Dear Columbia: Live What You Love by Rai Mckinley

“Create Change”

When I arrived at Columbia College Chicago in 2013 the school’s motto was “Create Change”. The statement exemplified everything that the school seemingly yearned and strived to be; A place dedicated to social change through artistic practice, a place that put an individual’s human development first, and a place that placed great value in equity on campus and in the classroom. At the time the college was alight with The Obama Effect (which is to say a great sense of hope) following the appointment of the new president, Dr. Kwang­Wu Kim, who seemed to really understand just how important this equity is. It was generally believed that the institution would make an even greater effort to fulfill it’s promise to prospective students and then suddenly, the motto changed to a longer but much less meaningful slogan. This was my first sign.

“Live What You Love”

I spent my first year at Columbia joining every relevant program and club that I could, The Conaway Achievement Program, BigART (Which was cut following the year of my participation), Black Student Union, Common Ground, etc. I was building my creative posse as I’d been instructed in Mark Kelly’s “Hell Yeah!” call-­to-action. I soon became president of and rebooted the Black Film Society and where I saw that the school was failing on one of it’s largest principles, I felt it my duty to alert the administration in the only way I knew fit, through my major. In the film, titled “The Black Sheep Roundtable” Black film students and faculty members explore lack of diversity in the Cinema Arts + Science department. I naively did this wholly with the expectation that this incredible and inclusive administration would listen with open ears. Instead I was met with the sort of passive ­aggressive and patronizing institutional racism I had gone all the way to Chicago to leave behind, as well as the virulent microaggressions of a number of Cinema Arts + Science staff, namely Sandy Cuprisin. Immediately following these transgressions with the department Vaun Monroe, who had been BFS’s advisor, was denied tenure and left the college. I was made to feel so uncomfortable around the film department that finally, like BFS’s previous president Marcus Martin, I was forced to leave the department altogether. This was my second sign.

“Live What You Love”

By my second year at Columbia people from throughout the institution were telling me that these problems were college wide, and far more complex than I had imagined. I realized that I’d struck a chord that just kept ringing, and so I applied to become a One Tribe Scholar. One Tribe was a group dedicated to social justice on campus, created out of the Multicultural Affairs office as a liaison between the different cultural groups housed there. 10 students from 10 different backgrounds and different majors working together to create feasible social and institutional equity on campus, a perfect example of what Columbia claimed to be. In the second half of the year we split off into groups, my group ran Practicing Diversity which was a luncheon workshop series in which students, faculty, and staff came together to discuss ways we could ensure that Columbia could be as diverse and as inclusive as it claimed to be. It was another program that Columbia should have upheld as exemplary of the school it was/wanted to be. Instead, by the end of the year the One Tribe Scholars program was cut. A blaring third sign.

“Live What You Love”

It was around this same time that Columbia introduced it’s “Strategic Plan” which had all but completely ignored student voices; it’s planning committee consisted of only one undergraduate student (It is worth noting that I was asked to be on this committee, but because I had class during the pre­scheduled meeting time, I was unable to attend. No effort was made to work around this conflict.). In the diversity section of the plan, there were a number of things laid out that the college said it intended to do, but no mention of the things that were already happening. No mention of One Tribe, no mention of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence (which housed the Practicing Diversity series), not even a single mention of the Multicultural Affairs Office, which itself is directed by a woman who seems more of a corporate hire and not someone who at all understands, or even cares to understand multiculturalism.

“Live What You Love”

In my third year, continuing to be heavily involved in the CiTE and the Multicultural Affairs office, I watched as crucial employees were investigated and fired, as the school continued to make brash decisions without student input. As programs and jobs are being cut, six­ figure VP positions are added. Eric Freedman came on as the new Dean of Media Arts, and 2 years post–“Black Sheep” he is reported by the Columbia Chronicle as giving students only “roundabout” answers about diversity. The administration continued to claim progress with gender-neutrality when in reality they did nothing more than don a few student ­made pronoun buttons (many times the wrong ones). Still nothing had been done to improve experiences of and resource for students of color, the plan for gender-­neutral bathrooms continued to see false ­starts and push­ backs, and the administration continued to engage in secretive behavior. In light of this, an entire league of faculty and staff are having a mass exodus from the school, and their calls to abandon ship were soon hitting me as well. Signs 4­10.

“Live What You Love”

After three years at Columbia College Chicago I have finally made up my mind to leave. The signs have come together to paint a picture that is only truly clear to me now that I am away-why those who hold the keys to Columbia’s success are undervalued, underpaid, and let go, and why white men are given fancy, made-­up, six­ figure titles. What we thought was a school going down in flames, has turned out to be a school that is lighting itself on fire, so that it can build anew. What looks like the end of our Columbia, turned out to be the beginning of a new Columbia that will certainly serve the needs of those whom it intends to. I take no issue with the fact that Columbia is effectively turning itself into a corporate money-­guzzler; Somehow even more blatanty than other institutions of higher education, Columbia seeks to pull in young creatives, suck them dry of every penny, and send them back out with nothing more than “Hell Yeah!” stamped on their foreheads. I have no right really, to disagree with this move, as my fellow former-Columbians and I have come to realize. What will be, will be, and for us folks who are conscientious, caring, queer, and of color, it seems the time has come to simply move on. However, Columbia’s self-­advertising must match the haste of it’s decision-­making, or else it is a liar as well as a thief. The college can no longer position itself as a place that caters to the needs of queer, black, and brown folks. Perhaps it was open to that direction once, but it seems that time has passed.

rai mckinley
Rai Mckinley
Rai Mckinley is an image maker and activist from Massachusetts. He spent 3 years at Columbia College Chicago studying cinema arts and photography, as well as co-planning and facilitating workshops based around topics of diversity. He is currently in the process of transferring schools to pursue a liberal arts degree.


*Photo by Nathan Manasakhan*


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