The Sticking Place

Big Bust on Morningside Heights

Marvin Harris
The Nation, June 10, 1968

At 2:30 A.M., Tuesday, April 30, a thousand New York City policeman attacked an approximately equal number of students barricaded inside five Columbia University buildings. The action lasted three hours and injured at least 148 persons in varying degrees. Many students were thrown or dragged down stairways. Girls were pulled out by the hair; their arms were twisted; they were punched in the face. Faculty members were kicked in the groin, tossed through hedges, punched in the eye. Noses and cheekbones were broken. A diabetic student fell into a coma. One faculty member suffered a nervous collapse. Many students bled profusely from head wounds opened by handcuffs wielded as weapons. Dozens of moaning people lay about the grass unattended. At one point an estimated 2,000 spectators were set upon by the police and pinned against the gates. Outside the campus, mounted police chased screaming knots of people, young and old, up and down Broadway in a scene from Planet of the Apes. It took a line of paddy wagons stretching along Amsterdam Avenue from 118th to 110th Street to carry off the 720 persons who were arrested. They were driven away, unrepentant, beating on the bars, cursing the police, President Grayson Kirk and Vice President David Truman.

It would seem self-evident that an event so contrary to the routine and purpose of a great university compels all who were its victims and participants to speak out concerning what happened, to establish the sequence of events, and to contribute to the analysis of both remote and immediate causes. Yet there are many members of the administration and faculty who feel that the well-being of Columbia requires rapid termination of all such inquiries, and the development of an attitude of studied indifference to the questions of who and what were responsible for the disaster. There is much talk about the need for “binding up the wounds” and for forgetting in a spirit of constructive reconciliation acts and statements produced under stressful circumstances.

I do not impugn the motives of the majority of these hushers and forgetters, but I do challenge their assumptions about what it will take to secure the university’s future. The attempt to discover and disseminate truth is at all times the proper function of professors and students, but we all know that the truth seldom proclaims itself in a simple blinding image, jointly experienced by all observers. Establishing the truth in human affairs is in part a political process in which theories and anti-theories are the symbols of conflicting wills and countervailing interests. The search for the truth at Columbia is thus an aspect of an unfolding political struggle. Under these circumstances, to remain quiet in the name of academic dignity is to take a highly defined political position.

The number of Columbia faculty who are perfectly aware that political acts manifest themselves in not doing or saying as well as in doing and saying is probably as great as at any university in the world. Columbia’s faculty are linked by personal and commercial bonds to New York’s intellectual establishment, and many enjoy in their own right the privilege of being literary or sociological muezzins. Yet in the present crisis this enlightened faculty has given little evidence that it comprehends how loudly dignified silence speaks for the status quo.

Most astonishing is the failure of the liberal Columbia establishment, hitherto identifiable by vanguard efforts in civil rights and the peace movement, collectively to take a principled and unambiguous position on a single important issue in the current dispute. While the buildings were occupied, the segment of the faculty from which an independent critique of the situation might have been expected consumed its energies in a futile attempt to mediate between the enraged students and the equally enraged administration. These mediation efforts were conducted by the steering committee of an informal, self-constituted group of concerned instructors and professors, who called themselves the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee. The good will and dedication of the majority of this group and of its steering committee are beyond dispute. Their analysis of what was happening, however, was inadequate. The actions and in-actions which they undertook in conformity with certain false assumptions, resulted in a series of unintended disasters, culminating in the great bust.

By playing the role of mediator, this group actually prevented the beginning of negotiations between the administration and the students. The Columbia administration has repeatedly asserted that “we ignored no opportunity for negotiations,” and the news media have stressed the assertion that student intransigence during negotiations between the administration and the strikers left the administration with no alternative but to call in the police. Contrary to popular impression, there were few sessions during which members of the students’ strike steering committee and members of the administration actually met to talk with each other. To communicate with the students in Hamilton Hall – “liberated” by black students and converted to Malcolm X University – the administration relied on a number of high-level mediators supplied by the Mayor’s office and the black community. As far as the students in the other four buildings were concerned, however, there appears to have been only one instance of what might be called a negotiating session. This took place early in the morning of Friday, April 26. Thereafter, for almost four days preceding the police action, there were no negotiations with the main body of the strikers. Instead, numerous delegated or self-appointed members of the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee rushed back and forth between the students and the administration, sounding out both sides with a series of proposals intended to serve as the basis for a start of negotiations. Some of these suggestions – as, for example, the so-called Galanter-Trilling-Hovde proposal for the creation of a tripartite disciplinary body – were actually voted on by the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee. But many other proposals that were dangled before the students were purely the result of the momentary fancy of the faculty mediators.

Even when a proposal had been voted on by the Ad Hoc Committee, the students were correct to view it with skepticism, since if they agreed to a particular point, there was no way for the Ad Hoc Committee to guarantee that the administration would endorse its side of the bargain. Several faculty mediators actually tried to split the strikers by deliberately proposing solutions which they knew would appeal to students in some of the buildings but not in others. It was common for faculty mediators to tell students that they had already won two of their main objectives – termination of the gymnasium project and severance of all ties with the Institute of Defense Analysis – and on this basis to appeal for the withdrawal of their other demands, especially the demand that the strikers not be punished. Yet the faculty mediators could not guarantee the ultimate decision of the administration on either of these issues and, by the existing charter of the university were completely at the mercy of the Board of Trustees in all such matters. The faculty mediators asked the strikers to trust them, pledging their professional integrity and moral influence, but the students became increasingly distrustful of the divisive solicitation carried out by representatives of a faculty group whose legitimacy from the point of view of the administration was as dubious as that of the strikers themselves, and who in the actual situation seemed even more powerless.

Contrary to official pronouncements and to the misrepresentations of the mass media, there is no evidence that the Columbia administration ever seriously intended to clear the occupied buildings (with the exception of Hamilton Hall) by means of negotiation. The chronology of events at Columbia has been so complex and rapid that even many participants have forgotten that the police were first officially asked to intervene on the second day of the strike – 12:30 A.M., Friday, April 26 – four days before the actual bust. The circumstances of this call and the reasons why it did not result in an attempt to clear the buildings must be given due consideration. On Wednesday, the 24th, at an official meeting of the faculty of Columbia College (presided over by President Kirk and Vice President Truman) a motion had been passed asking for the peaceful settlement of the dispute and trusting that police action would not be used. The sentiment against police action was further confirmed on Thursday when more than 200 members of the Ad Hoc Committee affixed their signatures to a document, point 4 of which stated: “Until this crisis is settled, we will stand before the occupied buildings to prevent forcible entry by police or others.” In conformity with this resolution, shifts of faculty volunteers had been maintaining a twenty-four-hour-a-day vigil at the entrances to the struck buildings. By late Thursday evening, however, there were many rumors indicating that the police were about to be used. At midnight, a high-ranking member of the administration appeared before the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee to insist that the rumors were baseless and that the administration did not contemplate any such action. One half-hour later a hush fell over the group as Vice President Truman – in his final appearance before the Ad Hoc Committee – entered the room. “I know you are not going to like what I have to tell you, gentlemen, but five minutes ago President Kirk was on the phone asking the Mayor for permission to use the police to preserve peace and order.”

This announcement, coming so close on the denial, elicited voluminous hissing and booing and an almost unanimous cry of “shame!” Most of the faculty rushed from the room to take up positions in front of the buildings; a handful remained to phone the Mayor’s office to ask that the police be stopped. Some contingents of police actually did go into action. At about 1:15 A.M. twenty-five plainclothes men charged the entrance to Low Memorial library and injured several faculty members who stood in their way. But the crowd around the building had grown to dangerous proportions. It included large numbers of faculty and students, some of them opposed to the strikers’ demands but united in their opposition to the use of  the police. The administration wavered and called off the action (which it had probably intended as a means of clearing only Low Memorial Library, leaving the other buildings to be dealt with on a separate basis.)

To the faculty who had interfered it was made clear that the administration was determined to pursue a hard line and that under no circumstances would it consider amnesty for the strikers. Influential representatives of the faculty accepted the rejection of amnesty as an ultimate and unmodifiable condition. They merely argued that it was too soon to resort to the police since there was still a possibility that some students could be split off and made to come out of the buildings by offering leniency rather than amnesty. The administration replied, in effect, that it would give the faculty a few more days to talk some sense into the strikers, and the sleepless faculty mediators hurried back to their task with a renewed sense of urgency.

But in accepting the administration’s intransigence on the amnesty question, the faculty mediators ceased to be mediators and became instead the more or less unwitting accomplices of the administration’s plans to use physical force to crush the strike and then to jail and expel the strike’s leaders. When it gradually became clear to the students that the faculty mediators regarded the no-amnesty position as a requisite for negotiations, the strikers became increasingly hostile to and suspicious of the Ad Hoc Committee, and in some instances, refused to speak further with its representatives.

The response of the faculty to the administration’s threat to seek a bloody solution to its long-festering problems with radical students was either spineless of masochistic. This was an administration which could ill afford to give ultimatums to its professors. It was the administration which had foolishly risked the physical survival of the Morningside Heights campus by clinging to a disputed construction site in a public park overlooking what is perhaps the world’s most volatile ghetto. Obviously, there are other ways to provide adequate gymnasium facilities. The university recently built a twelve-story school of business on top of the old gymnasium – Uris Hall, named after the family of one of the trustees – right in the center of the campus. A simple matter of dollars and cents prevented the remodeling of the old gymnasium under Uris or the construction of a new one in place of Uris. The park site, at  $3,000 a year for 2.1 acres, seemed a tempting deal. But a university is not a construction firm or a discount department store; it is a semi-public corporation whose budget must include social costs and social benefits.

As officers of the corporation, the faculty could well appreciate the efforts made by the administration to hold the line on expenses and to manage the endowment funds with proper sobriety. The benefits of such policies could at least be passed on in the form of lower tuition and higher salaries. The paradox here is that tuition at Columbia has risen faster than the cost of living, while faculty salaries have barely kept pace with the rate of inflation. The only reason why there has not been a mass faculty exodus to schools which offer $4000 to $5000 per annum above Columbia’s salaries at the associate professor level is that the artistic, intellectual and commercial fringe benefits of New York City subsidize the cost of keeping the faculty in place. On the other hand, the reason why the trustees have not been able to pay the faculty at the going market rate – according to recent analysis of the fiscal condition of private universities carried out by the Ford Foundation – is that they have been unduly conservative in their investment policies. There has been too much concern with mortgages, not enough with common stocks. (The only institution with greater real estate holdings in Manhattan is the Catholic Church.) In other words they have been acquiring real estate – and thus making a mess of community relations – in the name of  an investment policy which crippled the university’s finances.

The trustee’s capacity to subordinate social values to a false sense of economy is well illustrated in the case of the Strickman cigarette filter. In that instance the president of the university proposed to link increments in faculty salaries to the sale of carcinogens. On the basis of wholly inadequate research and testing, Dr. Kirk himself gave what amounted to a TV commercial in which the university urged the public to buy its filter because it produced less tar per puff. Kirk was later obliged to withdraw this claim under questioning by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, and subsequent tests carried out by qualified members of the university prompted the administration to abandon its plans for cashing in on the cancer business.

There are further indignities for which the faculty might have been expected to hold the administration accountable. Not the least of these consists of a series of misrepresentations concerning the extent of university involvement with CIA cold-war research, especially through Columbia’s Regional Institutes and the School of International Affairs. More immediate to the present crisis, however, was the  assurance given by the dean of the Graduate Faculties to several hundred people in Low Memorial Library on March 23, 1967, that “Columbia has no institutional connection with IDA” (the Institute for Defense Analysis). Subsequently, student activities forced the administration to acknowledge that its graduate dean had been mistaken and that Columbia had been an institutional member of IDA since 1960. On March 30, 1967, IDA’s vice president, Norman L. Christeller, informed the student newspaper: “We consider Columbia to be one of the three or four primary university sponsors of the IDA.”

The most remarkable aspect of this confrontation between suspicious students and a less than candid or ill-informed dean, is that Columbia’s connection with IDA was a public arrangement, the conditions of which were available to anyone who was curious enough to ask for IDA’s unclassified reports. With one or two exceptions, however, Columbia’s large contingent of pro-McCarthy, anti-Vietnamese War liberals (not to mention the politically apathetic center that makes up the majority of the faculty) remained ignorant of the university’s tie with IDA or failed to grasp its significance. In this instance at least, the student activists carried out a genuine educational task on a matter of paramount importance to the entire university community. They did indeed educate their professors, however unorthodox their teaching methods.

Columbia’s affiliation with IDA was institutionalized through a contract which named Grayson Kirk as a member of IDA’s Board of Trustees. The chairman of the Board of Trustees of IDA is William A. M. Burden who, in addition to serving as director of the Allied Chemical Corporation, American Metal Climax Corporation, Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., Lockheed Aircraft Co., and the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co., is also one of the trustees of Columbia University. In a brilliant example of the intellectual triviality of micro-focused political theory, Columbia’s David Truman recently argued that Burden’s additional affiliation with Columbia was a mere “accident.” Other members of the administration have attempted to pooh-pooh the IDA tie on the ground that no substantial contracts have been established between IDA and Columbia for specific research purposes. (Kirk called IDA “a phony issue” on the C.B.S. program, Face the Nation, May 5). Although it is true that direct contracts between IDA and Columbia have been negligible (one for $18,950 is known), IDA’s influence on campus has been substantial indeed.

Through Lawrence O’Neil, former associate dean of Columbia’s School of Engineering, the university has been deeply involved in projects coordinated by IDA. One of IDA’s most important divisions is known as Jason. It is to the Jason Division that the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency assigned the task of coordinating work on the theoretical analysis of “ballistic missile defense and exoatmospheric nuclear detonations” (Science, 17 May 1968, Vol. 160, p. 746). O’Neil has been a steady consultant to IDA. O’Neil is also the director of what used to be Columbia’s Electronic Research Laboratory, now called the Riverside Research Institute. Under O’Neil, the Electronic Research Laboratory enjoyed a budget of $5.5 million a year, much of it derived from classified research concerned with the development of radar systems for ballistic missile defense under contract with the above mentioned Advanced Research Projects Agency. No doubt this is another one of Dr. Truman’s “accidents.” Recently IDA has turned to research more directly associated with the Vietnamese War, concentrating on such projects as: Small Arms for Counter-Guerrilla Operations, Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Chemical Control of Vegetation, Night Vision for Counter-Insurgents, Interdiction of Trucks from the Air at Night, and Helicopter Aural Detection of Tactical Situations. The extent of the university’s involvement in these projects is suggested by the fact that when adjunct professor of physics Richard Garwin, a member of IDA’s Jason Division, took a trip to the Far East early this year, he touched off a world-wide rumor that tactical nuclear weapons were to be used in Vietnam [see “The Secret Thinkers,” by Michael Clare; The Nation, April 15].

In 1965 IDA noted that it “was proud to grace the pages of our report with scenes of the campuses of our Twelve Member Universities” (see Science, 17 May, 1968, p. 748). I invite my colleagues who have husbanded the political independence of their university, and who have scrupulously refrained from using Columbia’s name in their off-campus activities, except for identification purposes, to reflect on the audacity of a unilateral administrative decision which committed the entire university to the support of developing weaponry systems for a military clique.

It was the students who pressed for the exposure of Columbia’s contribution to IDA. Having collected 1,800 signatures on a petition requesting the end of the university’s connection with IDA, 200 students entered Low Memorial Library to confront Grayson Kirk with their findings. They were told that they were in violation of a ban on indoor demonstrations, and five of their leaders were placed on disciplinary probation. To protest this action, the students called a rally. Attended by more than 500 sympathizers, the rally ended in an abortive attempt to enter Low Memorial Library. The students were deflected by the campus guards, veered off toward Morningside Park, and pulled down the fence surrounding the gymnasium construction site. When one of the demonstrators was arrested by the police, the group returned to the campus. After some hesitation, they decided to invade Hamilton Hall, and to take a dean hostage in return, they said, for the student they had lost to the police. Thus the IDA issue met and fused with the gymnasium issue, leading directly to the strike and the big bust.

I share a feeling of repugnance with my liberal colleagues over the vulgarity and brashness of some of the actions of some of the students. A professor’s sense of style is inevitably jarred by the crude slogans and tactics being used. From the students’ point of view, however, there is, in turn, something seriously lacking in the faculty’s style. From teaching too long, they apparently have forgotten how to be taught. They take their lessons very ungraciously and seem to want to make the students suffer for having achieved a superior understanding of the true nature of their university.

The failure of the administration to act quickly and seriously in response to various student charges concerning the university’s complicity in the detested Vietnamese War contributed heavily to the breakdown of trust and communication between the student activists and their administrative counterparts. Columbia’s destiny up to now has been under the control of a Board of Trustees consisting almost entirely of top-ranking businessmen – directors for more than sixty banks, insurance companies, utilities and manufacturing corporations including IBM, C.B.S., Con Ed, Ford, Equitable Life, Shell Oil, AT&T, Metropolitan Life, Irving Trust Co. and the Chase Manhattan Bank. Insofar as these men are leaders of bureaucratic empires which our best students associate with massive acts of social irresponsibility, evasion, hypocrisy and exploitation, their image is unsuited to attempts to establish cross-generational dialogues under the present circumstances. Nothing which the trustees of Columbia University have done during the past two years has indicated that the negative impression which they create on young minds thirsting for principled commitments to life and humanity is incorrect.

The disparity in class identity, and hence in social values, between the trustees and the majority of students, is clearly one of the fundamental causes of the strike and of the catastrophic bust. Contempt for the “establishment” has reached crisis proportions throughout wide segments of the youth of the developed nations. Too many people in the older generation have tended to ignore or dismiss these manifestations of distrust and disillusionment as mere youthful aberration. Thus, the final indignity suffered by the faculty was that the administration had let its relations with the student body deteriorate to the point where five of the university’s buildings were under siege, with the rest of the university virtually paralyzed. And then to solve the problem, the administration declared itself irrevocably determined to precipitate an even larger catastrophe by inviting the police to attack its own students and professors.

Why didn’t the faculty step in and demand that the administration grant amnesty or, at the very least, indicate that it held the administration to be as much in need of amnesty as the students? Why didn’t the faculty indicate its own unalterable determination to oppose a solution through force? Evidently, most of the faculty refused to accept the students’ arguments on behalf of amnesty. These arguments rested on the following principle: The seizure of the buildings had been carried out in order to awaken the university community to the ethical blunders of the IDA affiliation and of the gymnasium site. Due to the authoritarian structure of the university, there were available no adequate democratic means of redress. Hence, amnesty rather than punishment was required, since people should not be punished for bringing about changes which, as among the faculty, were widely regarded as necessary and just. It should be noted, furthermore, that most of the faculty were convinced, even before the police action, that student interests were inadequately represented at the university. Indeed, after the bust, dozens of committees were formed at the departmental level to begin the work of making the university more democratic, thereby confirming the strikers’ contention that the normal avenues of protest and communication had previously been inadequate.

Nevertheless, most of the faculty apparently accepted the administration’s view. According to Kirk and Truman, the strikers had been duped by a small band of fanatical agitators who were bent upon achieving a confrontation with authority. If amnesty were granted, these agitators would be back in the buildings every other week, and the university would be incapable of discharging its educational responsibilities. Although the administration admitted that the claims about the lack of democratic representation  were in part true, it held that the students had violated the rule of law. According to Truman, law and morality are identical. Hence, the transgressors must be punished. In accepting these arguments, it must be supposed that the faculty were especially concerned about the rifling of Grayson Kirk’s files by strikers who occupied the president’s office in Low Memorial Library.

I believe that there is a connection between the mentality expressed in the Columbia administration’s viewpoint and that which was responsible for driving this country deeper and deeper into the Vietnamese War. It is the domino theory, all over again. If we don’t punish the revolutionaries for taking over the president’s office, how are we going to stop them from taking over the entire university? The answer, as we have almost learned in Vietnam, is that if there are well-formed structural reasons for mass resentments against existing laws and authority, the dominoes have a good chance of falling no matter how many policemen are brought in to shore them up. The threat of radical political change cannot be met by strategies which are temporarily successful in the prevention of muggings or shop lifting. On Tuesday, April 23, there were only about 150 hard-core members of Students for a Democratic Society (and most of these were opposed to confrontation ). A week later, at the height of the strike, more than 6,000 students were actively expressing their hostility to the Columbia administration. Was this the work of a handful of superstudents whose demagogic skills proved too much for the honest defenders of the university’s good name? The proposition is as absurd as trying to blame the Third World’s hostility toward America on agitators like Che Guevara or General Giap. On Thursday, April 25, a referendum at Columbia, carried out under independent student auspices, showed that students were in favor, 5,093 to 1,433, of ending construction of the gymnasium. The vote for ending ties with IDA was carried, 3,572 to 1,855. (In large part the strikers in the buildings did not vote.)

It is clear that the original handful of protesters had been able to convince 1,000 of their fellow students to join them in the occupation of the buildings at great personal risk because the issues involved in the strike were relevant to the deeply felt social needs of additional thousands of students. To propose that amnesty would have meant recurrent invasions of Low Memorial Library at the whim of irresponsible anarchists is to insult the intelligence and to demean the social conscience of many of the university’s brightest and most responsible students. They were not in those buildings to protest a ban on panty raids, or to demand higher grades or better food in the dorms. The issues involved were of supreme importance: racial prejudice and de facto discrimination; complicity of the educational establishment in the slaughter of an innocent peasantry. As long as the university’s policies remain ambiguous on these issues, it can expect periodic visitations from larger and more militant striking bodies. Calling in the police at Columbia or elsewhere will only make such confrontations bigger.

I regard it as regrettable that the strikers broke into President Kirk’s files and copied documents out of his private correspondence. But breaking into official files (the strikers refused to acknowledge Kirk’s right to have secrets about Columbia) was not the worst offense. The most serious act was the overnight detention of the acting dean of Columbia College and two of his assistants in Hamilton Hall. This was the only instance in which the strikers could be said to have committed crimes against persons as opposed to crimes against property. After 5:00 A.M., Thursday, April 25, all of the white strikers left Hamilton Hall and the hostages were held until 3:00 P.M. by black students. In addition to holding hostages, some of the blacks (allegedly nonstudents) were said to have been in possession of firearms. These same students threatened the administration with the specter of mobs summoned up from Harlem who would burn the campus to the ground. When Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael broke through the police barriers on Friday, April 26, to confer with the blacks inside Hamilton Hall, the very survival of the university hung in the balance.

Despite the violent nature of the threats which the blacks in Hamilton posed, the administration’s strategy from the outset was to deal with the white students in the four other buildings on a separate and harsher basis. Mediators sent by the Mayor’s office – William Booth, Theodore Kheel and Sid Davidoff – conferred with the blacks in Hamilton, but not with the whites in the other buildings. According to David Truman (as quoted in Newsweek, May 13), the blacks were immediately made “an offer of nothing more than disciplinary warning” (virtual amnesty). The reason for this special treatment, said Truman, was that the blacks were “a totally different cut as far as performance is concerned,” as compared with the whites. “I must say I admire the way they conducted themselves.” This novel form of racism appealed to others as well. At the Ad Hoc Committee, distinguished professors arose to plead for separate treatment of the blacks on the ground that they had behaved like gentlemen, while the whites in the other buildings were like wild beats. Finally, late in the afternoon preceding the bust, when many members of the faculty knew that the police action was imminent, Prof. Lionel Trilling openly argued that the time had come for granting amnesty to the blacks and only to the blacks!

One of the consequences of this indulgent attitude toward black strikers was that none of the black students in Hamilton Hall was injured during the bust. They exited through underground tunnels under the watchful eyes of William Booth and Kenneth Clark. While Clark and Booth complimented the police on their exemplary handing of the black students, pandemonium reigned in front of and inside the other buildings. (Clark, however, later condemned the police action in the rest of the campus.) What was said to the blacks students in order to get them to walk quietly into the paddy wagons is a source of continuing speculation. The point here, however, is that many faculty members, who found the notion of amnesty abhorrent when applied to the white students, found themselves ready to forgive and forget when it came to the blacks – even though the blacks took hostages and constituted the gravest physical threat to the university.

It is clear that the harsher punishment recommended for the white students (and already received by them at the hands of the police) has nothing to do with principles of law and equity. There are plenty of precedents in the labor movement and in the civil rights movement in this country for granting amnesty to demonstrators who have committed trespass. Recently the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association staged a strike in defiance of the laws of the state of New York. Their action resulted in the accumulation of refuse in the streets to the point of menacing the health of 8 million people. When Mayor Lindsay put their leader in jail, the Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller himself, granted him a pardon.

In the light of the recent history of Columbia’s administration, it is difficult to accept Kirk and Truman’s assurance that they took a hard line only because it slowly dawned on them that they were up against a completely cynical band of opportunists and demagogues. Everyone seems to have forgotten that an unprecedented shake-up in administrative personnel took place less than a year ago in which the provost and dean of faculties, the vice president and the dean of the graduate faculties, among others, abruptly resigned en masse. Truman, who was then dean of Columbia College, moved up to the specially created post of provost and vice president, leaving only an ineffectual acting dean behind him in the college. At the same time, the post of dean of graduate faculties was left unfilled. Thus during the month immediately preceding his fatal confrontation with the students, Truman was in virtually unqualified control of the statutory or de facto powers formerly possessed by two deans, the provost and the vice president!

Nor was this an “accident.” The massive shake-up in question occurred shortly after the launching of Columbia’s $200 million fund drive, the largest ever undertaken by a “private’ university. To explain the sudden departure of almost every top-ranking administrator except Kirk, the university issued a statement in which the success of fund-raising activities was said to depend upon the greater centralization of administrative authority. The significance of this explanation was lost upon the majority of the faculty and students. The main problem in reaching the $200 million goal was not, as it then seemed, a question of lack of coordination and organizational diffuseness. Rather, the problem was that pressure from the neighborhood community and from the “radical” anti-draft and anti-war students threatened to blow the whole university sky-high. It is known, for example, that the former provost, Jacques Barzun, was unable or unwilling to control his contempt in the presence of neighborhood protesters. It was known also that former Vice President Lawrence Chamberlain was far too concerned about the disagreeable side effects which occur when unruly students are squashed down to size. His departure for a prolonged fishing trip in Colorado marked the end of ideology at Columbia. Truman took power precisely because he thought he knew how to keep the lid on, at least until the fund drive was completed: it was the hard line.

Almost exactly one year before the big bust, the pattern for disaster had been laid down in conformity with Truman’s understanding of the science of campus politics. The SDS, in familiar possession of the university’s jugular, was about to administer the coup de grâce to $200 million. They were seeing to prevent the United States Marine Corps from recruiting on campus. There had already been an ugly brawl when a group of college athletes attempted to clear out several hundred protesters who were baiting the Marines about Vietnam. The Marines left the campus, but they were scheduled to return the next day. What to do? The crowds would be bigger and both sides would be more eager for violence. Yet how could a needy American campus refuse to play host to those widely traveled, clean-cut patriots? The Marines came back, largely on Truman’s assurance that he could maintain order. Two groups of opposing students, numbering perhaps 1,000 on each side, threatened each other throughout the day; but aside from a few minor fist fights, Truman’s decision seemed to have been vindicated. Ask why he had chosen to risk the physical welfare of so many of his students on behalf of an organization which had nothing to contribute to campus life, and which did not lack for opportunities to get its message across to the nation’s youth, Truman replied: “If we had given in, there would have been no end to their demands. We had to stand firm or they would eventually try to take over Low Library.”

The students, outraged by the moral ambiguities of the administration’s response to their substantive demands, escalated their own tactics to meet the challenge of Truman’s campus Realpolitik. When the administration placed a ban on indoor demonstrations, they collected their 1,800 signatures and held a demonstration inside Low. Truman played the hard line again and tried to pick off the five most important leaders of SDS with disciplinary probations. Meanwhile, the fund drive was lagging and the pressures to keep the campus quiet were greater than ever. At some unknown point, well before the bust, it became clear to Truman that his career as an administrator was now wholly dependent on his ability to rid the campus of the band of agitators who refused to knuckle under to his textbook show of force. Similarly, the idea at some point got across to the students that only the most radical of measures stood a chance of deflecting Kirk and Truman from their determination to sanitize the campus and to ignore the justice of the students’ substantive claims. I do not condone the student take-over of the university buildings, but I regard it as wholly undemonstrable that the administration was interested in providing the students with genuine alternatives.

After the bust, when Truman was asked at a press conference if he had any advice to give other college administrators, he replied without hesitation: “Don’t wait. Call in the police.” Apparently, he still believes that the only thing wrong with his hard line was that it wasn’t hard enough (especially when he hesitated because a few faculty members had gotten in the way.)

Four weeks after the bust the students were back in Hamilton Hall. In the “second battle of Columbia,” another 170 students were arrested and an even more vicious and uncontrolled display of police brutality was unleashed across the campus. Flailing out on their own, with a premeditated disregard of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of due process, the administration is moving toward the suspension or expulsion of perhaps as many as 500 of its students whom it has charged with criminal trespass. In this grim fashion political identities will be acquired by the various segments of the university. Members of the faculty, who have been so troubled to decide if they approve or disapprove of meeting the complaints of their students by wounding and expelling them, will have plenty of additional opportunities to make up their minds.

PDF of this article here.

©  Marvin Harris/The Nation
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