Three decades after Columbia endured an eruption of protest, researchers reflect on how an uprising over university policies catalyzed changes extending well beyond the campus

Radicalism and research at Columbia:
the legacy of '68

Joseph Karaganis

More than 30 years have passed since Columbia became a flashpoint for student activism. The building occupations of April 1968 and the police intervention that ended them had enormous repercussions on the university and on the student movement more generally. Among other things, they signaled a new, more confrontational style of protest as well as a new tolerance of repressive measures on the part of the authorities a polarization that would prove explosive at the Democratic Convention that summer.

It was hardly the first time that larger social and political conflicts intruded on the insularity of university life, and the office occupation was not the worst indignity suffered by a Columbia president. That honor probably goes to President Myles Cooper of what was then King's College, who was nearly tarred and feathered by a student-incited mob during the American Revolution (it was another King's College student, Alexander Hamilton, who helped the president escape in his nightclothes). But 1968 was a watershed for many of the cultural and institutional changes that would reshape the university in the next decades; the date came to symbolize a range of shifts not only in the way the university was run, but also in the work it performed. With hindsight, moreover, it's clear that the legacy of '68 is in some respects still very much an object of contention.

Linkages and turning points

On the main issues, the Columbia radicals mostly won: The administration gave up its controversial plan to build a gym in city-owned Morningside Park, eventually severed university ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis, and narrowed disciplinary actions pending against protest leaders. Through these university-based issues, activists forced the administration to engage larger student concerns about racial inequality and the Vietnam War. As Columbia sociology professor Allan Silver, who was a member of the ad hoc faculty committee that mediated between the students and the administration, notes, "Student radicalism was an attack on the university as a surrogate and symbol of the regime itself--the regime that brought you the Vietnam War."

But if '68 was the beginning of greater radicalization, it also was one of the last moments in which the antiwar and racial-equality platforms of the New Left were able to mobilize a broad coalition of groups. The aftermath, historian Todd Gitlin writes, was one of "growing militancy, growing isolation [and] growing hatred among the competing factions with their competing imaginations."1 At Columbia, '68 produced deep and lasting divisions, particularly among the faculty; it created a new understanding that the administration would at least pay attention to student concerns about university policies; and it provided a style and vocabulary of protest for later generations of students who would organize around issues such as disinvestment from South Africa and, more recently, the expansion of ethnic studies.

To a considerable degree, it is still the absence of broad issues, easily condensed in university policy, that shapes and limits campus activism. Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia, describes the difference: "You don't have a single galvanizing question like the war, and the university is operating in a much more intelligent way than it did back then: You don't have the building of the gym or the connections to the Defense Department that could bring a lot of people together. There is a sense that each group has its own politics and political issues."

In this respect, 1968 pointed more to the future than to the past a future that included the repudiation of some of the organizing goals of earlier activism. Gitlin makes this point with respect to claims that the present-day university is filled with "tenured radicals," to use Roger Kimball's recent catchphrase: "For the most part, to my knowledge, the so-called '60s graduates who went into the academy were not involved deeply in '60s radicalism until the very end. In general, they were either deeply immersed in graduate studies at the time, or they recall a period when the movement had already devolved into identity politics of one sort or another, and therefore their understanding of the '60s is chronologically more connected to the '70s." Foner emphasizes the point: "It's a total myth that somehow student radicals have taken over universities. I would say that if you took the faculty at Columbia in the liberal arts and sciences, maybe 500 people, you would find that maybe five or six were student activists in '68."

If that's the case, then whose '60s is at stake in recent polemics against the radical university? Ironically, Silver notes, "The main case for continuity is made by the cultural right. Part of the war on Clinton is cast in terms of the impact of the '60s on the '90s, but that flame is kept alive less by the '60s people themselves than by their cultural opponents, who nurture it because they want to take its worst aspects, its most irrational aspects (which at the time I also opposed strongly), and build them into an unending enemy. [Cultural conservatives] have a greater investment in the myth of the '60s than anybody else."

"Delinking" and diversifying the research climate

Beyond these caricatures are unmistakable shifts in the orientation of university research in the wake of '68. One of the most significant changes, and one directly at stake in the protests, was the end of secret government sponsorship of research in the social and hard sciences especially weapons research and international studies. This connection had emerged during World War II, when many faculty members and an influx of European emigrés actively sought to participate in the war effort. The Cold War extended this relationship: The Institute for Defense Analysis was created in 1955 to facilitate connections between the university and the defense establishment.

In some fields, government influence was pervasive. Barnard historian Robert McCaughey explains the dilemma facing many political scientists at the time: "I think a lot of people in the '60s who were involved in government-sponsored research were quite skeptical of government policies, but if you were going to be a political scientist in this country in the 1960s and were interested in international politics, you either went along with certain elements of American policy, or you stepped outside and pretty much assured yourself of being closed out of whatever was going on." Columbia English professor Ann Douglas, who is writing a book on Cold War American culture, notes that in the '40s and '50s, "Columbia was one of the leaders in accepting corporate, government, and defense funds for all kinds of programs," and that one of the lasting victories of the student movement was to change perceptions about the appropriate role of the university "delinking" the university from the defense industry.

Another major shift in research has taken place in the humanities and social sciences, where the past 30 years have seen an explosion of interest in the experiences of women and minorities. McCaughey sees this as part of the same process that curbed government influence in the academy, although he views '68 as relatively incidental to that shift: "I think the research of a social character that's going on now identifies with workers, with women, with racial minorities, rather than with a political or cultural elite. I think that process was well under way and would have gone forward at Columbia without the events of '68."

That longer-term process involved the emergence of the civil rights movement, black power, the sexual revolution, and feminism into the political foreground. For Foner, a clear relationship exists between this context and the questions that interest contemporary scholars: "It is not surprising that a lot of people who lived through the '60s wanted to study women's history, African-American history, the history of social movements, etc. People lived through these questions, which leads historians to ask what the antecedents of these movements are in American history. Any historian's questions are largely shaped by the world the historian is living in. One hopes that the answers are not shaped by that that the answers are shaped by the study itself."

Foner, who was at Columbia as an undergraduate and graduate student in the '60s, suggests that the administration, too, began to draw a connection between research and its program of diversifying the student and faculty body: "Coming out of '68 was an acknowledgment on the part of the administration and trustees that the integration of black students into the fabric of the university was a much more complicated process than they had originally thought in the mid-'60s, when Columbia started to enroll substantial numbers of blacks for the first time. I think that at that point there was some understanding that there would need to be more substantial faculty commitment to the notion that African-American history, for example, constituted a subject worthy of scrutiny, and that appointments would be made over the next 20 years that would make it possible for Columbia to engage in that kind of research." Later efforts in women's studies, Asian-American studies, and Hispanic-American studies, he notes, would adopt the same model.

Some of this flexibility, too, was a function of the freedom that Columbia faculty members enjoyed in the classroom. Ann Douglas was one of the first to teach women's studies at Columbia: "At Columbia in the humanities there has always been a sense that a teacher could do exactly what she wanted. Believe me, when I came here in '74 the contrast with Princeton and Harvard was enormous. If I wanted to teach history in my literature classes, or feminism, which was coming in at the time, I could."

Douglas also points out that Columbia made another contribution to '60s counter-culture: It was where the beat generation--Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs--came together in the early '40s, although the university quickly proved inhospitable to their brand of cultural provocation. This kind of contention, Douglas argues, was not unusual: "By virtue of being in New York, perhaps, Columbia has been a very fertile ground for all this activity. I think Columbia cultivated dissent, sort of unwittingly, and then did its best to contain it as rapidly as it could." One could argue that 1968 was no exception, although by then containment inevitably meant rethinking a broad range of university activities. "In the end," Douglas notes, "institutions are meant to change less rapidly than the world around them, or they would not be institutions."

1. The Sixties (Toronto and NY: Bantam, 1987), p. 380.

Related links...

  • Oral History Research Office project: "Columbia Crisis of 1968"

  • Free Speech Movement media resources, Berkeley

  • Bob Feldman interviews Bernadine Dohrn about the "Battle of Morningside Heights," Z magazine, May 1968

  • Michele Tepper, "The Maturing of Michael Bérubé," Salon (profile of a prominent "tenured radical")

  • Todd Gitlin: conversation with Ben Wattenberg on new book The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (NY: Holt, 1995), "Think Tank," PBS, Nov. 24, 1995

  • JOSEPH KARAGANIS, Ph.D., is a New York-based free-lance writer and the managing editor of Sociological Theory.

    Photo Credits Illo: Howard R. Roberts
    Columbia Protesters, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac: AP/ Wide World Photos
    Myles Cooper: Columbiana Archive Hamilton: Dover Books