From the Issue: Dissent Since ’68
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog respects our heritage/amorous affair by posting each issue of The Blue & White. The latest issue, available this week, is a cornucopia of delights: a set of unimaginably raunchy personals for the staff (they’re anonymous), an account of a foray into the oft-forgotten Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, and the story of that greenhouse on top of Milbank Hall (all available soon on Bwog). Here, staff writers and Bwog daily editors Brian Wagner, Conor Skelding, Grant D’Avino, and Peter Sterne (in that order) tell the tales of forgotten Columbia protests.
Though many Columbia students take pride in the university’s history of student activism, a strange amnesia often strikes our collective memory of the years following the 1968 protests. We cannot and will not forget the newsmaking violence of the spring of ’68, but our glorification of “1968” is more than a fascination with those incidents. 1968 stands for a time when Columbia students were politically and socially opinionated, committed, and courageous. We forget, if we were ever told, that Columbia students have taken risks to make themselves heard dozens of times since 1968. They staged sit-ins, organized protested, disrupted university operations. And yes, they even took over buildings.
In the following pages, The Blue & White profiles four notable protests since 1968 and the students who led them. They have written the histories of student activism, outrage, and speech on campus for the past four decades, but as you turn these pages, dear readers, consider that the future is for you to write.
To force an end to South Africa’s apartheid policies, the United Nations recommended throughout the 1980s that all national governments divest (remove all ties and investments) from companies doing business in that country. Students across America urged their schools to divest as well, and soon protests were erupting on dozens of campuses. At Columbia, the issue came into the spotlight once the university trustees rejected a University Senate proposal for divestment in 1983. Students took no direct action just then, but support for divestment grew gradually until, two years later, the students rose up in a collective action that the university could not ignore.
In late March 1985, seven students began a hunger strike to pressure the university to remove all financial ties to South Africa. The administration had already frozen its investments in all firms doing business there, but the protesters would only settle for full divestment—the withdrawal of all funds from any activity connected to South Africa or apartheid laws. Students first rallied on Low Plaza in April, 150 of them then marched to Hamilton, chained the doors, and blockaded the front entrance. The protesters allowed a handful of professors access to Hamilton through an alternate entrance, but urged the professors to support them by not holding classes. Among others, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History Eric Foner and the late history professor James Shenton publicly showed support for the student movement. The protest also gained momentum from the visits of folk singer Pete Seeger and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who praised the students’ “willingness to suffer for a principle.”
The administration, hesitant to call the police, sought to resolve the conflict through legal action. They filed a case against the Hamilton Hall protesters in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan for illegally occupying private property.
On April 22, the protesters declared their intention to abandon Hamilton, just hours before a court decision demanded their dispersal. The protest leadership pledged to continue their activism, but acknowledged that, as protester Laird Townsend told the New York Times on April 23, “it’s time to move on to new tactics.” Three days later, without fanfare or commotion, the protesters deserted Hamilton.
Despite the attention brought to apartheid and divestment by the April protests, the university failed to divest itself of $40 million in contentious assets in the following months. The issue lay quiet until 200 protesters walked out of President Michael Sovern’s commencement address. They relocated to the steps of Hamilton to honor the fifteen students whose degrees had been withheld for their involvement in the occupation of Hamilton. Within six months the university’s trustees had announced a divestment plan that would rid Columbia’s portfolio of South African stocks over two years, ending the conflict and making Columbia the first Ivy League school to divest.
According to some, the protesters cannot claim full credit for the eventual capitulation of the university. The trustees may have felt national pressure building as other universities, as well as state and municipal governments, divested fully in South Africa. Barnard History Professor Robert McCaughey would give the protests partial credit for divestment, partly, he says, because he questions their methods. “I don’t think [the protesters] really galvanized the sort of following they wanted,” and although they may not have helped the university divest as much as they clearly hoped to, “I really don’t think they hindered anything either.” Foner, however, maintains that “the university would certainly not have divested without the student activism [. . .] They weren’t moving toward divestment.”
Regardless of the direct impact of the demonstrations, they set a powerful precedent for student activism at Columbia. The university showed respect for the students involved both by forgiving the second demonstration. But more importantly, the protesters saw their goals achieved and made a difference in the fight against apartheid.
In the early months of 1992, Columbia faced an extreme budget crisis that severely jeopardized the university’s ability to provide financial aid to its students. $1.75 million in the hole, by late Jan. the faculty Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid (CAFA) was considering cutting aid eligibility from 51% to 41% of students in the incoming class, as well as changing Columbia’s admission policy from “need-blind” to “need-aware.” Author and civil rights activist Bryonn Bain, CC ’95, was one of the students who would storm Low Library that February. In the May 2010, Bain told The Blue & White that the threat to need-blind admissions resonated with him personally as a student. “A big part of the reason that I went to Columbia was because it was one of the places that offered a prestigious education but where it didn’t matter if your parents were able to pay.”
To its credit, the Columbia College Student Council immediately started to organize students and voiced opposition to the cuts at faculty and administration meetings. Still, on February 2, University President Michael Sovern told the University Senate, “We are all committed to need-blind admissions, but there is some level we cannot go beyond.” CCSC refused to accept Sovern’s pessimism—according to The Spectator, they organized 300 students to rally on Low Steps the very next day.
But some, including Todd Chretien and Ben Jealous, both CC ’94, were unsatisfied with the rally’s impact and soon formed the Ad-Hoc Coalition Against the Cuts as a more radical alternative to CCSC. At the time, Chretien told Spec that AHCAC’s goal was “to give the faculty a bit of spine against Sovern.” After a proposal to lower incoming class size in the face of budget cuts proved too divisive, the Coalition resolved to advocate for need-blind admission alone. They forwarded messages through ROLM phones—still used regularly in the pre-Facebook days of yore—to spread word of a second protest and planned to storm Low Library on February 11, 1992.
What was meant to be a peaceful demonstration escalated when Noah Potter, CC ’95, clambered onto a ledge of Low Library and into a room near where a faculty meeting was taking place. After Public Safety removed Potter, over 200 students followed his example, entering and occupying room 211. They issued three demands: that Potter be released by Public Safety; that they be allowed into the faculty meeting where the cuts were being considered; and that they not be punished for invading Low. Senior Vice President Joseph Mullinex told the protesters that if
they abandoned their assault on Low, he would recommend leniency. Frustrated by their continuing exclusion, the students did exit Low, only to split into groups and use police barricades to block the five entrances to the building.
Public Safety officers’ attempts to break the barricades resulted in scuffles and the eventual damage of the glass doors at Low’s front entrance, cracked as students fought to keep guards and faculty locked inside. Jealous could be heard on a megaphone saying, “If you’re not going to let us in, we’re not going to let you out,” although some crafty faculty escaped from Low through the tunnels. After just a few hours, though, the remaining faculty an
d administrators allowed five students into the meeting to voice their opinions, and agreed to delay the vote on need-blind admissions for another two weeks.
On February 21, the faculty committee submitted a new proposal; to maintain need-blind admissions and meet 100% of every student’s demonstrated financial need, the undergraduate schools would accept an additional 60 students for the next academic year who could pay full tuition. On February 25, a unanimous vote by the faculty passed the proposal. Bain reflects, “[W]e managed to save the policy. The administration decided to change their minds after we got a lot of press, and the alumni heard about it and they spoke up.” He and his fellow protesters remind us that “students have a real power that is often unrealized. Talk about issues, talk about things you want changed, and then go do something about it.”
In February 1996, administrators agreed to meet with students in a group called the Committee for Ethnic Studies and the Core Curriculum. Dissatisfied with the lack of progress after the meetings, four committee members, Marcel Agueros, CC ’96, Michael Maldonado, CC ‘96, Heather Starr, BC ’96, and Joaquim Ochoa, a Teachers College first-year student, began a hunger strike on April 1. They promised to ingest nothing but electrolyte-enriched water and live in a tent pitched on South Lawn until the administration met their demands. Their hunger strike would last for 15 days.
The strikers demanded the creation of an ethnic studies department to house Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American studies, and an increase in minority professor appointments across the board. They considered an autonomous department crucial, since only departments have the power to hire tenure-track faculty, secure and spend their own budgets, and shape their own curricula. According to an advertisement placed in the Spectator by the Committee, “Ethnic Studies exposes and interrogates the formation and relationships among central core disciplinary concepts of: race, ethnicity, and institutionalized racism: the intersections of race, class, and gender: and internal colonialism.”
Columbia students were not alone. The mid ’90s saw a surge in demand for ethnic studies programs, beginning with a 1993 hunger strike at the University of California, Los Angeles. Columbia’s protesters received letters of support from students at Brown, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, while students from City College joined in Columbia’s demonstrations.
Two days later, approximately 200 students and community members rallied at the sundial in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Although Starr was unable to continue due to health concerns, the remaining hunger strikers continued to fast until the protest’s resolution.
Tensions mounted over the next few days until the protesters took over Low Library, resolving to stay put until the administration released a written statement affirming its support for ethnic studies. 125 students held Low through the night. The next morning occupants were given the opportunity to leave or face arrest. 21 students remained inside to be arrested and handcuffed by New York City Police officers in riot gear.
On the afternoon of April 11, approximately 100 demonstrators entered Hamilton Hall for a sit-in that would last until the end of the hunger strike. They rejected the administration’s first offer to appoint a few more faculty positions in Asian American and Latino/a studies, but after consulting with Foner; Manning Marable, Director of the Institute for Research for African-American Studies; and Robert O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature, yielded to an amended proposal. The new agreement would create a faculty committee to “facilitate the development of research, scholarship, and curricula” in Asian American and Latino/a studies and help to establish an “institutional and intellectual framework for programs in ethnic studies at Columbia.”
A few days later, the hunger strikers disbanded, and students marched out of Hamilton, chanting “the students united, have not been defeated.” The original demands of the protesters, however, had not been met. The proposed faculty committee, headed by Marable, identified an interdisciplinary center as the best institutional form for ethnic studies at Columbia. In 1999, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER) opened its doors. It currently houses Asian American, Latino/a, and Native American studies, but it is not a department–its organizational structure is a compromise. The mission of the center has also strayed from the Committee for Ethnic Studies’ original goals. “There was a chance that it [the protest] could have succeeded. It could have, but it did not,” said Gary Okihiro, founding director of CSER and current SIPA professor. “The center has changed now. It’s no longer ethnic studies.” Instead, he said, “the study of race, ethnicity, and indigineity” of various peoples is the center’s focus, which “is not a discipline.”
The grainy Columbia Television footage of a packed Roone Arledge Auditorium from Oct. 4, 2006, opens with Jim Gilchrist, founder of the vigilante border patrol group Minutemen, railing against the “two thousand Mexicans on the border.” Students are jeering, but for the most part remain in their seats. Then, without warning, the audience erupts into cheers and the camera pans away from Gilchrist, revealing a group of white-shirted protesters who have climbed onto the stage and unfurled a banner reading “No Student Is Illegal” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. Gilchrist retreats from the microphone as his supporters rush to his defense, trying to wrestle away the banner from the protesters. Students later claimed that violence ensued at the hands of Gilchrist’s posse. That assertion was highly contested, and the footage is too muddled to confirm exactly what happened during the brawl on stage. The confusion and violent tug-of-war over the banner lasted only a few minutes before Public Safety intervened.
A few days after the protest, President Bollinger sent an email to the student body expressing his horror that Gilchrist’s free speech could be disrupted at Columbia, which “has always been, and will always be, a place where students and faculty engage directly with important public issues.” Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly took a very different view. “Okay, no spin: Columbia University is a disgrace,” he declared on The O’Reilly Factor, the night after the protest. “It is a place of indoctrination,” he continued, “let us call it the University of Havana-North.” The president of the College Republicans, Chris Kulawik, CC ’07, who had personally invited Gilchrist to speak, agreed. He appeared as a guest on O’Reilly’s show and admitted he felt “ashamed to go to Columbia.”
Columbia was plunged into the 24-hour news cycle. Papers from coast to coast rushed to print editorials portraying the university as a bastion of radicalism, Mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly condemned Bollinger for the protest, even The Daily Show ran a segment. Lydia DePillis, CC ’09, the editor of Bwog at the time of the protests, now believes the sensationalist coverage was inevitable. “Just like the subsequent hunger strike and recent drug bust, the outside media is fascinated by what crazy things Columbia kids do, and mostly just overplays their importance.” The students, for their part, reacted to the biased media coverage in the way they knew best, creating a mock Facebook group and T-shirts for “University of Havana-North Fascist Liberal Anarchists.”
Not all students were content to chuckle and brush off the coverage. Avi Zenilman, CC ’07, then editor-in- chief of The Blue & White, accepted an invitation to a televised debate with Kulawik and O’Reilly regarding the nature of political activism at Columbia. Zenilman subsequently explained his decision to appear on The O’Reilly Factor on Bwog. “I think it was necessary that SOMEONE from Columbia other than Chris [Kulawik] go on Fox News, if only because I think the characterization that Columbia is ‘out of control’ is simply untrue.” Unfortunately, he was shouted down by O’Reilly, who seemed upset that Bollinger refused to come on his program.
Eventually, the media lost interest in the story, but the protest did have some lasting effects on campus. Karina Garcia, CC ’07, who held the banner during the protests, went on to found Lucha (Spanish for “struggle”), an activist organization devoted to social justice, before embarking on a short speaking tour. Paco Martin Del Campo, CC ’11, a former member of Lucha’s executive board, decided to apply to Columbia after Garcia spoke at his high school. He and other Lucha members believe the protesters in 2006 were in the right. “The Minutemen tried to legitimize their racist organization by coming to Columbia, and we needed to challenge that, to shut them down,” explains Cara Buchanan, CC ’11, another former member of the Lucha executive board. “Why are Columbians so ashamed of their activist past?” The group has been very outspoken against the ROTC’s return to Columbia during the heated debate of recent months. In some corners, it seems, the fight to define Columbia’s identity in the aftermath of the Minutemen protests isn’t over.