Don’t sweat it, Mark—Columbia needs you

By Thomas Pardee

Everyone knows Columbia can be a scary place at first.

It’s different—quirky—and the rules of many other colleges and universities don’t necessarily apply. In place of competitive sports, we have Big Mouth. Instead of a neatly manicured campus we have the tortured, gravelly pit that is Wabash Avenue. And instead of the sense of superiority that often stinks up top-tier schools, we are full of thousands of talented people who have the courage to put their visions for the future first. It’s part of our spirit, and it defines us.

My first week at Columbia found me attending every orientation event I could in a desperate bid to find a place on campus. One event had me and a partner complete a scavenger hunt, and on the list of tasks was the option to take a picture of Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs, juggling something. Getting the picture would clinch our victory.

We approached his office, a relatively small nook on the third floor of the Wabash Campus Building, 623 S. Wabash Ave., peeked inside and asked tentatively for the photo. Without a moment’s hesitation, Kelly started searching his office for three like items, and within seconds they were up in the air, Kelly’s eyes darting from object to object with intense concentration.

It’s this concentration—this unconditional dedication to bettering the student experience at Columbia—that makes Kelly an invaluable part of this campus. His actions, and those the of dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts, Eliza Nichols, at the Feb. 23 Manifest kick-off event do nothing to change this.

I later became a student journalist working for The Chronicle covering campus news, and I was again struck by how dedicated Kelly and his office were to keeping Columbia charged with new ideas and approaches. I was impressed by his attitude toward student media, which has been nothing but supportive, even when the media have been critical of him.

When I struggled to get faculty sources to call me back for a story I was working on, I knew to call Kelly and explain what I needed. Within minutes of those phone calls to him, I would hear back from that elusive source with the information I needed. Not only did Kelly orchestrate this, but he encouraged us to call him any time we hit a wall he could help knock down.

I, like many Columbia students, don’t go to as many campus events as I would like, but whenever I do I’ll invariably see Kelly either attending or introducing a speaker.

He spends his office hours working on new ideas to better the student experience, and many of his evenings actually showing up and supporting those students.

His availability, his directness and his omnipresence have made him arguably the most recognizable administrative face on campus—more recognizable than Columbia President Warrick L. Carter, who I have only seen once (and that was at a closed board of trustees meeting).

But Kelly changed his shirt in front of a crowd at the Manifest kick-off meeting, and Nichols removed her bra. It was all in an effort to stir things up, surprise people, get them talking about Manifest. It’s not something you’d expect an administrator to do, but it is something the nearly 200 people present at the event noticed and are likely to remember.

Because Kelly and Nichols decided to take a creative risk with their presentation, Carter has decided to throw them under the bus, in the form of a paid advertisement in The Chronicle apologizing for their behavior.

And though the standards for administrators should be higher than that of students or even faculty, the truth is Kelly changing into a Manifest T-shirt and Nichols removing her bra (while exposing nothing) truly offended no one.

I hope that despite the controversy, Kelly knows how much he and his numerous contributions to Columbia are not only appreciated, but essential to healthy student life. Hopefully he’ll continue to take risks and not let this incident rob him, and us, of the Columbia spirit.

It is what defines us, after all. I challenge Kelly not to let this incident define him.