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I witnessed the campus crisis at Columbia University in 1968, and shocked to see history rhyme in '24

“Violent solution follows failure of negotiations.” 

So read the headline in Columbia University’s student newspaper, the Spectator – not on April 30, 2024, but rather April 30, 1968.

As a student at the university’s business school at the time, I’m now shocked to see that my alma mater’s leaders didn’t learn the lesson of their own history. They deserve the most blame for the mayhem that has engulfed one of America’s most prestigious schools, and if they don’t own it and act accordingly, Columbia’s future is bleak indeed.

I vividly remember the campus crisis of ’68, which bears many similarities to that of today. Then, as now, a large group of students and outside agitators swarmed the university to protest the issue of the day. They fell into two camps – one opposing the Vietnam War, the other opposing the construction of a nearby gym on racial grounds.

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Yet while the proximate causes differed, the modus operandi was the same: harangue and attack peaceful students before occupying buildings.

I was on the receiving end of their vitriol. To mimic the business behavior of the time, my classmates and I wore coats and ties, which the protesters saw as the uniform of the capitalist oppressor class. They blockaded the business school, first spitting on us as we walked by, then throwing bricks and other heavy objects. Thankfully, I wasn’t injured, though several of my peers weren’t so lucky.

The administration should have intervened from the start, clearing the offenders from campus immediately. Instead, they acted timidly, abdicating their duty to provide an education. 

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Many students, me included, couldn’t continue learning since we couldn’t physically enter our classrooms and online courses didn’t exist. I sat around waiting for the university to reopen for days, then weeks, as the campus descended into worse chaos. 

Emboldened by the administration’s inaction, the protesters occupied five buildings, including Hamilton Hall, the site of the current insanity. They even took the acting dean hostage in his office. The correct response would have been to evict these squatters within hours. Instead, the occupiers enjoyed their newfound domain for a week straight.

Columbia Hamilton Hall takeover, 1968

As surely as day turns to night, the administration’s continued weakness resulted in the need for a far stronger use of force. Campus leaders finally asked the police to restore order, which they promptly did. In the early hours of a Tuesday morning, they took back the buildings, arresting nearly 700 protesters, about 300 of whom were injured. Fifty-six years later, on a Wednesday morning, the police arrested more than 100 protesters, with reports of violent scenes in the hallways of an Ivy League institution.

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Why did history rhyme? Because Columbia’s leaders sang from the same failed songbook. 

They valued pandering to a small number of radicals over educating the larger majority of tuition-paying students. They drew red lines, then dithered when protesters crossed them. 

An anti-Israel demonstrator holds a flag on the rooftop of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University

Worst of all, they failed to prepare their own students with a proper understanding of both civic rights and duties – especially the duty to respect the rights of others, not least the fellow students and faculty who’ve suffered from the disruption of learning. Freedom of speech comes with a moral responsibility to listen when others talk.

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In the wake of the ’68 protests, many alumni, parents and policymakers assumed it would never happen again. Clearly, we were wrong, and trust in Columbia has rightly plummeted to the verge of extinction. 

The school’s leadership – if not the president, then the board of trustees – must make a last-ditch attempt to reorient the school back to true education. As the latest protests make clear on campuses nationwide, students must be taught to disagree without being disagreeable, to argue vigorously but not violently. 

Police evict Columbia students

Now more than ever, higher education needs a culture of free speech and open discourse, not cancellation and indoctrination under the guise of diversity, equity, social justice or some other ideological cudgel.

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But the greatest educational need at Columbia doesn’t involve the students at all. The school’s leadership has failed its most basic test – that of learning the lessons of experience and avoiding the mistakes that have now devastated the school twice in little more than a half century. 

If they don’t study their past and present failures, history will surely rhyme for the third time, sounding the end of one of America’s most prestigious institutions.

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