Who Cares for Columbia?

Crisis at Columbia: Report of the Fact-Finding Commission Appointed to Investigate the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May, 1968

Knopf (Vintage), 222 pp., $1.95

Up Against the Ivy Wall

by Jerry L. Avorn. Other Members of the Staff of the Columbia Daily Spectator
Atheneum, 297 pp., $3.25 (paper)

The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis

by James Ridgeway
Random House, 273 pp., $5.95

In 1965, my second year on Columbia’s faculty, I was invited to the University’s annual Yule Log Ceremony. Two students, dressed in Colonial costumes and wigs, carried a log across the campus, past a statue of Alexander Hamilton (an alumnus), and into a panelled room with a fireplace. On its walls hung a full-length portrait of George II, who had granted a charter in 1754 to the ancestral King’s College at which Hamilton had been a student. The afternoon’s ritual featured a discussion of Columbia traditions and a reading of ” ‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” Its author, I learned, had been a student at the Columbia of post-revolutionary New York, and later a devoted trustee. President Kirk made some good-humored remarks, and lit the log. A Negro in the uniform of Columbia’s security police was standing to one side of the President. He was there to keep the fire within safe limits and he busied himself with it while a student chorus sang carols. The thick windows and the students’ voices dulled the roar of the trucks and buses outside on Amsterdam Avenue.

This scene kept re-forming in my mind during the crisis last spring. Columbia’s official image was that of a community of teachers and students, older than the American nation. Its location in New York made it uniquely central and exciting among American universities. But its place in the city had always been odd.

At the beginning of the century, the school had moved to the city’s edge, rebuilt itself as a modern university housed in something like a Roman forum, with such features as a Temple of Learning (Low Library, long the seat of administration), and a civic goddess (a statue of Alma Mater). The ancient forums, of course, had been at the heart of their cities; but in spite of Columbia’s evident eagerness to merge its greatness with that of the metropolis, the city itself was held at a distance. In a book on Columbia published in 1914, Dean Frederik Keppel wrote: “Now that the growth of the city has blotted out the outlook upon the Hudson to the west, one of our valued academic possessions is the fine view from the President’s house over Morningside Park, across the city, and to the hills of Long Island.” Decades later, this had become a view over the black ghetto, and in the crisis last spring the prospect of Harlem militants attacking the campus seemed at times a real possibility. Columbia was still holding the city at bay by extending its boundaries, with little concern for what effect this would have on the life of the surrounding neighborhood. Although its official name is “Columbia University in the City of New York,” the city that the University chose to be “in” was the New York of the arts and publishing, of law and finance, a cosmopolitan city, not the New York that unexpectedly followed it uptown, surrounded it, pressed in upon it.

Last spring, Columbia’s long-standing deficiencies…

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