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The Uprising at Columbia

NOTE:Here are some impressions of, and reflections upon, the first phase of the Columbia crisis as it was experienced by a member of the faculty. That phase began with the student demonstrations of Tuesday, April 23 and ended with the big police raid during the early hours of Tuesday, April 30. The crisis still continues, having gone through further phases of relative quiet and of extreme violence. And despite resignations and replacements in the personnel of the administration, despite the work of reconstruction carried on by numerous committees, the disturbances threaten to break out once more when classes begin this month. Throughout the intervening months many new facts have emerged, and many facts established earlier have acquired new and startling implications. For these reasons the reflections that follow are necessarily subject to correction. As for the impressions, they are peculiarly, although I think not uniquely, my own. For if the Columbia ordeal has been primarily a collective shake-up, it has also amounted to an individual shake-up for most of us who have participated in the experience—an experience which, in its duration and its bitterness, its capacity to absorb every major issue now dividing the nation, is probably without precedent in the history of American universities.

A number of students and faculty members—chiefly Eric Lindermeyer, Sidney Morganbesser, and Terence Hopkins—have helped me to recall events and to understand their import. None of these individuals is, however, in any way responsible for what I write here.


During the early hours of Wednesday, April 24th, I was preparing for my Shakespeare class at 11 A.M. The subject that day was The Winter’s Tale; Coriolanus had gotten its final touches at the preceding session—“Just in time for the local mob scenes,” a student remarked later. I wasn’t happy about meeting any class that day. The show must go on, but I wished it could go on without me. For there was trouble on campus and I was by self-election a teacher and not a campus politician or a “trouble shooter.”

It was one of Columbia’s great virtues that it allowed its teachers this freedom of election, together with plenty of intellectual and social freedom and plenty of good students. It is true that my habitual detachment from campus politics had recently broken down as I saw the students growing more and more desperate under the pressures of the War. The War’s large evil was written small in the misery with which they pondered hour by hour the pitiful little list of their options: Vietnam or Canada or graduate school or jail! Naturally they were edgy, staying away from classes in droves and staging noisy demonstrations on campus. To all this, the Columbia Administration added further tension. Increasingly capricious in the exercise of its authority, it alternated, in the familiar American way, between the permissive gesture and the threatened crackdown.

So little unchallenged authority survives anywhere at present, even in the Vatican, that those who think they have authority tend to get “hung up” on it. Many of my fellow teachers shared the Administration’s “hang-up.” One of them said to me of the defiant students, “As with children, there comes a time when you have to say no to them.” But the defiant students weren’t children, and saying no meant exposing them to much more than “a good spanking.” The War was doing far more “violence” to the University than they were. Altogether, Columbia (especially the College where I teach and where the big April disturbances began) had been grim throughout the school year. And while nobody—not even the student radicals—expected any such explosion as actually occurred, I would not have been surprised if the year had ended with an epidemic of nervous breakdowns. On that Wednesday morning I was tired of the routines of teaching. I wanted neither to lecture on The Winter’s Tale nor cope with a student riot.

BUT I MUST GO back a day. The disturbances began at noon on Tuesday, April 23. That morning a College dean phoned and asked me, in a slightly anxious voice, to join him and others at a noonday rally called by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the Sundial. It was hoped, the dean said, that the demonstrators might be persuaded to adjourn to McMillin Theatre where they could discuss their grievances peacefully with David Truman, the former dean of Columbia College, now the University’s Vice-President. If persuasion worked, would I sit on the McMillin stage with other senior professors? I said I would attend the rally and see what happened.

It seemed doubtful that persuasion would work in this case. On March 27 the SDS had staged an indoor demonstration in open defiance of a ban on such demonstrations issued by President Kirk still earlier in the year. In itself the ban was acceptable to a majority of students and faculty, including myself—indoor demonstrations are disruptive—even though many of us thought it impolitic of the President (to put it mildly) to have made this important move without consulting formally any faculty or student body. Six student leaders who had participated in the March event were now subject to University discipline. The SDS claimed, first, that the six had been invidiously singled out; and second, that only a public trial conducted with due process could properly dispense justice in such cases. The Administration had denied both claims, in particular the second. The demand for a public trial challenged the right of this private university to conduct its disciplinary affairs by the in loco parentis principle that governed most of its relations with its students. Thus the issues behind the present rally combined, just as the issues presented by the demonstrators in the coming crisis were to do, a relatively superficial one (the disciplining of the six) with an absolutely fundamental one: the theory and practice of the University vis-à-vis its student body. “The University is not a democracy,” its officials announced, with a candor which, in the present state of unrest, was the opposite of disarming.

I went to the rally; access to the campus is quick and easy from my apartment on West 116th Street, a short half block from the Amsterdam Avenue gate to College Walk. The rally, I found, was already in progress on and around the Sundial. Columbia’s chief landmark, this squat cylinder of granite is capable of seating a dozen or so persons around its rim. It can also serve as a rostrum for a speaker and several associates if they all cling together. As rostrum, the Sundial was no occupied by a speaker and three or four associates, including (briefly) a couple of what I guessed were Barnard girls. The boys tended to be quite tall with hair wild, eyes haunted, lower jaws protruded, shoulders hunched: the SDS look; while the girls were short, dark, sternfaced, and had their hair pulled tight into knots at the back. The group didn’t look as scary to me as they were reputed to be, perhaps because a couple of them were students of mine—the family quarrel aspect of the coming crisis was already present. In the bright Spring sunlight, squinting watchfully across the expanses of the campus, the SDSers made a familiar, disarming, storybook or TV Western impression—that of an embattled cluster of frontiersmen and their women in Indian country. This image fitted in—too conveniently, I was to find—with what I knew of their ideology (or anti-ideology) which, despite its debts to Marcuse, Sorel, Camus, Mao, etc., seemed to me in essence radically American and populist, with Cuba as the latest frontier and the great Guevara as the tragic hero.

Now one of the taller youths—Mark Rudd, the SDS chairman—was making a speech to a crowd thickly gathered around the Sundial. Farther off, on Low Plaza, where I was standing, the crowd was more fluid. Unaffiliated students, faculty members, University officials, we moved around easily, exchanging campus pleasantries while keeping eyes and ears on the Sundial speaker. Beyond us, at the foot of the Low Library steps, was a line of picketers shouting “Stop SDS!” They were some of the Students for a Free Campus, a faction whose numbers were soon to multiply, and with them its potential for violence.

Something now went on at the Sundial which I couldn’t follow at that distance but learned about later. A College dean handed the speaker David Truman’s letter inviting the group to McMillin. The speaker read the letter aloud, went into a huddle with his associates, and then told the dean that they would go to McMillin if the meeting there were converted into a public trial of the six students under discipline. To this demand the dean replied, “Unthinkable.” A famous last word if there ever was one.

With that, the Sundial crowd broke and ran for the Security Entrance. One of the four smallish ground floor entrances to the bulky granite pile of Low Memorial Library, this entrance owes its name to the presence just inside of the campus police headquarters. The Security Entrance was locked. So, I believe, were the rest of the building’s doors. The SDSers were being thwarted in their attempt to stage an indoor demonstration and thus provoke a confrontation which the Administration couldn’t overlook, as it had overlooked others on various pretexts, hesitating to enforce a ban which it had imposed too rashly. What the authorities expected to accomplish by the present maneuver, at once so provocative and so petty, remains obscure. But for a few moments the lockout looked effective. The SDSers paused, consulted; and Mark Rudd, less impulsive than many of his followers, continued to ponder Truman’s letter as if hoping to find in it some negotiable item. Finally, without Rudd, the others rushed off in the direction of Morningside Park. There, ominously overlooking Harlem, construction of a gymnasium was under way in defiance of opinion not only in City Hall but in the University and among the militant elements of Harlem itself. At the gymnasium site, the demonstrators tore down a section of fence and briefly battled some patrolmen, who arrested one demonstrator.

I SAW the start of the rush to the Park and later in the day, when I went to Hamilton Hall, headquarters of Columbia College, for a 2 P.M. office hour, a sort of sit-in seemed to be developing in the lobby. At that moment the affair looked insignificant. However, coming down about 3:30 I found the crowd much larger and louder. Its spirit was still festive, though: there were guitars, far-out costumes, acrobatics. The walls were hung with posters of Che Guevara, etc. This quick transformation of the lobby’s drab expanses was remarkable. Compared to the radicals of the Thirties, so stodgy and uninventive, these youths seemed to unite the politics of a guerrilla chieftain with the aesthetic flair of a costumer and an interior decorator. Of course they could draw, as Depression radicals could not, on an affluent and elaborate popular culture which was more or less the exclusive property of their generation.

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