Interview: Mark Rudd

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Students for a Democratic Society—that group that shut down Columbia and other Universities across the country in 1968—generated some buzz last week, when about 20 students met in a Kent classroom to hash out plans for their return (sitting in, Bwog found the Young Spartacists particularly entertaining). “The New SDS” even landed the cover of The Nation, which talks about the nationwide phenomenon. Craving commentary (and something quite different from this commentary), Bwog sought out Mark Rudd, the leader of Columbia’s chapter in the 60s, who consented to an interview via e-mail.   

Have you been back on the Columbia campus much since your time here as a student? 

I was there in 1988 for the twentieth reunion.  I’ve been off and on to show friends from New Mexico around.  I spoke at a 25th reunion of the class of 1969, which I should have graduated with, on a panel on 68.  They didn’t even invite me to lunch. 

In the 1968 protests, how much of the student body seemed like it felt the way you did about the war and other issues you were protesting? Was it a small core of radical leaders, or more of a mass movement?

It grew to be a huge mass movement, probably the large majority of campus.  Over 6000 people were organized into the strike coordinating committee through delegates. That was after the bust.  The campus was highly politicized. 

How did the administration react–do you think those tactics had any lasting success?  

Our primary goal was building the anti-war movement.  That we did.  Columbia served as a model for many other campuses, not just in this country but internationally.  The administration intransigence built our movement.  Never underestimate the stupidity of college administrators. 

You’ve said that we need to help foster anti-war sentiment within the ranks of the military itself. How can students do that? How should they treat other students in ROTC programs, for example, or those who have returned from military service?  

All future and past soldiers should be treated with the utmost respect as human beings.  Anti-war people should enter into dialogue with them about the true nature of this war.  The goal is to get service people to understand their experience as occupiers of a foreign country and to use that experience to oppose the war.  Soldiers are the victims of the government as well as the people they are forced to torture or murder. 

At a small meeting of students interested in restarting the SDS at Columbia, New School student Adam Cline said that the organization did not yet have a national infrastructure, with a president or anything. Do you think this is a necessary element? Can small groups of students make change without national organization?  

Probably the new SDS will continue to evolve as a network of local chapters, linked regionally and ultimately nationally.  Just as with the old SDS, each chapter is autonomous.  That’s a strength, not a weakness.  The national organization already exists, but in very weak form.

There’s a strong anarchist and ultra-democratic ethos in the new SDS.  They don’t want any formal or identifiable leaders.  I think that’s also positive.  The media will have to deal with the movement as a whole, not individuals. 

What feelings do you think the SDS conjures up in the mind of the average American, 40 years after their primary period of activity?  

The average American, whatever that is, has never heard of SDS, or if so, just barely.  Probably this mythical person has no thoughts whatsoever on SDS. 

You’ve been paying attention to the rise in anti-war sentiment over the last six years. How is it different from anti-Vietnam feelings in the 1960s?  How is it similar?  

Anti-war sentiment, in the form of public opinion, is as strong now as it was in 1968.  Polls are identical.  Unfortunately the anti-war movement is not as well organized or active, for many reasons.  The lack of a draft is one.  Also, the lack of models for organizing.  We were blessed with the civil rights movement and the labor movement contiguous in time with the anti-war movement.  We learned from them how to organize, the slow, steady, patient work of engaging with people and changing minds.

Now, unfortunately, too many people think of organizing as spectacle.  It doesn’t work.  Columbia April 1968 worked because of years of patient, slow, educational work and “spadework” on campus.  We called it base-building. 

One of the difficulties in addressing the war is gridlock in Washington that’s prevented Democrats from drawing down troops quickly. Will public protest really make this happen? Should anti-war groups also try to work within the political process to pressurize those who can actually vote in Congress?  

Since public opinion is already against the war, some sort of pressure has to be brought on the politicians to respond.  So far the Democrats have proven themselves remarkably spineless.  However more pressure could cause them to evolve a spinal cord before the next twenty-five million years passes.

– Lydia DePillis

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  1. Owain Evans  

    Very good interview.

  2. i love

    the spineless comment.

  3. haha  

    it's funny how much Bwog readers love SDS radicals. Nothing this man says is worth anything.

  4. Anonymous

    many lives were ruined by such dogma. in 68 i saw geezers from the 30s come out from under flowerpots with their tattered manuscripts. and now we have this individual. "beets should grow in his belly."

  5. McFister

    Mark Rudd will kick your ass.

  6. read  

    about 68 please....

  7. This guy  

    ruined Columbia's prestige for nearly 30 years. I have zero respect for him or his "democratic" group of radicals nutcases.

    • prestige?  

      really, who gives a fuck about Columbia's prestige? since when is it students' responsibility to maintain, on top of our 40 thousand a year? and since when does it trump helping stop a war? this emotional attachment to the school is ridiculous...

      • and you  

        wonder why Princeton kicks your ass half the time. Princeton grads get tigers tatoos - when was the last Lion tat? "Prestige" is not just "school spirit," but how much your diploma is worth.

      • Sorry Folks...  

        I agree with #12 here. To say that '68 ruined Columbia's reputation is simplistic. I understand that we're all kind of wistful that no one ever talks about "Harvard, Yale, and Columbia," but that was never going to be the case anyways. Sorry folks, we admit too many New York Jews to become a country-club Ivy.

        The 70s sucked hard for Columbia, but they sucked bad for New York City, too. This town was a shitty place to be, and given the compromises you have to make to live in Manhattan, I think the decline of New York was an especially strong factor in Columbia's stagnation.

        That said, I've got plenty of school spirit because I appreciate the fact that, long before a lot of other top-tier schools bought into egalitarianism and diversity, Columbia was a place where smart kids could go without much concern for who your father was, because we didn't have the luxury of being able to turn away qualified students based on their lack of WASP credentials.

        Your Columbia degree will still put you at a great advantage in the world. I assume most of us intend to work in New York after we graduate, and I promise that you'll get a finance job and you'll make more money than the average state school liberal arts graduate if that's what you want to do. Just use that trademark Columbian apathy to your advantage for once and chill the fuck out.

        • To #15

          A very well reasoned response. But you have to factor in the impact 68 had on the institution. The 68 riots and their aftermath literally rocked the University to its core. They basically cut the legs out from under the University.

          Columbia was in financial trouble in by 1968 anyway, but at a moment of massive administrative overturn (Kirk was a lame duck already, having announced his intent to retire in 69 well before the riots, and his entire administrative staff had been replaced, leaving a lame duck and a ton of inexperienced administrators in charge) the riots ensured that there would be no chance at weathering the storm.

          Are the riots solely to blame for Columbia plummet in the 70's? Hardly. But you cannot deny that the riots acted as a volatile accelerant to the coming downturn.

          BTW riots is a misnomer, but I'm not going back and replacing it.

    • Anonymous

      Prestige is like the seasons; it is a lagging indicator. EG, Sunshine is the source of our planet's heat, yet the hottest day of the year is not usually June 21st, the longest day, but in July or August after the ocean's heated up.

      Columbia made some good and bad moves in the early 20th Century. One such great move was having great professors and scholars such as Trilling and Van Doren, and many other stars.

      Butler was a mixed legacy. One the one hand, he made Columbia an international university, along the German model, emphasizing graduate schools, professional schools, and research, but he basically used the undergraduate schools to be cash cows, if he regarded them at all beyond being quaint legacies or sources of alumni donations to flim-flammed alums.

      The campus moved to Morningside around 1900, but it took until about 1960 for a lousy student center to be built! It took until 1983 for the college to go co-ed! The last in the Ivy League by over 10 years. When did Penn and Cornell go co-ed?

      The university had the option to own the land all the way to the Hudson River. Out of about $12 million to move the campus uptown, it would have cost another million to get this land. Imagine the steps of Low Library facing the Hudson sunset?! With a river view and the reflecting light? And the night views? An open air and sky filled campus... They couldn't mortgage against the land they owned from the third campus (in today's Rockefeller Center?) Stupid and cheap decision. We would have had, bar none, the greatest urban or national campus.

      Butler stuck around a bit too long and was a bit too impressed with his importance, and Columbia was, too. The guy went nowhere without CU, but in his mind he was the avatar of education. Was he seen as a windbag by the time he retired?

      Who followed him? General Eisenhower, a great man, but not much of an academic or teacher. Did he campaign for PotUS while President of Columbia? Still, as he later admonished during his US Presidential farewell address in 1961 to beware the 'military industrial complex,' Columbia could very well have brought Ike in to bring in those huge military contracts. And those huge DoD (and probably CIA) contracts rolled in.

      Somewhere around that era, Columbia owned the patent to the new filter on cigarettes, something that would have fattened the endowment beyond Harvard's probably, by now. But the school was caught flat-footededly responding to the p.r. flap, as profiting from smoking. Yet, the filter did save lives probably. Columbia let the whole thing go. Dropped the patent. They caught the controversy but not the profits. The university was stupidly run.

      Being an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1960s was surreal: benign and malign neglect in the classrooms, not enough student housing, and what housing there was was old and crappy, many commuter students (probably 30%), not enough space for activities, not enough professors for students, and no sense of community in a city starting to lose its industrial base (jobs), on the way to getting really gritty and mean... In the mid 60's they were still wearing beanies and nervously standing across the dance hall from Barnard students at mixers. Five years later they were humping in the balcony of the Fillmore East on acid during a Blood, Sweat & Tears concert or was it during the Hendrix set?

      Columbia in the 60s was mostly riding on its reputation from the 1930s through the 1950s. The school was becoming a shammy schill for the ruling class, using influence for fat contracts and sweetheart deals. How exactly did Columbia pull off getting public property (a city park) for a private gym, giving the community only 12% of the facilities in a separate and unequal space downstairs in the building?

      Northern and NYC racism being as clueless and un-self-reflexive as it can be, this, notwithstanding, coming a few years after Brown versus Board of Education and the marches in the south was the height of ridiculous hubris and insensitivity and lack of respect.

      Serves us right that Princeton got our architectural plans for the discarded Morningside Park gym for next to nothing! Check out Jadwin Gym. It is built as if it is embedded in a hillside (like the park), but their gym is on a flat NJ plain. It looks kind of funny if you think about it while watching hoops there or try to find your way out of the place. [Of course, Princeton is the most segregated Ivy still with the lowest proportion of 'minority' students represented. So I can picture their fat cat 60s trustees chuckling at us for not finessing racism as good they do.]

      The gym, and the SDS'ers discovering that CU was doing Defense Department Research for killing in Vietnam -- what was it, napalm, or quantifying kill-ratios? Whatever it was, it was a disgusting mass-industrialized euphemism-filled sort of killing machine project that CU researchers were benefiting from. The research wasn't that deep. It was the sort of 990 federal report that all nonprofits have to file showing where their major money comes from and goes, certainly fat federal grants.

      Of course, students occupying President of the university Grayson Kirk's office, ransacking it, going through his files for more tidbits, smoking his cigars, drinking his brandy did sort of show things being out of control. On the other hand, it was probably the first time undergrads had even had the chance to be in the building. Then the cops coming in, at the university's invitation, pursuing peaceful students in dorms (having nothing to do with protests) several floors up and bashing them in the head, arresting them.

      It was a violent police riot, open season on upper class youth flesh. First the students were neglected, then they were out of control, then the administration flailed loosing brute force on all the students.

      The Vietnam war was absurd and abused everyone, including our society, killing 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese (in a tiny nation). We dropped more bombs there than in all of WW2. And the US was still dealing with the after-shocks of slavery and Jim Crow.

      And Columbia was playing games of privilege, power, entitlement, and abusing society (Harlem) and its own students, ripping them and their parents off, while only providing them with a hollow diploma.

      Sure, Mark Rudd was extreme, and immature then, but Columbia had it coming. The place was run foolishly, on fumes. He pointed it out in a visual way.

      So if it took decades to recover, it wasn't all on Rudd. The place was run in an abusive, irresponsible, neglectful, cronyistic, privileged, grant-chasing way.

      President McGill restored a sense of respect and community for students. Sure, some parents feared their kids becoming bomb throwers, and many more feared the soaring murder rate.

      Sovern was a professional corporate-mold kind of administrator/politician, being the young law professor who finessed a sense of democracy with the (let's face it: sham) Senate to blow off the steam of activism/discontent and waste student and faculty effort in a rigged parliament. But at least Sovern (much like a sovereign) had to face students and faculty about 6 times a year.

      President Butler, when he rarely deigned to speak to a student, it would literally happen with the student obscured behind a screen behind a locked door while he sat in his office and the student stood outside.

      Rupp, a theologian and a kind modest man, wanted to put the College at the center of the university for the first time since 1900! Bollinger is building on that, but with more charisma...

      • Anonymous

        My writing was a bit unclear here:

        I meant to say that SDS' research uncovering Columbia's military funding and research could be gotten from publicly available documents that the Feds and Columbia provides.

        I lumped that in with the paragraph about the military research for Vietnam.

        " The research wasn't that deep. It was the sort of 990 federal report that all nonprofits have to file showing where their major money comes from and goes, certainly fat federal grants.

        I do want to point out something GREAT that came from this era. It was done in a self-effacing, classy way, so it didn't much affect our reputation, but more because it was the right thing to do.. A student-faculty partnership creating the Double Discovery Center. It was founded by a modest city kid Roger Lehecka '67 and Professor Jim Shenton '47 (who fed protestors holed up in buildings, starving). DDC's Talent Search and Upward Bound programs became National Models, federal programs that have survived the Reagan and Bush years, getting promising inner-city kids of color and poverty educational enrichment and opportunities, while they go to their own schools and live with their families, enabling them to keep their own culture and networks while striving for college.

        Another clarification:
        I also mentioned 'murder rate.' By that I was referring to NYC's soaring murder rate, not Columbia's.

        • bob f

          Actually, between 1959 and 1967 even the Columbia Daily Spectator was unaware that Columbia University was institutionally-affiliated with the Pentagon's weapons research think-tank, the Institute for Defense Analyses [IDA] until Columbia SDS disclosed this fact to the Spectator staff. IDA Annual Reports which revealed Columbia University's institutional membership in IDA were on the shelves in the International Law Library. But until an SDS member noticed these reports, the Columbia administration had been keeping its institutional affiliation with the IDA secret from Columbia College faculty members, Columbia College students and Columbia Daily Spectator staffpeople. Some more info about anti-war and anti-expansion student activism at Columbia and Barnard in the 1960s and IDA can be found on the www.bfeldman68.blogspot.com site

  8. ...  

    Chris Kulawik? is that you?

    Anyway, boo hoo hoo about ruined prestige. If you really cared so much, you'd go somewhere else.

    • just because  

      someone doesn't like the leader of SDS doesn't make them Kulawik. Ask the thousands of folks who joined the Student Majority back in 68 - or...wait... should they just be quiet and not say anything.

  9. Come along and  

    see for yourselves. Wednesdays 8pm in Kent 405

  10. Whatever, SDS  

    I'd still build a gym in Morningside Park.

  11. Anonymous

    Regarding SDS - A Cautionary Tale from 20 years ago:

    In 1987 students from across the USA gathered at Rutgers University for the National Students Convention, modeled on the Port Huron Statement/Conference.

    People drove from Oregon, and all over at great sacrifice. It was amazing how that got together in the pre-web era. We all slept in the gym and had conferences based on interests, coming together for a plenary session at the end to agree on a statement of justice and a plan of distributed action. Keep in mind, Reagan was chomping at the bit for war against Nicaragua, we had illegally mined their harbor and armed the Contras. Nuclear war with the Soviets could happen at any moment. The CIA was recruiting on campuses and the military was discriminating against gays. Racism and classicism excluded many from education, and many campuses had incidents of violence.

    Two negative things threatened the conference.

    1. Throughout the conference there were divisions due to under-representation of people of color. Some proposed that the conference be rescheduled to increase representation since making any statement would therefore be racist. Many said that they recruited students of color, offering ride-shares. I myself reached out to students of color organizations at Columbia and no one took the weekend off with me to New Brunswick, NJ. In retrospect, I wonder why, at Rutgers, an elite public university, we couldn't broaden outreach right there on campus and reach out to the local students and leaders of students of color organizations! Many recognized the mammoth effort of the conference organizers and those who traveled to be there, and felt that we would be squandering this hard-worked-for opportunity.
    Even so the conference bogged down in these identity conflicts with recriminations. The Church of the Politically Correct was just emerging full-blown.
    I wonder if there were 'plants' or agents-provocateurs among the students to make this happen or if it just did.

    2. The Conference, not wanting to be racist, resolved to do local organizing, reaching out especially to Students of Color organizations, and to call for another conference with better representation.

    The Convention was going to share the database of local college's leaders when POOF! The database that they developed for over a year suddenly disappeared. It wasn't in the computer. No printouts. No back up. NOTHING. No explanation.

    Rumors of infiltration wafted about as we got in our cars, trains, buses...

    The Columbia contingent organized a local chapter and we had conferences in Earl Hall and at NYU and we met with representatives from Hunter and other City Colleges.

    Our chapter was the strongest in the city, but we at the "Progressive Coalition" burned out because the same members were largely in another group (on top of all the other organizations and academic work we had) that fought for the co-education of the fraternities on campus, which was coming to a head in the Senate (it failed).

    The most lasting thing about this organizing was the Columbia College Student Council's first political party: the Vote Progressive Party, which elected a majority slate of activist, leftist, pro-student-rights representatives. We could have, by fiat, gotten NYPIRG funded on campus. Stupidly, our NYPIRG rep didn't allow us to do things the Columbia way, by elected reps voting it in, but did it how they do organizing at SUNY campuses, losing at the ballot box in a special referendum.

    Some lessons:

    1. watch your computers. Lock them up, chain them down. Several times! Back up your data. Use encryption for the networks.

    2. The 'perfect' is the enemy of the 'good enough.'

    We wanted to be perfectly non-racist, even though we did outreach to students of color, and we still felt bad and withered at name-calling/accusations of racism at the conference.

    Back on campus we covered too many issues and went to too many meetings at Columbia.

    NYPIRG's rep was stupid. It would be great to have NYPIRG at Columbia, and they should have let the elected student government fund them as part of the same budget process hundreds of other student activities get funded through. This is how we do things here.

    [As it turned out, 1988-1989 was the first year that issues-oriented groups and public service groups out of Earl Hall got funded -- even though Earl Hall activities had the most involvement of all student activities on campus and off campus. They only got $12,000 that year, but funding increased and last I checked they got a lot more. We cut much of their initial funding from the hides of the Inter-Greek-Frat-Council! So much for folks trying to kill single sex fraternities by co-educating them. The Vote Progressive Party was open about its aims and put funding proportionally to all issues-oriented groups to use as activities programming -- how students spend their time.

    But NYPIRG got to lose its referendum and keep its beloved process to tax all the students as part of some meta-government association. Maybe it was for the best, since there is something to be said for local self-determination and autonomy.

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