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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 became acute. In some part, these deficiencies can be traced to an undergraduate college that was too weak to counteract the fragmenting influences of departments, institutes, and specialized careers. According to Columbia mythology, the College had been the historic kernel of the University; but, in fact, Columbia University had been re-created by men like Nicholas Murray Butler and John W. Burgess as a modern center for graduate and professional education. Moreover, the Columbia faculty did not exist as an entity even in the “arts and sciences.” It was divided into three separate Graduate faculties—which exercised little influence over individual departments and institutes—and a partly overlapping College faculty. The latter was the only part of the “arts and science” faculty that recently met as a whole and, in the years preceding last spring’s convulsion, it was the only official faculty group that concerned itself with some aspects of the accumulating crisis. But this was not a substitute for sustained concern by the faculty of the whole university or by its constituted representatives.

This is not to say that the faculty lacked power if it chose to put its hands on the levers,” as the Cox Report observes. “But its older members preferred individual autonomy to collective responsibility, and the junior members had little influence.” Of the age of autocracy under Butler, the Cox Report says, “The important point is that the faculty did not participate. It was left free for scholarship and instruction. There was extraordinarily high intellectual kinship and morale, but little encouragement of a strong sense of institutional responsibility.” Kinship and morale were to decline, leaving the University with even fewer resources to face the spring crisis.

But one wonders whether, even before the crisis, the faculty could have exercised institutional power “if it chose” or whether, in fact, the academic administrations and the faculties had agreed to leave each other largely alone. American professors won academic freedom, in the first instance, not from state or church, but from their own trustees and administrations; the victory took the form of a division of labor and privilege that still persists.

Nowhere was this more true than at Columbia, where Butler’s aloof, secretive, and arbitrary administrative style persisted after the forty-three years of his incumbency, although the power of the central administration to shape the development of the institution itself declined. The Cox Report and the Spectator volume both amply document this style. For example, reports on such critical matters as student discipline and rights, or on faculty housing (a major issue for an urban university seeking to induce its faculty to live near the campus), evoked no visible response from the administration. Administrative officers were reluctant to discuss such issues as links with government agencies and were uneasy and evasive when they did. Indeed, the Administration often seemed unable to address itself on matters of great campus concern except to audiences outside Columbia. President Kirk reserved his criticism of the war in Vietnam and his view of student discontent for a speech in Virginia and as a student of mine observed, during the spring crisis the Administration often seemed to be addressing less its own disrupted community than the larger, watching world.

In Up Against the Ivy Wall, Professor Herbert Deane, until recently Vice Provost of the University, remarks of Columbia that before the spring crisis, “Many of its administrative officers and some members of the faculty had, for years, been aware of the need for revisions and reforms and had spent countless hours in discussing the necessary changes and bringing some of them into being.” But little of this concern was evident, not only to students but to many faculty; and too few were involved in these efforts—indeed, I don’t know what they were—for them to have any discernible effect on life at Columbia. When the crisis came, neither the faculty nor the Administration could adequately represent the idea of a university as a distinctive and precious enterprise, with special claims on its members in a time of intense political and moral stress.

The Cox Commission understood this. Set up by a Columbia faculty committee that was created the day after the police cleared the occupied buildings, the Commission was headed by Professor Archibald Cox of the Harvard Law School, and its other members included another law professor, Anthony G. Amsterdam (University of Pennsylvania); a psychiatrist, Dana L. Farnsworth, Director of the Harvard Health Services; Professor Hylan Lewis, a sociologist at Brooklyn College; and Judge Simon Rifkind, formerly a US District judge and long an eminent New York lawyer. The report, subscribed to by five notable and distinguished men, makes it difficult to think of the Columbia crisis, or its counterparts elsewhere, as essentially the result of radical plots or the immaturities of spoiled youth.

That is not a negligible contribution; so limited was the understanding prevailing in many circles at Columbia that it may, in fact, be a crucial one. But we must ask how adequate an analysis is the Cox Report—liberal, humane, “concerned” though it is, in the best senses of these abused words—as an account of the major political upheaval in the history of American higher education.

To begin with, its virtues involve a cost. It is concise, knowing, elegant, often sharp. Its sparse analysis is concerned less to render the texture of events than to anatomize them, but the politics of passion—and not only on the part of the rebellious students—can be understood only in part by such a style. To say of events during which a faculty group persuaded and pressured the Administration to rescind a summons to the police, sixty hours after the students had begun to occupy University buildings: “The emotional tension of the scene is beyond our powers of description,” is surely unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, if one wants to know what it is like to live through a political and moral convulsion at an American university these days, I know of no better source than Up Against the Ivy Wall. It is distinguished by clear exposition, an extraordinary degree of accuracy about confused events, and a concern for the University’s welfare that is all the more moving for being largely unspoken. The students who wrote it make running judgments: the Administration is largely inept, uncomprehending, or worse; the faculty inert and, when aroused during the crisis, ineffectual. The leaders of the rebellion were often blemished by indulgent romanticism and manipulatory tactics; the condition of the University disastrous to the point of making rebellion plausible or inevitable. The book’s great virtue is that the reader may find his way around these views, if he wishes, to the substance of events, and make his own judgments. In matters as complicated as the Columbia crisis, this is a considerable, and valuable, achievement.

The Cox Report, as I have said, stands at a far greater emotional distance from events, and is a wider, more interpretive study. It concludes that the spring crisis was largely an exercise in symbolic politics by students passionately concerned with issues of war, race, and the authority of institutions over their lives. “The avowed objectives of the April demonstrations,” it says, “stripped of their context and symbolism, were inadequate causes for an uprising.” Columbia’s formal affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis “had little practical importance [and] was being reviewed by…[a] committee….” Its chief significance is that it enabled many people, “especially students, to transfer to the campus their intense moral indignation against the Vietnam war.” As for the gymnasium in Morningside Park, the “issue was more complex, but it too was a symbolic issue.”

Questions of student discipline, according to the Report, were more substantial. Neither students nor faculty had a role in disciplinary matters at Columbia, and the Administration’s reluctance to delegate its statutory powers in this field inflamed the crisis. Moreover, a rule against indoor demonstrations, which precipitated the crisis as did the rule at Berkeley which prohibited political activity on a famous strip of land adjacent to the campus), was handed down by the President in a caricature of the Administration’s customary manner: without consultation with students or faculty, and against the recommendations of a committee report whose contents were not even known to the campus because the President had refused to publish it. Thus the Cox Report finds that the Administration’s distant and arbitrary way of running things weakened many students’ commitments to its rules. This made it easier for many to attack the University as a convenient “surrogate” for more remote and substantial centers of power.

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