May of 1968 would prove to be the beginnings of a bitter spring for Columbia University's administration. The latent undercurrents of the political climate both at home and abroad— daily reflected in reported numbers dead in Vietnam, charges of police brutality, racial tensions, and traction gained by radical politics—would soon converge and dominate the fabric of Columbia University's reality. .
A Broad Overview of the 1960s Political Landscape
Bookended by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (1963) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1968), the 1960s experienced a series of violent upheavals that bore to the surface the severe race and class tensions that the United States was experiencing at a national level. The assassination of Malcolm X (February 1965), the Watts Rebellion (August, 1965), and the Summer of 1967 were seminal events (amongst many others) that exemplified the complicated inequalities and inequities existing between the lines of the Golden Age of Capitalism in the United States.
While national tensions surged, the deeply unpopular war in Vietnam wedded an overarching Third Worldism movement with emergent radical politics that gave rise to groups including the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, Brown Berets, and labor movements such as DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement). These movements dovetailed with highly active anti-war and the rise of the Free-Speech Movement coming out of Berkeley to combine the predominately white student youth movement with the vanguard of those inter/national organizations mentioned above.
While this combination of power movements was by no means monolithic, or always evenly distributed across resources, support, and representation, the resulting alliances—such as The Rainbow Coalition—proved to substantially influence the course of politics in the United States at both national and local levels.
These movements were additionally supported by a web of underground press, newspapers, mimeographs, broadsides and pamphlets that criss-crossed the circuit of universities and factories at prodigious levels well into the 1970s. The underground press kept fellow-travelers connected and informed of movements across the United States, as well as at an international level.
Controversy at Columbia University: 'Gym' Crow and IDA
Perched upon the hill of Harlem/Morningside Heights, Columbia University did not stand immune to the tectonic shifts of its own student youth movements. Two significant grievances provided the foco for actions that took place throughout May. On one hand, students and faculty were troubled by the proposed construction of a new Gymnasium that would segregate entrances for Harlem community via the basement, and limiting access overall to the facilities—and serving Columbia University patrons to the explicit exclusion of Columbia’s graduate and professional schools, Barnard College, or Teacher’s College. The planning and implementation of the gym exacerbated racial tensions that had long simmered between the residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights and the University and effectively merged the Students for a Democratic Society (Columbia University) with elements of Student Afro-American Society (SAS).
Students were also increasingly critical of the university's association with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). As an "an independent organization founded in 1956 to conduct weapons evaluation and other research for the Department of Defense "the IDA addresses national security issues that require technical or scientific expertise'. The level of involvement that IDA and Columbia University has always been highly contested and dependent on which side the argument was coming from—conservative elements tended to negate the involvement, while more radical elements tended to maximize it. In The Battle for Morningside Heights: Why Students Rebel, Roger Kahn demonstrates that the level of involvement is more contingent on which side of the line in the sand you occupy as opposed to the numbers in the ledger.
These two major grievances, along with a continued presence of the ROTC program, CIA recruiters, and the crackdown on non-violent protest on campus all lead to a rash of violent clashes with police, attempted kidnappings, occupations, teach-ins, and student/faculty strikes.
There was a heavy NYPD police presence that garnered national attention due to the particular brutality that took place, but the events of May also found support from major counter-culture icons including the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Paul Krassner.
The archive of Columbia University's paper, The Spectator, documents the events that surrounded the events of May 1968, starting with their May 1st issue.
Teachers College: Staying the Course
Teachers College participated both in strikes and counter strikes, calling for teach-ins, and faculty-wide discussions regarding the state of Teachers College. Many of Teachers College most illustrious faculty participated including Maxine Greene (below) and Margaret Mead.
The effects and fall-out where felt well into the spring of 1969. In the interim period following May of 1968, the Student Senate seemed to take a page straight from the San Francisco Mime Troupe handbook, publishing PROBE, an irreverent, humorous, and sardonic publication that addressed a range of faculty blunders, political missteps and updates on such domestic and international topics as police brutality and the war in Vietnam.
In the following edition, various administrative criticisms are addressed, two poem/posters from the Harvard Strike, the phone numbers of Radical and Peace Movements—including the TC Student Senate—are highlighted and the Second Annual Horace Mann Educational Establishment Awards are given out including such honors as "The Ebenezeer Scrooge Extortion Scroll", "The Bourgeoisie Scholar Medallion", amongst many other facetious tributes (see below).
At the Convocation Address of June 1969, Craig Mosher, president of the Student Senate of Teachers College, wasted no time in unpacking the overall state of Teachers College a year later:
"In the Student Senate this year many people have tried hard to change TC. We've sat through countless and sometimes endless committee meetings—having finally been allowed to attend them, thanks to last spring's rebellion...[b]ut this has only been small-scale tinkering with the machinery. Basically, the way in which we teach and learn has not changed".
Throughout his speech, Mr. Mosher takes an emboldened stance, naming names, taking to task issues of curriculum, offering portents and omens, and generally harnessing the timbre of the times. The first half of his speech may be read below.
While the specific demands generated by the students, faculty and staff of Teachers College do not seem quite as apparent as those of Columbia University—which were reported at the national level, via the press, books, and exhibitions—as researchers we can utilize portions of the archive available to piece together the grievances.
We can see the large inter/national issues of the day that sponsored national organizations and movements slowly drill down to very specific, almost individual, demands by the time the May of '68 strike reaches across 120th street. While the SDS/SAS were clashing with police forces across the street, Teachers College students and faculty were arguing for better curriculums, return to hands on learning, flexibility in attendance, bold measures of innovation and some sense of value for the individual over the machinations of the administration.
Below are additional photographs from our own Public Relations Files on the flurry of May, Craig Mosher's Convocation Speech, additional pages of the first issue of PROBE, as well as resources available to students for further reading available via Gottesman Library resources
Maxine Greene at Horace Mann Teach-In. Open Meeting Faculty and Staff
Craig Mosher's Convocation Speech
Links in post
from A Broad Overview of the 1960s Political Landscape
from Controversy at Columbia University
Teachers College: Staying the Course