The Center Falls Out: The Role of the Faculty in the Columbia Strike

The Center Falls Out:[1] The Role of the Faculty in the Columbia Strike

By Richard Greeman

Most of us who teach English, Philosophy, or History of foreign languages to Columbia College undergraduates have our offices and classrooms in Hamilton Hall. When we arrived there on Wednesday morning April 24, it was already barricaded and occupied by black students, and an increasingly unruly crowd of hostile whites was gathering outside, threatening to break in and hurling racial epithets. I had participated in the original occupation of Hamilton the day before, but had gone home before the pre-dawn split between SDS and the Student Afro-American Society and the subsequent barricading of the building. Spontaneously, without any discussion or organization, a few dozen Hamilton teachers took up places between the Black students inside and the mob (or prospective police attackers) outside. These teachers were soon joined by colleagues both male and female and a second line of nonviolent white students formed in front of them. We stood there, despite a teeming rainstorm (which had the fortunate side-effect of thinning the ranks of the mob outside) for two days and nights; talking, joking, sending out for coffee, umbrellas, and dry clothes, occasionally breaking up fights or (over bull-horns provided by students) expressing our sympathy with the Hamilton sit-ins. Some of us had had experience in the civil rights or anti-war movement; others were simply anguished over the possibility of a racial clash on campus; all felt deeply that now, if ever, the time had come to stand up for our students. The origin of the so-called “faculty cordon” at Columbia was thus a spontaneous net of solidarity with the blockaded black students. It is important to emphasize this origin because of later transformations of this faculty group.

That same afternoon, a hastily-assembled meeting of the College Voting Faculty (including everyone of professorial rank, but not instructors) responded to the sit-ins by calling for the suspension of the gym construction and expressing its “trust that police action will not be used” although it did condemn the demonstrators’ use of “coercion”. Implicit in this resolution was the basically contradictory attitude of most of the senior faculty: tacit support for the demonstrators’ goals but unwillingness to break openly with the administration by sanctioning their action. The unconscious hypocrisy of this attitude is clear: the faculty would never have dared to consider taking a position on the gym of which they all disapproved had it not been for the mass student pressure from below expressed through direct action.

By Thursday morning, the occupation of Avery and Fayerweather had created a totally new situation. Although the mob pressure directed against the Blacks in front of Hamilton had decreased, a large and hostile crowd was gathering in front of Fayerweather and threatening to attack the sit-ins. Professor Etzioni (Sociology) and I managed to get between the two groups, to convince them to sit down, and to begin an impromptu debate. Although Etzioni had been a vocal opponent of the war and of secret weapons research, he opposed the strike on the ground that “nothing should interfere with education.” Somewhat shocked, I replied that as far as I was concerned, the process of education at Columbia was just beginning and that the loss of a few hours of routine sociology classes was more than compensated for by this political experience. I argued for a conception of learning that united theory and practice.

At that point, even the conservative students gathered in front of the building agreed that it was more important to debate the issues of the gym, IDA, and the right of rebellion than to listen to another hour of boring sociology. Although they still did not support the demonstrators, they were beginning to think. The slow evolution of the campus majority from initial shock and anger over the “disruption” to eventual support of the strike had begun. Nonetheless, this debate was often to be repeated, and most of the professors, like Etzioni and later Melman, Kuhns, and Morganbessor, could find no better argument to discourage vigilante counter-demonstrators than that of “two wrongs don’t make a right” or “don’t use coercion like SDS.” There was a total failure to distinguish between the two groups in terms of politics, morality, or goals. This deliberate “apolitical” attitude of the liberals made it possible for the faculty cordon to be turned into an anti-SDS blockade later on.

That afternoon, about 50 of the faculty who had remained active on campus managed to arrange a meeting with Vice-President Truman in Philosophy lounge. This was the first direct contact we had had with the administration since the crisis had begun. Truman appeared haggard and ashen and actually broke down during the meeting. He reported the administration’s attitude that it would be immoral to negotiate with the SDS students whose behavior was “illegal”, that their leaders would be expelled, and that police would likely be called. At the same time, however, he announced that he had offered virtual amnesty to the Blacks in Hamilton, although their demands were identical to those of SDS. It was an obvious attempt to split the students along racial lines, and when I asked him how he reconciled this with his high “principles”, he pleaded pressing business and left the room.

This time, however, we did not just pick up and go home as usual. In an unprecedented move, Professor Allen Westin, a long-time associate of Truman, took the floor and declared that “our great love and respect for David Truman” should not prevent us from seeing that he was in the wrong or from taking Independent action “to save him from himself.” Within the hour, an Ad Hoc Faculty Committee was formed, pledged “to stand before the occupied buildings to prevent forcible entry by police and others.” Until “this crisis is settled” to its satisfaction. By evening, the group had grown to nearly 200, opened negotiations with the students, elected a steering committee, and resolved to remain in permanent session. Speakers like Sam Coleman, Marvin Harris, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Jeff Kaplow reflected the sense of urgency we felt over the issues of university racism and and noted that the demonstrating students had in fact liberated us to take a political stand for the first time in History – something we should have done long before. They were applauded. There was a tremendous sense of exhilaration and release as professors began to realize how long they had been infantilized by the administration and prepared to assert themselves at last. Again, it is essential to note that the origin of the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee was a spontaneous and essentially anti-administration act made possible by the power-vacuum created by the students’ rebellions. In consequence, both its founders and the demonstrating students expected that it would result in a fundamental shift in the balance of power at the university. Events were to show that this was an illusion.

The Ad hoc Group faced its first test that night, and it passed well. Although we had been told that the administration recognized our efforts and respected our views, at 1:05 a.m. David Truman entered Philosophy Hall and announced that the police were being called to arrest the strikers, ostensibly to “prevent violent clashes between opposing student groups.” He was hooted out of the room under cries of “shame!” and “liar!” It would be noted that where the faculty, merely through its moral authority, had successfully prevented such clashes, the administration had done nothing to contain the right-wing student vigilante groups who were openly threatening violence. In fact, it actually encouraged them through members of the Dean’s staff. Where the sit-ins were nonviolent from the beginning, the administration created violence first by sponsoring the student right and then by invoking police violence to resolve the crisis it had created.

The faculty responded immediately by taking up positions in front of the occupied buildings while simultaneously appealing to the Mayor’s office to call off the cops. The strategy worked, at least for the moment. I was stationed with a group of about 30 in front of Low Library. We had carefully cleared the area of students so that it would be clear to the press, the administration, and the cops that we were faculty. Contrary to the Cox Commission and other accounts, we had been allowing police officers and Mayor’s aides to pass through, since we were aware that our own representatives were inside Low trying to convince them to forestall the police action. At about 2:00 a.m., a group of about 25 burly men in raincoats charged us across the open area in front of the line. We challenged them to identify themselves and state their business; announcing that we were Columbia faculty. They neither spoke nor showed police badges, but beat their way through the line. I was grabbed from behind, held, and clubbed on the head. Several of my colleagues, including two women, were punched or kicked. A few minutes later, David Truman came to the door and saw me bleeding profusely. “How did this happen, Mr. Greeman?” he asked. “What did you expect when you called the cops?” I replied. Dr. Truman was kind enough to lead me inside for medical attention, and I noticed my assailants drinking coffee at the police canteen in the corridor outside his office. The later false reports (1) that the attack was not calculated and (2) that I injured myself by slipping on the steps were deliberate lies spread by a member of the Dean’s staff and accepted by the Cox Commission.

The sight off blood must have convinced the administration that the faculty was serious. As a result, at 3.30 a.m., the police action was called off. Construction on the gym was suspended and the school was declared closed until Monday. The result of this action was that the occupation could be prolonged for another four days, during which time the justice of the strikers’ demands became more and more evident to the majority of the students who began to rally in their support. Paradoxically, however, the possibility of a student-faculty alliance against the administration began to decline from that moment on.

During the next four days, the Ad Hoc Group’s activities were two-fold: attempts at mediation and attempts at keeping order through faculty cordons in front of the buildings. Both aspects were aimed at “preventing violence” or “resolving the crisis.” Attempts to get the Group to take a consistent political stand of its own were constantly sidetracked by the Steering Committee, and the vital question of amnesty for the students never even came to a vote. As a result, the group slowly lost whatever influence, prestige, and chance of power it ever had and was effectively transformed into its opposite. Having no political position of its own, and faced with an unyielding administration, the professors’ “possibilist” outlook turned them into their own and the students’ worst enemy. Thus the faculty lines, originally organized to protect the students in the buildings, got turned into a kind of blockade of the buildings. The mediation efforts turned to “get them out of the buildings at any cost.” Finally, the urge to assert faculty independence and take an independent stand was transformed, through the self-imposed role of mediator, into pressure to “resolve the crisis.” A goal that implied siding with the stronger party, the administration.

The faculty attempts to mediate went through several stages. The first was direct negotiations with the students. That is, liberal professors attempted to get the strikers to soften their line, especially on amnesty, in exchange for vague promises which they, the negotiators, had no power to deliver. The logic of this situation led to such unseemly scenes as the one in Fayerwether Hall, the “softest” of the Communes, where two associated professors, Seymour Melman and Sidney Morganbesser, harangued an already divided and discouraged student assembly for over an hour, arguing that their revolt was dangerous and absurd because it was “unrealistic.” The two ex-student-radicals were attempting to influence the internal politics of the strikers, apparently oblivious of the facts that (1) as non-strikers they would not have to live by the result of the decision and (2) that they were now professors with a vested interest in the stability of Columbia. One wonders where the students found the patience to listen to them.

Soon, however, these pseudo-negotiations were totally undercut by a statement from the President of the Board of Trustees, who declared that the decision to halt construction on the gym was only “temporary” and that the President had the sole power to discipline students. This was a direct slap in the face to the faculty and a reminder that they were mere employees with no real power. If anything, this should have convinced the faculty that their only chance for any real dignity or power then or in the future was to join the students. It did convince some, but the Steering Committee was so convinced of the need for compromise and consensus and so incapable of conceiving its role in terms of any fundamental change in power relationships that it ran in the opposite direction.

The result was a turn toward public mediation embodied in a series of compromise solutions presented to both the administration and striking students as a “bitter pill” for both sides to swallow but the only fair resolution to the crisis. This attempt to bolster up the center in a situation where there was increasing polarization was futile from the beginning. Meanwhile, the administration, backed by some conservative professors, had engineered an “official” faculty meeting in the hope of gaining a vote of confidence and undermining the legitimacy of the Ad Hoc Group. From this meeting were excluded the younger faculty members and those from the more “liberal” faculties like Art, Arts & Sciences, while those from conservative Law and Business – few, if any, of whose students were involved – were invited. Despite the disadvantage of a packed assembly, the leadership of the Ad Hoc Steering Committee could have presented its proposals at this meeting, as the Ad Hoc membership had directed it to. They might have carried on a close vote, and such a show of force would have undermined the legitimacy of Kirk and Truman. To their shame, the Westin group refused to pick up the challenge, apparently because they didn’t want “to split the faculty.”

The younger and more radical members of the Ad Hoc Group were naturally unhappy with the behavior of the Steering Committee. But they, too, were inhibited by a desire not to break up the Ad Hoc Group, which they saw as the only place where they had a voice. Moreover, they still hoped that the Ad Hoc Assembly could be brought to vote for Amnesty. Unfortunately, their opponents lacked such scruples. The conservatives sent scores of establishment-type professors to pack the Ad Hoc meetings, and the Steering Committee allowed them to vote, even though they had not signed the statement committing them to any action and were in fact opposed to the group’s original principles. Moreover, the meetings were increasingly subject to manipulation. The Steering Committee, meeting in camera, took over all decision-making, only reporting to the body after the fact. The Assembly was thus turned into a talk-shop or an errand-boy. On the rare occasions when it was actually functioning and it looked as if the key question of amnesty was about to come to a vote, the Assembly was broken up by a sudden adjournment. A member of the Dean’s staff or some conservative professor might run breathlessly into the room at the crucial moment and call everyone out to prevent some “disastrous” clash among students; by the time the group could be called back together, the tension would be broken and more conservatives would miraculously appear. On one notable occasion, Westin himself simply adjourned the meeting just before the vote.

Although this manipulation became more and more blatant, more and more frustrating, the younger and more radical faculty members were unable to deal with it. They were lulled by a false sense of community with the liberals in the leadership and so flattered by their own participation in a “real” faculty, on a basis of equality, that they were eventually co-opted. To have told the truth – to renounce one’s newfound “colleagues” as lying manipulators and the Deans as enemy agents sent in to disrupt – would have been a breech of academic decorum. Once again, the myth of the “academic community” proved on effective mask to hide the real power relationships.

The take-it-or-leave-it “bitter pill” proposal was predictably turned down by the Administration, which cleverly worded its rejection as if it were an acceptance of some kind of Amnesty. This rejection was supposed to automatically commit the Ad Hoc Group to support the strikers, but when they too rejected the proposal, it was “discovered” that the wording was ambiguous: it did not provide either for half-way acceptances or for the case of a double rejection. This let the Steering Committee off the hook.

The Steering Committee’s last feeble efforts at mediation – phoning Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay, and bringing in a professional mediator, Ted Kheel – only underlined their bankruptcy. At the 11th hour, Alex Erlich, a distinguished economics professor and thoroughly principled socialist, finally got the floor and placed the reality of the situation before the body: amnesty or the cops. There was no other choice. For a moment it looked as though the faculty, faced with political reality at last, would commit itself. But the liberals would not have it so. Professor Shenton introduced a motion to table the issue, and after much debate, it carried. The abdication was complete.

With the cops on the way, each faculty member was left to act on his/her individual conscience which, in most cases, turned out to be a more reliable guide than his/her political courage. Many professors did interpose themselves between the cops and the students that dismal night of the Bust and Shenton himself was among the most seriously injured. Paradoxically, many liberal intellectuals found it easier to face physical violence than to think about shaking up the power structure, easier to get hit on the head than to re-examine their own self-image. Self-sacrifice, “acting on principle”, became a substitute for changing one’s consciousness.

The epilogue was played out the next morning in McMillan Auditorium, which was packed with 750 faculty members – a larger group than had ever been assembled at any Ad Hoc or official meeting. By then the bloody-headed students and teachers had begun returning to the campus and the moderate student leaders had called for a general strike against the administration. The mood was one of total revulsion toward the Administration. Westin appeared on the rostrum and, to everyone’s surprise, introduced a strong resolution condemning the Administration and supporting the new student strike. He was greeted by thunderous applause and an immediate motion for approval by acclamation. For a moment it looked as if all would be vindicated. But the “liberal imagination” still had a few tricks left. Insisting that acclamation would be undemocratic, Westin proceeded to open the debate by calling on known conservatives in the faculty – the very men who had boycotted the poor Ad Hoc Group during its earlier struggles. When, one after another, Michael Sovern, Quentin Anderson, and Fritz Stern voiced their disapproval, Westin did an about-face, withdrew his proposals, and left the room taking half the Steering Committee with him and muttering something about being unable to decide anything without consulting Daniel Bell (the “End of Ideology” man) who was evidently still in bed. The meeting was thus effectively broken up and the vast majority, who were ready to vote for the resolution as a group, turned into a confused mass of individuals. For Westin, the opinions of Daniel Bell were clearly more important than those of a majority of his colleagues (not surprisingly, both of them, along with Sovern, turned up on the administration-sponsored Faculty Executive Committee created later that day). The abdication was sealed by a sell-out.

Subsequent to those events, various attempts to revive the Ad Hoc Group all failed. The rump group which remained in Mc Millan was able to vote the original Westin proposal and continued for a few days under the leadership of Marvin Harris and Eric Bentley. Then the moderates created an Independent Faculty Group under Melman, Morgenbesser and others, which again tried to take a centrist position and dissolved when its membership proved “too radical” for its leaders. A junior Faculty Group, formed when the younger faculty realized that they were excluded even from the phony decision-making bodies created by the administration, also folded. Today, six months later, most of the faculty – if they think about it at all – look back on the revolt as if it were some king of strange dream. Most have fallen back into business-as-usual, including grumbling as usual, more than content to believe the new administration’s promises about “restructuring” and to let management manage. A few have been radicalized, especially among the younger people; more interestingly, many of the allegedly intellectual radicals have been shown as establishment liberals, tied by their comfort and prestige to the status quo.

Yet the issues at Columbia were clear from the start. The students’ demands – an end to IDA, to the construction of a Columbia gym in a Harlem public park, and to arbitrary discipline against student radicals – were surprisingly moderate. Moreover, they symbolized the three key issues of the day: the imperialist war, institutionalized racism, and law and order versus the right to resist. Issues on which most Columbia professors are “liberals”. Finally, the Kirk administration had already discredited itself, even in the faculty’s eyes, through its consistent arrogance, remoteness, and incompetence (as witnessed by their disbanding of earlier student protests and the scandal over an underhanded cigarette filter deal.) If ever the conditions were ripe for a faculty to take advantage of a student revolt and assert itself, it was at Columbia, where the faculty had plenty of grievances of its own: low salaries, poor housing, slow promotion, academic decline, and the absence of anything like a tradition (such as a faculty senate to ensure their participation in decision-making).

The fact that this faculty could not even split openly with the administration on principled positions, much less join with the students is a fact to be reckoned with. Now that the initial shock has worn off, this fact has enabled Columbia radicals to take a fresh look at the role of the intellectual in bourgeois society and the nature of the university in a capitalist economy. Significantly, many of the professors who took the lead in the anti-war Teach-in movement two years ago turned up as our worst enemies in the Columbia revolt. The centrist role they played reveals the basic contradiction between their liberal ideals and their social position. Totally disoriented by the rupture in their secure existence and the revelation of their contamination by the forces of war and racism, as an assembly they could only abdicate although as individuals they might bravely face the cops. Professors are not the power structure, merely its unwitting tools. Neither are they potential revolutionaries, as a group. And in a crisis, the center falls out.

To the student rebels, this means allies must be sought in the black ghettoes and in the ranks of labor, not on campus. It means that “a free university” will only exist after we have won a “free society”, through a total social revolution. To young faculty rebels, it means we must organize on the basis of our own constituency, not as part of a fictitious academic community, which will either exclude or co-opt us. Rather than fighting for positions within a sort of faculty senate, we must fight for unions to defend our positions as a group whose interests are fundamentally opposed to the interests of the administration and of the faculty that is tied to it.

P.S. I wrote the above in September 1968. Soon thereafter, the Columbia faculty has slid even deeper back into its ante-April apathy. The Faculty Executive Committee personnel has been changed to include even more administration supporters and its proposal for a Faculty Senate is heavily weighted in favor of the administration. Moreover, only a handful of students or faculty turned out for its “open hearings” on “restructuring”. On the other hand, a group of junior faculty around NUC (has formed a union organizing committee. We will have to wait to see the response.

***

[1] « In a crisis, the center falls out » famously wrote Leon Trotsky referring to the polarization in Russia in 1917. In the open conflict between the revolutionaries and the reactionaries, there was no longer a place for the liberals and moderate socialists of the Provisional Government. It seemed to fit the the left-liberal faculty during the Columbia confrontation. Only a few of my friends got the allusion. The others thought I was quoting W.B. Yeats 1919 poem « The Second Coming » :

“Things fall apart ; the centre cannot hold ;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”

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