Nineteen sixty-eight was a year that shook the world. It also shook Columbia University, rattling it so hard that the president, Grayson Kirk, and the provost, David Truman, fell down–their reputations so tarnished that they had to “retire.” It is a time that haunts the secret underground tunnels under the main campus at 116th Street where student protesters once swarmed. Its ghosts linger in the five buildings–Fayerweather, Math, Hamilton, Avery and Low–that were once occupied by students for an entire week. It blankets the grass where police kicked, beat and arrested hundreds of demonstrators and bystanders.
In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of the student riots, those ghosts are coming back to life. This time it’s not the Vietnam War the students are protesting; it’s the occupation in Iraq. Instead of rallying against Columbia’s classified research for the Department of Defense, the students are petitioning for divestment from companies engaged in military manufacturing. And Columbia is no longer just taking over Morningside Park for its new gym; it’s expanding its campus seventeen acres into West Harlem.
The scattered student protests haven’t exploded into a massive movement that is stopping the school in its tracks. Maybe it never will. But it is a prickly presence that the wrought-iron gates can never shut out.
“You simply do not bring in the police on a campus,” said Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s beleaguered president, in a panel discussion during a recent conference examining the legacy of the 1968 riots. The three-day (April 24-27) series of panels, movies and mixers was organized by the former protesters; the university they had once protested provided free space but declined to sponsor it.
It’s true that the university under Bollinger has never needed to call in the police, as Kirk did forty years ago. But there are other echoes of the past that are almost as disturbing.
Most of the gray-haired alumni gathered in the lecture hall of the journalism school are sympathetic to the protests against the expansion plan. It will displace, by the university’s own estimates, 5,000 people in West Harlem and take away scores of jobs. Many are also sympathetic to the students and Harlem residents who have been protesting the undemocratic means–rejecting community proposals and refusing to meet with local opposition–by which Columbia has pushed forward its proposal.
One such former protester, Juan Gonzalez (class of ’68), sits in the audience. Gonzalez is a journalist and the co-host, with Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now! “The university’s gotten more skilled,” he says, “but it has not really learned to treat its neighbors as neighbors.”
When Gonzalez was at Columbia, students bristled at the construction of a gym on public land for a private institution. The site was Morningside Park, used mainly by Harlem residents. The gym was to have separate entrances and times for students and locals, who quickly christened it “Gym Crow.”
Today, the university wishes to take over seventeen acres of land, displacing thousands. Of special concern are low-income housing projects that lie in its path. “Columbia Go Away” is painted on the side of a building in the neighborhood. Harlem wants Columbia’s autocratic means of expansion as little as it wanted the gym forty years ago.