What Columbia Should Have Learned From the Protests of 1968

If Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University, has convinced the world of anything during these last several calamitous days, it is almost certainly that there is no position in American executive life as thankless, as depleting or less enviable than running a major academic institution in an age of chronic, reflexive agitation.

Criticized for capitulating to congressional Republicans in a hearing on antisemitism last week, she quickly found she had not been nearly ingratiating enough. On Monday some of those Republicans, joined in their disapproval by a considerable number of Democrats, called for Dr. Shafik to resign amid the “anarchy” stemming from student demonstrations in favor of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, roughly 100 members of the Columbia and Barnard faculties, representing a variety of opinions on the war itself, gathered to condemn her decision to summon the New York Police Department onto campus to arrest students involved in nonviolent protest.

“There is a pretty broad consensus that bringing in the police was precipitous and counterproductive,” Christopher Brown, a history professor who spoke at the rally, told me. “Whatever it was designed to accomplish, it didn’t.” It was as if, he said, university administrators “have never met a 19- or 20-year-old.”

As ever, understanding the past is crucial to making sense of the turmoil we are witnessing now. In the spring of 1968, Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, rarely depicted without a pipe, moved in comparatively slow motion in response to unrest that had become an inflection point in the wave of campus activism that was redirecting history. By the end of April, the expressions of rage over Columbia’s ties to the defense industry and thus the American entanglement in Vietnam, as well as its singularly ill-conceived plan to build a private gym on public land in Harlem, had gone way beyond chants and hand-painted signs. Within days, students had occupied five buildings, seized the president’s office and taken Dean Henry Coleman hostage, holding him in his office for 26 hours.

A week of mounting disruption followed before law enforcement was brought in to dismantle the uprising, resulting in hundreds of student arrests, injuries, next-level mayhem, a strike and Mr. Kirk’s resignation that summer. “It mushroomed beyond our wildest dreams,” Mark Rudd, the leader of Columbia’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, told me from his home in New Mexico recently.

More than a half-century later, it took Dr. Shafik about 24 hours to see that a significantly smaller group of protesters, about 108 in total, who had set up an encampment on the South Lawn in solidarity with Gaza, were arrested. Even the police seemed vaguely confused. John Chell, the department’s chief of patrol, described the targeted students as “peaceful,” telling a group of reporters after the sweep that they had reacted to the raid with “no resistance whatsoever and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.”

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