Opinion » Ted Rall

A Harsh Lesson

Obama snubs hard-working college students


Monday, May 14, President Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address at Barnard College, a women-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-year-old) 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 earning their bachelor degrees. There's a big Columbia commencement ceremony where the entire university gathers to receive its diplomas; in addition, each school has a separate event called Class Day.

If 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 graduate not just from college, but from an Ivy League school. Notable alumni include Isaac Asimov, Sandy Koufax, Hunter S. Thompson, Ira Gershwin, Amelia Earhart and myself.

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.

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 meeting tough admission and graduation requirements, GS students are accustomed to being treated like the ugly stepsister of the Columbia bureaucracy. Even so, the Obama snub was over the top.

"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 13, 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?"

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.