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 VOL. 23, NO. 16FEBRUARY 27, 1998 

President Grayson Kirk Remembered


John Grayson Kirk spoke about his father at the memorial service. Record Photo by Joe Pineiro.

The man who led Columbia to intellectual heights in the 1950s and bravely faced student campus protests in the 1960s, Grayson L. Kirk, was eulogized at a memorial service in St. Paul’s Chapel Monday afternoon.

  Kirk, who was Columbia’s president from 1953 to 1968, was remembered by his son, John Grayson Kirk, as having a “grand passion for education” and was described by University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis as a man of “vision and integrity.”

  “He was a man without arrogance,” said his former student and University Professor Emeritus Fritz Stern, “but he was a towering presence, and not because of his office alone. How wrong it would be to remember Grayson Kirk as ‘the man who called the police.’ ”

  Kirk, an internationally known political scientist who advised the State Department during World War II and helped create the United Nations, transformed Columbia by creating six regional institutes in international affairs; opening new research programs in physics, medicine and oceanography; establishing the School of the Arts and a division of urban planning in the School of Architecture; doubling the number of volumes in the libraries, and raising more than $70 million for new buildings.

  Yet, Kirk is remembered by many as the man who presided over 1968.

  “Thirty years ago today,” said President George Rupp, “the Tet Offensive was raging in Vietnam. Our nation was in turmoil. President Johnson was just eight days away from announcing his decision not to seek another term in office. In the ensuing weeks, the two most influential figures in the struggle for peace and civil rights, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, were assassinated.

  “On college campuses and in burning ghettoes across the land there was a sense of outrage fueled in part by a feeling of powerlessness to affect a course of events that seemed impervious to influence through established procedures.

  “It is one of the great ironies in the annals of Columbia that at such a tumultuous moment the target of the dissidents at our university was a president who opposed the war in Vietnam, who had sought to protect academic freedom against onslaughts from both the right and the left, who had established the Institute of African Studies and the Institute of Latin American Studies, who had made significant contributions to world peace, and who had brought about substantial changes at Columbia, long before the age of protest, spurred by his own convictions.”

  Kirk’s former student and Trustee Emeritus Lawrence E. Walsh recalled that the Trustees backed Kirk’s actions in 1968. Calling in the police was the best alternative at the time, he said, and things were going smoothly until the police mistook a group of spectators on South Field for more protesters and a confrontation ensued. To this day, said Walsh, no one has come up with a better alternative.

  Even after the student protesters had won—the University’s plans to build a gym in Morningside Park, which sparked the protests, had been abandoned—they still were not satisfied, said Walsh.

  “Kirk determined that there had to be a human sacrifice, and he was it,” Walsh explained. “He didn’t resign under fire. He did so because he thought it was the best way to bring this institution together. And he was right.”

  President Rupp predicted that Grayson Kirk would be remembered for more than 1968: “He will rightly be remembered as a great president of our university, as the scholar and pragmatist who transformed Columbia’s curricula through his own sense of global urgency.”