Lessons From Columbia ’68

Lessons From Columbia ’68

As Columbia University goes forward with controversial plans to expand into Harlem, alumni mark the fortieth anniversary of explosive student protests.


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.

Last fall, resistance to the campus expansion plan and a resurgence of racism led seven students and a professor to go on a hunger strike for ten days. Racism remains an issue on campus. Although black students are no longer stopped by suspicious security guards, last fall there was a rash of homophobic, Islamophobic and racist graffiti. A noose was found outside the door of an African-American professor at Columbia Teacher’s College. Racist slurs were found scrawled in bathroom stalls at the School of International and Public Affairs.

Emilie Rosenblatt, a sophomore, was one of the hunger strikers. “I think it’s very irresponsible, what Columbia is doing,” she said of the proposed expansion. “It’s part of this colonial mentality–We know what’s right for West Harlem, Our campus will be what’s best for the neighborhood–but a lot of people will lose their jobs, and the new jobs will either be temporary or won’t be for people in the neighborhood. The construction is going to last for thirty years, and this neighborhood has the highest asthma rates in the country. Columbia doesn’t have the community’s best interests at heart.”

The next afternoon, roughly a hundred students and residents held a rally on the main campus walk. Community members had walked from a church on 126th Street to the main gates, bringing with them an armchair, a beanbag, a houseplant and other items ordinarily found in people’s homes. As part of their protest, they set up a little “apartment” on the steps in front of the main administration building, Low Library, to show passers-by what it would be like for them to be evicted from their homes.

Many of the signs and banners have 1968 stamped on them. The protesters are deeply aware of the irony of Columbia University playing host to the 1968 conference while barreling forward with the current plans without reflection.

Tom Hurwitz (class of ’69), one of the organizers of the conference, is sympathetic to the current protests. “The issues are all the same, aren’t they?” he asks. “That’s not surprising. A big university is deeply tied into the system under which we function. If the students don’t take a stand against something, they can drift very easily into being economically connected to the war machine and Columbia expanding into the neighborhood.”

An ad hoc coalition of student groups against the war in Iraq is taking a very public stand, on the sundial in the center of the main campus walk. For five days (two of which overlapped with the ’68 conference), the students have been reading the names of Iraqi and American dead for thirteen hours each day, ringing a bell for each person. On the fourth day, an unaffiliated group of students dressed up “Alma Mater,” the statue in front of Low Library, as part of an art project. The seated figure was hooded, with electrodes placed in her hands. That day, 300 to 350 students also staged a walkout to protest the war and listened to brief speeches from professors, students and veterans.

In ’68, students were rallying against classified research that Columbia was conducting for the Department of Defense. Today, the university invests in companies who profit immensely from the Iraq War. Some students have penned a persuasive petition to the university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing. They want their school to divest from three corporations (General Dynamics, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin) that supply munitions or private military contractors to the United States and whose profits depend substantially on the continuation of the war. Their proposal ends with these lines: “With investments in these military contractors, Columbia is not neutral with regard to U.S. foreign policy. Instead, it forms a small part of the complex waging the war in Iraq. If we at Columbia are to avoid contributing to the horrors in Iraq, we must divest.”

The committee rejected their proposal.

Hurwitz says, “Any large, powerful institution, unless it’s called its task by the people over whom it asserts its power, is going to repeat its mistakes. It’s the nature of power to overstep itself.”

The ’68 protesters didn’t manage to end the war, but their victories were significant. Columbia stopped its military research, scrapped the gym construction and re-evaluated the paternalistic style of administration so admired by its leaders. Issues of racism began to be addressed. Perhaps more important, the students had a hand in determining what kind of school Columbia should be.

It’s unlikely that the events of 1968 will repeat themselves. The clusters of protests have yet to coalesce into a large and energetic movement. Perhaps they never will. But they continue to taunt the administration, challenge its power and refuse to lend their names to its actions. In a time when former student protesters are re-examining the legacy of 1968, perhaps it is time that Columbia analyzes what drives its students and neighbors to protest against it.

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