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”…

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