Letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger

March 1, 2007

Lee Bollinger
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027

Re: 1968 Fortieth Anniversary

Dear President Bollinger:

Next spring marks the 40th anniversary of the student protests at Columbia University. There have been several gatherings of people who participated in the protest over the years, but none were sponsored by the university itself. Recently, a number of us who were at Columbia in 1968 (and are a bit grayer now) have begun to discuss how we might commemorate the upcoming anniversary. One of our group, Robert Friedman, told us of his brief discussion with you at Davos in which you expressed disappointment with the view that the events of 1968 were a tragedy for the university and suggested that it might be time for Columbia to change its outlook—indeed to heal some of the wounds that still afflict the campus all these years later.

The idea that Columbia might want to participate in commemorating the events of 1968 has caused us to broaden our thinking about possibilities. We would like to share some thoughts with you.

What happened at Columbia in 1968 is best understood within a global context of events that year, including the Tet offensive, widely seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War; LBJ’s decision not to run for reelection; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the protests and riots that followed; Robert Kennedy’s assassination; the student protests that began in Paris and turned into a general strike throughout France; the anti-Soviet uprising in Czechoslovakia; three days of protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago; NOW’s demonstration at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; the violent suppression of demonstrations in Mexico City; Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ gloved, clenched fists at the Summer Olympics; the election of Nixon and Agnew. It was a remarkable year of upheaval but also one of hope and belief that the world was changing.

We feel that the most meaningful way to mark the anniversary would be to look at 1968 as a critical moment in the 20th century. Such an event would, of course, include activities related to the Columbia protests, which were the largest student anti-war demonstrations to that time. But situating those protests in a broader, global context could make the event more meaningful to those who participated, and perhaps more understandable to those for whom it remains an unhappy memory.

In short, we suggest that Columbia host a multi-day, multi-event gathering with the title: 1968—Columbia and the World. Beside meetings of former students and faculty who were involved on all sides, other events might have a more academic or cultural focus. With more than a year to plan, there are many possibilities. Here are just a few:

Panel discussions presenting an overview of the year and the times, with historians, economists, and others.

A session on 1968 in Europe. Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former foreign minister whose roots are in the ’60s student movement, is at Princeton this year. Would he come to Columbia to participate? Would Vaclev Havel, who was at Columbia last year, return for a week? (And, in this context, would it be worthwhile to contact officials at universities in Paris, Prague, and Mexico City?)

A discussion about Vietnam and Iraq. How is the Cold War against the Soviet Union similar to and different from the War on Terror? What can we learn today from that experience?

A look at race relations on campus and in America. Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., an African American candidate may become President. What’s changed? What hasn’t?

Gender issues: In 1968, abortion was illegal, all Columbia students were male, AIDS was unknown, and parietal rules were strictly enforced. How have cultural norms changed academic and social life at Columbia and beyond?

A festival of movies released in 1968: 2001: Space Odyssey, Battle of Algiers, Wild in the Streets, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy, Z.

Understanding 1968—what happened; the hopes, successes, and disappointments of the era; how they’ve helped shape the present; how our world today is changed—would have lasting value for those who were at Columbia that year and for those who have come after. It’s not only Columbia that has neglected to confront the legacy of those times but also many on the left who idealize the period and refuse to acknowledge their errors, as well as those on the right who think that 1968 marked the beginning of the end of American values. Others, who were born since, have at best a hazy understanding of the period.

A well-planned, multi-disciplinary, all-inclusive event would help dispel these superficial understandings. It would contribute to more well-rounded view of the 1960s and how they helped us get where we are today. Columbia, as the premier educational institution in one of the world’s most important cities, is a perfect place to host such an event. And the university’s willingness to acknowledge its own role in the events of the time would help build bridges to some of those who may have felt disengaged from the school since.

We look forward to hearing whether you think these suggestions are feasible and, if so, what you suggest as a framework for implementing them. Many of us would be eager to plan or contribute to what promises to be a truly memorable occasion.


Robert Friedman
Hilton Obenzinger
Peter Clapp
Tom Hurwitz

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