Education

Columbia University’s Ultra-Woke Idea: Segregated Graduation Ceremonies

Butler Library on the campus of Columbia University in New York City (Mike Segar/Reuters)
My university’s decision shows how an obsession with diversity has corrupted modern academia.

Last week, Columbia University, where I am currently a junior, made national headlines over commencement ceremonies demarcated by race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Such multicultural ceremonies have a history at many schools, but Columbia’s was apparently the one to receive nationwide media attention. Though discussion and discourse are always important, most of the resulting social-media frenzy focused on the wrong ideas. It is not about getting into the weeds and arguing over which historically marginalized group deserves to be recognized or whether these ceremonies are optional. The very creation and existence of such events is fundamentally problematic right out of the gate.

To segregate students by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status is inherently harmful to the fabric of college communities and harms the social progress these events ostensibly intend to achieve. The embrace of resegregation in this scenario to combat “inequality” centers on one uncontrollable characteristic of an individual and reduces a person’s identity to superficial stereotypes, neglecting his or her nuanced existence. It also bears more than a passing, uncomfortable resemblance to the racism of decades past. People are multifaceted with their own experiences, talents, interests, and strengths. Failure to recognize that is not only ignorant, but also dehumanizing.

A common rejoinder to criticisms of these ceremonies is that those who want to end them do not care about the achievements of the students the ceremonies celebrate. This is not only untrue, but also condescendingly assumes that Black, Asian, “Latinx,” First-Generation/Low-Income, “Lavender” (LGBTQIA+), and Native-American students can only have their accomplishments celebrated through the uplifting of an institution that cannot see past their mere identities. It also assumes that America is so racially bankrupt that those in these groups must depend on an institution to be recognized as human. In this way, the university’s focus on identity reinforces campus division, as students depend more on institutional labeling to define who they are. The result is the undermining of campus unity to an almost irreparable point.

Columbia likely started these ceremonies in good faith. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Diversity and multiculturalism can be worthwhile aims. However, they cannot be the sole focus of all university affairs. Yet that is increasingly exactly the case, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to identify what else one might learn at these expensive elite institutions. The imposition of diversity as the reigning prerequisite to any action has soiled good intent, and now facilitates the weaponization of multiculturalism to conduct witch hunts on conservatives, quash free speech, and command political correctness in the classroom. As a result, identity politics now runs rampant, such that no objective debate can occur because of overwhelming affectual censorship. Objectivity is outlawed, and everyone is made to believe he must have an emotional investment in a discussion. Everything is now personal to those in any conversation.

Besides collapsing discourse in the classroom, the balkanization of historically underprivileged groups is also a complete disaster for campus culture. The purpose of a liberal-arts education is to become assimilated into a student body of all races, backgrounds, creeds, and ideologies. A school that encourages students to choose one characteristic to define themselves establishes tribalism, but also undersells student potential in other areas. This fragmentation polarizes the student body. To the extent it has occurred at Columbia, it is often merely shrugged off as the culture of New York City.” But that is hardly an excuse. Woke cliques have worsened campus culture, even if nobody, particularly the school administration, wants to admit it. Columbia could be engaging in the hard work of facilitating the meaningful growth of a community. Instead, the school cuts corners, propping up a grand façade marketed toward prospective students. It’s a façade that glosses over the fact that our community is now merely an unorganized conglomeration of factions loosely held together by a woke elitism that steamrolls anything and everything in the name of “multiculturalism.” Academia no longer cares about students finding the common humanity in each other. No longer are we supposed to see past race, for we are instructed to entrench ourselves further in it.

To make matters worse, schools can’t actually be bothered to solve racism. These ceremonies only exist so that colleges can give off the perception that they champion progress for the sake of their savior complexes. If universities genuinely cared about structural racism, multiculturalism would not be revered in the toxic manner it is today. Universities would not embrace tokenism as they desperately seek to fill their incoming classes with the most uniquely underprivileged students to parade around as faulty proof of their woke bona fides. Universities would instead work to deconstruct the alarming institutional racism levied against Asian Americans in the admissions process. In reality, the reputation of the school is more important than the fight against racism. This is exactly why Columbia, instead of directly defending their multicultural ceremonies, simply used obfuscation tactics and changed the name of the events to “celebrations” once it was clear that criticism of the events outweighed praise. To institutions such as Columbia, all convictions are flexible if the school’s name is on the line. Racism is a great cause to fight against when it’s convenient.

Columbia’s voluntarily segregated graduation ceremonies are not pragmatic steps to solve discrimination and real-world disparities. They are nothing more than smoke and mirrors to attempt to “one-up” other schools in their quest for wokeness. If schools actually solved racism, how would the diversity–industrial complex survive? How would our universities prove that they’re better than the one down the street? By truly looking for ways to innovate learning, improve their graduation rates, or develop niche academic specialties? Perish the thought. Instead, a woke arms race is stirring across the academy, and whichever institution proves it can win the “Oppression Olympics” comes out on top.

It is with a heart of gratitude and love for Columbia University that I express my grievances. No institution is beyond reproach, including the most prestigious this country has to offer. Diversity is important, but respectable civil discourse must be restored. They are not mutually exclusive. Criticism over graduation events cannot simply be dismissed with staple calls of “racism,” “sexism,” or whatever laundry list “-ism” is convenient to hurl on a given day. Students and faculty of all ideologies must reflect on their tolerance toward opposing ideas and how they approach conversations with others. To those who have become so overwhelmingly afraid to share their ideas out of fear of “cancellation,” humiliation, or underappreciation, it is time to gather your own courage and galvanize the spirits of others, for you are not alone. We must all do our part to rehabilitate the integrity of academic freedom. Without it, academia’s powerful influence in molding some of the best and brightest American minds will fall to an advancing illiberal hegemony that will continue to blow until the flame of academic freedom dies. Then, graduation ceremonies will be the least of our problems.

Tristan Yang is currently a senior at Columbia University studying International Relations, American Government, and History.

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