Havel in 2008

Earlier today, the Times reported that Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who was elected president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Soviet Union and later became the first president of the Czech Republic (after it split from Czechoslovakia), passed away at the age of 75. A founding member of Charter 77, Havel was an major figure of the civil rights movement of the ’70s. Perhaps unbeknownst to current students, Havel also has an interesting history with Columbia, having accepted an offer to become Columbia’s first “Artist-in-Residence” for a few months in 2006, three years after he stepped down as President of the Czech Republic.

The artist residency program (much like the CU Arts Initiative and the World Leaders Forum) was dreamed up by Prezbo to turn Columbia into a more “global university.” The program allowed Havel to spend about eight weeks at Columbia in late 2006. Controversially, Columbia decided earlier that year to slightly alter the Core to include Havel, adding one of his late-twentieth century plays to the first semester LitHum syllabus (which is usually nothing but ancient Greek works) and letting him give the Fall 2006 CC lecture.

His residency officially kicked off on October 26, 2006, with a swanky party downtown. Soon after this fête, Havel was apparently transfixed by construction in front of Wien. Luckily, he recovered his composure by the time he gave the annual CC lecture. The lecture, which unsurprisingly focused on Czech resistance to Soviet rule, inspired furious Spec op-eds, blurry Bwog comics, and the kind of pseudo-intellectual conversations that Core classes are famous for.

A few days after the lecture, Havel joined a presidential pow-wow in Roone with Bill Clinton and Prezbo, where Clinton memorably compared him to Gandhi. Columbia went all-out to promote Havel’s presence at the university during his short time here, even setting up a special “President Havel is at Columbia!” site to host videos of his CC lecture and the presidential pow-wow, which are still available. The Birch, Columbia’s journal of Eastern European affairs, also made the most of his stint at Columbia by devoting a good deal of their Fall 2006 issue (pages 26–33 in PDF) to his work and legacy.

Most current students may never have heard of Havel, but his passing will be mourned by a generation of Czechs, political leaders and freedom fighters the world over, and—perhaps most curiously—by the Columbia Class of 2010, whose first few weeks in college were all but defined by a president’s residence at Columbia.

Picture via Wikimedia