Ivy League reputations. It is just about how you will end up being a public official who doesn’t give a damn about anything real, who strives to maintain and thrives on appearances, in short, someone who’s full of crap.

  4. matt_schiavenza says:

    Mister, yes- I wrote that I didn’t really care who the speaker was as long as their speech is brief. I’ll be sitting in a hot robe in the sun and will probably want the whole exercise to be fast. So yes- the reputation is more important.

    “It shows that you are well on your way to being a hollow professional”

    I should hope so!

    “It is just about how you will end up being a public official who doesn’t give a damn about anything real, who strives to maintain and thrives on appearances, in short, someone who’s full of crap.”

    Well, needless to say I found this paragraph hysterical in both senses of the word. I don’t plan on being a public official, for one. And appearances matter! I wish they didn’t, as much. Then I wouldn’t have to tuck my shirt in. But they do!

    And last, but certainly not least: I can’t take anyone seriously who lobs personal attacks at someone while hiding behind a pseudonym. Next time, please have the cojones to identify yourself.

  5. Dennis says:

    Hi Matt – I came upon your blog post through a friend’s FB post. Since you used a snippet of a comment I made, I felt compelled to respond.

    Sadly, you contradict yourself. You say “taken out of context, my remarks were elitist and entitled.” This suggests that within context they were not. You go on to proudly accept the badge of “elitism” and “entitlement.” Cherry picking when you can be considered elitist certainly befits an elitist attitude, yet nonetheless confirms what you are. It’s within that ill-defined, vapid, and subjective prism of elitism we can assess your judgments on the selection of speaker – this, however, doesn’t work in your favor.

    Question: Does your foot count as ‘cheap diner food’, because you seem to put your foot in your mouth often? Comparing our ceremony speaker to “cheap diner food” through an analogy that is as much confusing as it is tasteless (no pun intended) exemplifies the all to familiar rhetorical fallacy – jumping to conclusions. You provide no evidence that rings true as to how Ms. Sonenshine “reputation” is not fit for speaker and makes for a “disappointing choice.” What “reputation” are you referring to and how, in very specific terms, does it not meet some standard of speaker quality?

    Your logic is circular –the reputation of the school is maintained by visiting scholars, and visiting scholars go to said school because of its reputation. In other parts of your rant, you recognize a university’s reputation is based on many factors much more important than the graduation speaker – quality of student (principally), endowment, location, funding, research, class size, professors, etc. with ceremony speaker far down on the list (if it even makes it all). This further begs the question.

    The prestige you are willing to “sacrifice” so much for originates from the quality of student attending SIPA. Any institution, Columbia included, derives its intellectual capital from the ideas, passions, endeavors, and contributions of the people who make up the long list of attendees, students, and professors. Columbia has such a great name now because of the tremendous work of the students and professors who have come before and, one hopes, of those who are presently attending. It’s the caliber of student that continues to attract people to the school. Put this debtate in context: the student drug arrests last year have done more harm to Columbia’s prestige than the selection of Sonenshine. Yet, reading your posts, one would think selecting Sonenshine as speaker is somehow damaging to SIPA. Again, no evidence is provided that rings true to this claim.

    This is the point: your tone, haste, and the image projected (including to our ceremony speaker) poorly represents SIPA and the student body. The unwarranted opprobrium you and others were so hasty to post publicly on the internet tarnishes our school’s prestige. If your beef is with the administration’s opaque selection process, then that is a discussion worth having (perhaps even in the public space outside SIPA walls). But, it’s another issue entirely to conclude an accomplished individual is not qualified to speak to us simply because she doesn’t meet the subjective, and ill-defined notion of celebrity/prestige that some, like yourself, hold. If a multiple Emmy-award winning journalist hand picked by the President of the United States to be Under Secretary of State and swore-in by the Secretary of State is not prestigious enough then, Matt, your standards are too high and you need to get over yourself.

    You are right to be proud of your accomplishments here at SIPA. Your intention, I trust, is well-meaning. Nonetheless, the lack of constraint and thoughtlessness shared amongst yourself and others at SIPA was disappointing to many within the SIPA community. You were quick to toss barbs, rather than talk with admin personally about an issue that should not have gone beyond the doors of SIPA; if only to show sensitivity and spare Sonenshine the embarrassment of having to read it (only a day after her selection as speaker was announced no less!) As students we are our own boss, and that is the privileged, yet bittersweet, lives we lead. What is clear through your rant is that some of us are better at self-discipline, sensitivity to others, and consideration for the institution of which we are a member of. The world outside the walls of SIPA, however, will not be as accommodating to capacious thoughts no matter how elite we think we are. Ironically, SIPA, its students, and the prestige you value so much are paying the price for ill-mannered student rants.

  6. matt_schiavenza says:


    I understand where you’re coming from, and in spite of the incivility of your response I feel it’s worthy of some sort of response.

    Your points seem to be:

    – I’m an elitist by trying to have a discussion about elitism
    – Because I don’t have “evidence” that Sonenshine’s reputation is unfit to be our graduation speaker, then I shouldn’t have offered my opinion on the subject at all
    – The selection of speaker one way or another ranks low on the list of things that affect SIPA’s prestige
    – That we haven’t made a sacrifice by coming to SIPA (something I glean by your use of quotation marks around the word)
    – Discussing the post publicly somehow undermines the school’s reputation, and I should have somehow kept my thoughts “within SIPA’s walls”
    – Sonenshine should be spared the embarrassment of us having this discussion.

    Let me tackle these, in reverse order:

    – Sonenshine, as an accomplished journalist, likely understands the utility of discussing issues openly in a public forum, and isn’t overly concerned what a 31 year-old graduate student thinks about her selection as graduation speaker. No, I don’t have “proof” of this but I suspect that she isn’t losing any sleep over my article.

    – I completely disagree that this discussion should be kept within SIPA’s walls. My post was about elitism and whether having a sense of entitlement is justified, concepts which have an application far beyond SIPA walls. In China, students are often recruited to universities with the promise that they would have a certain degree on their graduating diploma, only to discover upon graduation that they do not. Should their complaints have remained within university walls? Or does the notion that you don’t always get what you pay for in higher education resonate more widely? I suspect the latter is true. Universities encourage us to be forthright with our opinions and to debate things; why should this be any different?

    – I realize that you and others find it ridiculous that going to SIPA represents a sacrifice in any way, considering that we willingly accepted SIPA’s offer for admission. But consider this- many of us are going to be in serious debt as a consequence of going to SIPA- in some cases up to $140,000. When you factor in the opportunity costs of not working for two years, that figure may approach up to $300,000. That’s a lot of money. I’m confident that in the long run my investment into SIPA will pay off, and even if it doesn’t I’m still happy that I came. But it definitely entailed a (fairly obvious) sacrifice.

    – My opinion on Sonenshine’s worthiness to be our graduation speaker was simply that: my opinion. I was asked by Communique to provide it, and because I found the subject matter interesting and noteworthy I was happy to do so. I’m fully aware that others- yourself included- feel that Sonenshine is more than worthy. I disagree, but that’s a legitimate claim

    (Though I do wonder how many people at SIPA thought to themselves: “you know who I want for speaker? Tara Sonenshine” before the selection was announced.)

    My argument here is simply about elitism and having a sense of entitlement. I don’t think anyone supports having rigid, clearly-defined standards for graduation speakers.

    – I’m surprised that my “cheap diner food” analogy confused you. I just re-read it and consider it to be fairly clear. I believe that Sonenshine is a second-rate choice for graduation speaker, but that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy her speech or the graduation because of it. It simply leaves me with the sense that the administration could have and should have done better. That’s all.

  7. Dennis says:

    Points taken…I don’t have time to respond, but if you are around during graduation, we can grab a celebratory beer at 1020 and debate further. Cheers!

  8. Dennis says:

    BTW, incivility, really? This coming from you, who compared the speaker (a person who is your elder, BTW) to ‘cheap diner food’, second rate, and the naked cowboy? Is that what passes for civility, Matt?

    It would be illogical for me to assume that because you write a blog post you also ‘understand the utility of discussing issues openly in a public forum’ and that pointing out your faulty deductions within your blog posts would be accepted by you. No, instead you call it ‘incivil’ because you invented an offense in my response thereby validating how such an assumption on my part would incorrect. My larger point, Matt, was that Sonenshine (and anyone reading your post about the selection) can say the same about your post – that it was ‘incivil’ – and the only difference between mine and yours is that they would be right about your post.

  9. matt_schiavenza says:

    Be happy to talk about it further, especially at 1020 (where you can afford to have more than just one :)

    Shoot me an e-mail if you wish.

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