Breakfast with Columbia President Lee Bollinger

May 14, 2007

On Friday, May 11, a small delegation of ’68ers – Robert Friedman, Tom Hurwitz, Hilton Obenzinger, and Peter Clapp – had breakfast at the home of Columbia President Lee Bollinger to discuss a proposal we had made earlier this year that Columbia host some sort of 40th anniversary commemoration of the events of 1968 on campus next spring. That Bollinger had extended the invitation suggested that he was open to the idea; after breakfast, it seemed more appropriate to say he had embraced it.

Also joining us were Alan Brinkley, the historian and provost of Columbia; David Stone, the head of public relations at the university; and Susan Glancy, Bollinger’s chief of staff. We talked a lot about the significance of what was happening in 1968 at Columbia, in the U.S., and on the world stage. It was clear that Bollinger and Brinkley are both children of the ’60s (Bollinger was first year law student at Columbia in the fall of 1968 and active in campus politics in Oregon before that; Brinkley was at Harvard during the protests of in 1969) and were shaped by that era as much as we were. We talked too about the legacy of 1968 at Columbia – about how and why the university had been so traumatized, about the coinciding decline of New York City, about how inadequate Columbia’s administration was both during and immediately following the 1968 protests. And we talked about Columbia today, when another unpopular war is being fought and the university is once again expanding into Harlem.

On this last point, it became clear that the Columbia administration today is not anything like the one we protested against in 1968. Bollinger’s chief of staff talked about “embracing conflict,” his pr director talked about engaging the community, and Bollinger himself talked openly about Columbia’s vulnerabilities in this area and his desire to move carefully. One reason Bollinger may be keen on doing a 1968 anniversary event is to convey just this message: that this isn’t your father’s Columbia anymore. That’s certainly open to debate, as is Columbia’s current expansion drive, but they’re surely handling these issues far differently than in Grayson Kirk’s day.

There was a consensus that any 40th anniversary program next year should make an effort to look at what was happening at Columbia in 1968 in a wider context of what was going on elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. And we all thought that the event should be as inclusive as possible (which wouldn’t preclude having a concurrent gathering just for strike participants). Stone, the pr director, suggested a series of  1968-related events throughout the academic year focusing on film, music, the role of the media, etc., leading up to a main event. Brinkley suggested a more academic conference along the lines of one he attended in Berlin on the 30th anniversary of 1968. And Bollinger suggested getting Gregory Mosher, former head of the Public Theater in New York and now an arts consultant to the university, involved in programming for the event.

As some of you may know, British filmmaker Paul Cronin is producing a film about the Columbia Stike that we expect will be very sympathetic. Cronin has unearthed extensive video and still footage that hasn’t been seen before. He is still conducting interviews, but he has already spoken with Robert, Tom, and other participants, as well as Brinkley and administation representatives. Brinkley suggested that Columbia might host the film’s premiere.

We agreed to meet again in the next month or so and to expand the circle involved in planning the next moves, so as to include current and former faculty members, former members of the Student Afro-American Society, former Barnard students, and others.

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