Tenacious bureaucratic wrangling

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Tenacious bureaucratic wrangling is by far the most important life skill you will learn as a Columbia undergraduate. Learn the administration inside out and make it work for you, and you will find that the old adage, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" is very true. Columbia's bureaucracy rivals that of many governments in size and scope, and it can be either incredibly useful or incredibly frustrating.

Examples of tenacious (and less tenacious) bureaucratic wrangling include passing resolutions, holding town hall meetings, writing petitions, sending voluminous emails, holding a protest, serving on committees, going over people's heads, and perhaps most importantly, meeting personally with administrators. The last method is the only way anything ever actually changes on campus, though it may need to be combined with the other methods (especially the fourth and penultimate examples).

Notable bureaucratic successes depend upon whom you ask and what you value. Most go unheralded or take effect years after the graduation of their primary instigators.

Methods of Dealing

There are many ways of wrangling the bureaucracy tenaciously. Some are better than others in certain situations. All the methods delineated below have worked in some way.

Overly long petitions

Like our sworn enemy Aaron Burr, who submitted a 40-page water bill to the New York legislature in 1799 that included one sentence permitting him to establish a bank buried among regulations for the diameter of pipes and angle of downward incline, and then shut down the water company within 4 months and established what would become JPMorgan Chase, the administration will, in more than one occasion, rubber-stamp overly long petitions without reasoning out all its implications.

Known, slightly-questionable, overly long petitions that have been successfully granted include:

  • Petition to take 3 credits of mathematics outside the university (normally not permitted for CC).
  • Petition to transfer from SEAS to CC.
  • Petition to enroll in Business School courses marked "closed to undergraduates".
  • Petition to allow two 3-4 credit senior seminars to overlap each other by almost an hour (normally, only <10 minutes is permitted).
  • Petition to graduate in 6 semesters with both a BS and an MS from SEAS.
  • Petition to remain in undergraduate housing for a semester after graduating early.
  • Petition to take 30 credits in graduate classes from GSAS and SEAS while registered as a sophomore or junior.
    • Note: sometimes it's not actually necessary to wrangle. Some people have done this without asking.
  • Petition to substitute classes taken at another university for the entire Core Curriculum

Using the General Counsel

For new ventures that scare administrators because of their potential (real or imagined) to cause the university to take on legal liability, getting an okay from the Office of the General Counsel will reverse many an initial 'no'. Student groups are highly encouraged to stay on good terms with the General Counsel members, who are busy but extraordinarily helpful. Granted, sometimes things cut the other way; one group trying to clarify copyright policy prompted the administration to enact new rules against showing movies without licenses.

Known assistance from the law has enabled:

  • Distribution of a periodical in bookstores (see the Helvidius Group)
  • Securing copyright for an electronic journal
  • Lots and lots of otherwise questionable contracts


Hunger Striking

See also: 2007 hunger strike, 1996 hunger strike

Get enough media attention and pretend to speak on behalf of a student body the administration is sorely disconnected from, and getting your way is a piece of cake.

Starting a Facebook Petition

Making a documentary film

See also: Columbia Unbecoming

Suing Columbia

In Spring 2006, Birk Oxholm CC '06 wrote an article in The Current about how to do this.


Having parents whine on your behalf

This is surprisingly effective, possibly because the university believes they're more likely to bring about a lawsuit (see above).

Showing someone a signature, any signature

It's called "plausible deniability". This is particularly effective at the Registrar. See Senior Wisdom.

University Senate legislative process

Perhaps the ultimate in tenacious bureaucratic wrangling, leverage the University Senate's policymaking and deliberative powers. Such exercise can result in an enormous waste of time, but can also succeed spectacularly, such as in the Graduate Student Center and the return of ROTC, both achieved in the 2010-2011 academic year.