Columbia University president Lee Bollinger calls the random stabbing murder of PhD student Davide Giri on Thursday night “unspeakably sad and deeply shocking.”
It’s sad, but it’s not shocking.
Elite universities may prefer not to talk much about violent crime as much as they can avoid it, but they can’t protect their charges from what goes on in a freshly violent New York City.
Giri is the second Columbia student to be killed in a stranger-on-stranger attack in a supposedly safe public space in less than two years. In December 2019, in another attack just weeks before students were to leave campus for the holiday season, three teenagers targeted a female victim, 18-year-old Tessa Majors, in Morningside Park. They tortured her to death, holding the vulnerable young woman down and stabbing her.
The NYPD, already pulling back from preventative policing even before BLM protests erupted six months later, had failed to stem a spate of similar robberies before Tessa’s murder.
Now, Giri, 30, a superstar computer scientist, is dead — allegedly targeted by a longtime adult gang member out on “supervised release” after a string of violent arrests and convictions over a decade. Giri’s alleged killer, Vincent Pinkney, seriously injured at least one other person, an Italian tourist, in Thursday night’s attack. He didn’t ask either of his victims for money. He may have been high on drugs, he may be severely mentally ill, or he may have been motivated by racial hatred — or all three. Competent state parole supervision should have caught the first two.
Bollinger means well, and he doubtless wrote his letter to students and staff in a state of distress. But there’s something jarring about another part of his statement: “it took place only steps from our campus.” It echoes what NYU said when a student was hit by a “stray bullet” near its engineering campus in Brooklyn early this fall: “The University is … concerned about the occurrence of a shooting so near one of our buildings.”
The words from on high give the impression: We aren’t worried about the insane explosion of violent crime all over New York City, most of which victimizes poor black men and teens. We just worry when it affects us.
But trying to keep city campuses safe while chaos rages all around is always a losing proposition. Just this week, Sam Collington, 21, a Temple University student, was shot to death in a robbery near his Philadelphia apartment, not far from campus. Last month, Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, 24, a 2021 University of Chicago master’s grad, was killed in a robbery in Hyde Park, just by the university. Amazingly enough, Zheng was the second University of Chicago community member to die violently this year. In June, student Max Lewis, 20, was killed by a “stray bullet” as he sat minding his own business on the city’s elevated-rail system. Last year, UC-Berkeley student Seth Smith, 19, was shot and killed walking near his own off-campus apartment in the Northern California city.
The country’s best universities are in cities because students and faculty need a dense environment to do applied work research and work with nearby companies and hospitals. They can protect their own campuses well enough, but they cannot lock the students in. There are no “safe spaces” from general disorder.
Many students, like Zheng and Giri, not only aren’t from New York, but aren’t from the US. They are busy studying intense science-based courses and often aren’t exactly up on current events. So they may be entirely unaware of the massive violent-crime surge that US cities, including New York, have seen in the past two years.
Since 2019, the precinct around Columbia has seen shootings triple and assaults rise by nearly 60 percent. Hate crimes are up 800 percent, from one to nine. Citywide, murders are up 42 percent in two years.
In a different era, university presidents would call for more preventative policing. But that’s a delicate proposition now. When Smith died just off Berkeley’s campus, the chancellor used its statement on his murder to give a short lecture on police brutality. Police brutality had absolutely nothing to do with Smith’s murder. Berkeley may as well have used its student’s death notice as an excuse to opine on climate change or global poverty.
When Majors was killed two years ago, Columbia beefed up its own softer measures, like adding guard staffing and extending the hours of a campus shuttle. Fine, but people don’t come to New York City to seek refuge on a school bus. Young people want to be out in the parks and streets after dark, which shouldn’t be a death sentence.
The more often poor black teens and young adults die on the street from soaring urban violence, the more often elite students will die, too. “Only steps from our campus” is no protection. Lee Bollinger should instead use the influence of the university to insist new Mayor Eric Adams, the City Council and Albany make the city safer for all New Yorkers.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
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