Columbia student publication works overnight to moderate comments about Obama at Barnard

When President Obama offered to speak at Barnard College’s commencement this May -- bumping New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson out of the keynote spot -- he inadvertently angered students at his alma mater, Columbia College. Their frustration was a reminder of tensions between the women’s college of Columbia University and the students across the street whose controversial comments have been managed largely by a student publication revived online, in part, to foster discussion.

Ella Quittner is editor of Bwog, the blog of Columbia’s monthly undergraduate magazine (The Blue and White), which had been in the process of assessing and revising its comment policy. The Columbia College junior described the website’s role on campus -- and handling of this situation -- by email:

“Bwog’s readership has grown steadily throughout the past five years, and we’ve continued to update our comment policy to meet the needs of our extensive readership. We’ve tried make sure that Bwog doesn’t become a place for slander or cruelty by monitoring the comments, but we also believe that Bwog is a space that should reflect the collective consciousness of our campus.

"As we wrote last night in a post, it’s clear that this discussion can, at times, take a severely hateful turn. This situation is complicated—students are upset for a variety of different reasons. Barnard and Columbia College have an odd and particular relationship, which is not well-articulated by administrators, and which is riddled with historical peculiarities. Coupled with a few additional confounding factors, this can lead to disparities between media coverage of our campus and what we actually see and experience from day to day. But even challenging moments like this one offer an opportunity for progressive discussion and confrontation of social ills.

"To be clear, Bwog condemns and thoroughly disagrees with the hatred directed at both the Barnard and Columbia College communities. We do not view ourselves as arbitrators, but with that said, we’re doing everything we can—including taking overnight shifts to monitor comment threads—to remove the most egregious comments.

"Our current efforts to rewrite the comment policy have been ongoing since last semester; we'd like to find a way to promote more humane interactions without increasing active removal of commenters' contributions. The dialogue we're interested in is about ideas, not about people, and that's where we try to make a distinction."

Quittner says students will continue to monitor comments but will post "less regularly" during Spring Break next week. The initial Obama post had 700+ comments, which was more than usual. Obama is scheduled to speak on May 14. Abramson, whose mother Dovie graduated from Barnard in 1939, has said she will be happy to reschedule.

Correction: This post originally identified Quittner as a senior. She is a junior.


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