April 30, 1968—With student protestors still occupying five campus buildings they’d taken over the week before, Columbia University President Grayson Kirk called in helmeted police, with predictably disastrous results—more than 700 arrests, hundreds injured, nearly 400 police brutality complaints, the eventual resignations of himself and Provost David Truman, and a decade-long decline in the university’s finances.
When I arrived on campus 10 years after the fabled demonstrations, one of the events at Freshman Orientation was a discussion featuring two professors recalling the events of that spring. Even for a group more politically active and fascinated by history than many of our peers, the discussion was useful and, indeed, needed. The passage of a decade meant that many of us knew the tumultuous event had occurred but not why. I imagine that now, with another 30 years past, the demonstrations will seem as hazy to today’s students as the stories of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at the West End in the 1940s seemed to us.
I count myself lucky to have heard the discussion at freshman orientation. The faculty members (one, I remember, was anthropology professor Robert F. Murphy, still funny and charismatic despite already being incapacitated by the paralysis that would eventually result in his death) had a real appreciation for the swirl of events and the players involved in the crisis, with few ideological axes to grind. The same, I’m afraid, cannot be said for the panel sponsored by the university this past weekend.
Columnist John Leo has griped that the absence of non-leftists (let alone conservatives) assured a panel dominated by the Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) group that spearheaded the strike. Even this exclusion would not necessarily have been fatal—the ’78 discussion my class witnessed was from a liberal perspective and did not suffer from it, for the tone throughout was wry, with a sweeping view of this event in the larger context of the university’s history. I also don’t think it’s possible to have any meaningful reminiscence of the riot without the involvement of some of the event’s participants.
Still, the overall impression of the three-day panel discussion just concluded, as reported by the New York Times two days ago, was of participants trading (anti-)war stories, with the dominant tone veering sharply toward the most self-congratulatory, smarmy, unreflective gathering I can imagine this side of Oscar night.
“You tried to be true to it,” the writer-researcher Susan Kahn remembered of the student strike. “You became a person who tried to be true to it for 40 years, who in one way or another tried to make the world better.” Edward J. Hyman, a professor of psychology, fondly recalled the late Ted Gold, who was killed nearly two years later when a bomb he was making for the Weathermen radical group exploded in a Greenwich Village town house.
Hmm…One wishes a bit more could have been said about what Gold would have done that night if fate had not intervened—like set that bomb off at a dance in Fort Dix, N.J., killing soldiers who had done him and the Weathermen no harm, leaving their survivors wounded for the rest of their lives.
I also read nothing in the post-mortems on the three-day consortium concerning an actual victim of the Columbia riot itself--Frank Gucciardi, a 34-year-old plainclothes police officer, who, while dealing with residual unrest the day after Kirk called in the cops, was jumped from behind by a protestor leaping from a second-story window. Gucciardi sustained a painful back injury that required three spinal operations over the next three years, and which eventually forced his early retirement because of disability.
Was I just being cantankerous in middle age? I went to the school newspaper (yes, the same one I had labored on more than a generation ago), and found that “Commentariat” blogger Armin Rosen was squirming at the “single-minded and out of tone” temper of the proceedings, too.
Here, perhaps, some context about the eight days of turmoil four decades ago is in order. As Professor Murphy and his faculty colleague reminded us at orientation, the protest was not against the Vietnam War or any university officials’ part in its planning (indeed, both Kirk and Truman had come against the war), but against the university’s decision to build a gym on public land in Morningside Park and against the school’s ties with a Pentagon research institute. (Not that the war had no role to play at all; as novelist Paul Auster, a participant in the protest, recalled in a Times op-ed piece last week, he, like many of the protestors that week, was “crazy with the poison of Vietnam in my lungs.”).
To be sure, the protestors were correct that the university needed to change its fraught relationship with its neighbors (the proposed gymnasium’s second entrance, on the south, lower side for the most African-American community, smacked of “separate but equal”) and that its Pentagon ties should be ended. But the events of the next eight days took on an almost hallucinogenic quality all too keeping with the times.
The protest was led by Mark Rudd, who had visited Castro’s Cuba for three weeks earlier that year and reflected the growing S.D.S. Marxist-Leninist bent. He had gained control of the local chapter of SDS by spearheading the “Action Faction” of the group that clamored for direct confrontation against the Vietnam War. On April 23, he and his associate John Jacobs, after leading a protest group of 500 gathered at the sundial in the middle of the universal’s central quadrangle, attempted to take over the administration building, Low Library. Repulsed by conservative counterdemonstrators—a group consisting mostly of athletes and fraternity members that many students and faculty members doubtless were astonished to discover even existed—Rudd and his group took over nearby Hamilton Hall.
Not for long, however: another group of African-American activists from Harlem then ordered the S.D.S. group out of Hamilton Hall and get their own building. It’s hard not to agree with the sentiment voiced by one of the black activists, Ray Brown, that his group was fed up with “the 72 other tendencies of the New Left,” for the protestors were now feeding alike over the university administration’s remoteness from students (Kirk barely knew many of them) and the growing intoxication of microphones and cameras being thrust in front of them.
Events had now morphed way out of control. Kirk and Truman were now dealing with a hydra-headed force featuring student revolutionaries, an African-American contingent with ties to Harlem activists, counterdemonstrators, faculty members who tried to act as go-betweens, and New York City police, edgy and feeling undermanned to deal with this force.
Rudd’s refusal to accept anything less than total amnesty for the protestors eventually moved the administration to call in the cops. The result is well-known, and the administration’s response was heavily criticized the next year by a commission headed by Archibald Cox.
The damage to the university in the next 10 years was severe, spelled out, in eye-opening detail (the kind sadly missing from this past week), by Barnard College Professor Robert A. McCaughey nine years ago. McCaughey’s analysis shows that a year before the disturbances, the university had only a small deficit. By the 1970-71 school year, following cleanup expenses, legal costs, falling tuition payments, and plummeting alumni donations, the university was running a deficit of $16.5 million out of a total budget of $170 million.
Now, 40 years later, this past weekend, current university president Lee Bollinger joked to panel participants, “I thought about making my office available to you all night.” Obviously, he did not appreciate some of the underlying paradoxes of his presence there that day.
To start with, he has strenuously pushed for the university’s expansion north into Manhattanville—a move that recalled predecessor Kirk’s arms-length relationship with the school’s Harlem neighbors. As a prominent First Amendment expert, did Bollinger adequately consider whether celebrating a takeover in which classes were disrupted and a college dean was forcibly detained really advanced the cause of academic freedom?
The Columbia student takeover would not have happened but for the administration’s total removal from any sense of what was happening in the lives of the students. At the same time, even though the protestors forced the university to abandon the proposed gym and end the Pentagon ties, it had severely undermined the authority of a liberal university administration made to look impotent. It contributed to the images of disorder that led to the eventual national counterrevolution that autumn: Richard Nixon’s election as President.