Thirty-five years ago radical student activists, capitalizing on the anti-war movement and local issues, seized an administration building at Columbia University. The take-over of Hamilton Hall and other buildings lasted 8 days before the police broke it up. Unfortunately, the damage had been done to Columbia's reputation, and the administration, fearing future violence, began to slowly accede to the SDS radicals. Despite the presence of the Majority Coalition opposing the radicals, the faculty essentially capitulated during the takeover, when over 100 signed a resolution supporting the strike and takeover. The 1968 radicals did not try to destroy Columbia University; they co-opted it. The CIA, ROTC, and military were kicked off campus and military contracts ended. Columbia became Berkeley east for the next 8 years. Politics trumped academics in a whole range of departments. Consequently, Columbia's prestige deteriorated, alumni contributions slowed to a trickled, and the number of applicants fell. It was not until the 1990s that Columbia recovered.
The current failure of the radical left to create a militant atmosphere conducive to violence has not occurred because they reject 1968. Both the current leftist activists and the Columbia administration are nostalgic about 1968. At least one faculty member, Professor Lewis Cole, was active in the illegal actions of 1968. The lack of rioting is primarily due to a change in student opinions, and the work of patriotic groups on campus.
While the professors at Columbia have become more radical in the last two generations, the students have turned away from extremism. Young people, as a whole, are more conservative today than they have been in generations. There is no draft today and relatively few American soldiers have died in combat. On the other hand, the memory of September 11th runs deep on campus. These students saw smoke for days from many dorms, and shuddered as the sickening smell floated up over the one hundred blocks separating us from the funeral pyre of the World Trade Center. According to a poll by the anti-war Columbia Daily Spectator, students are split within the margin of error between pro and anti-war opinions. Last week, Columbia College students passed a non-binding resolution to end restrictions on the ROTC by a nearly a 2 to 1 margin.
None of this would have occurred without the efforts of three students' organizations, the Columbia University College Republicans, the Columbia College Conservative Club, and Students United for America. Of these Students United for America has had the most influence among the students with its efforts to support the troops and to bring back the ROTC. One need only look at the initial response of the university to see what could have happened. Within days of the attack, Barnard College administrators put up pro-peace signs around their campus. Meanwhile, staff tore down posters from the Conservative Club calling for a military response. Perhaps, more understandably, the university went out of its way to reassure foreign students and students of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. The campus left immediately opposed any military response and tightening of security, the College Democrats were silent and other groups divided. While the Conservatives and Republicans were active, no one spoke to or for the patriotic liberals.
Two-weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, a dozen students, representing dissident Democrats and libertarians as well as newly politicized moderates and galvanized conservatives, quietly appropriated a lounge in the student center. Drawn together by a series of e-mails and a few short-lived posters, Students United for Victory was born as a non-partisan, patriotic organization. The sentiment behind SU4V was best summed up by its president, Jennifer Thorp, when she described her goal for SU4V; “Letting the nation and the world know that we support our nation, and are proud to be Americans, and that the radical voice is not by any means representative of the true campus voice.”
I wish I could report that the affair went smoothly, but it did not. At first, none of the student councils wanted to recognize Students United for Victory, claiming that the group was too focused on one “temporary issue” or through attempts to postpone recognition until the Spring semester. Finally, after heated debate, the Student Governing Board agreed to bring the question of recognition to the general meeting, even though the executive board refused to endorse the group. The Fall Semester meeting of the SGB, the umbrella group for religious social and political clubs, was contentious. While People for Peace, which had been operating as a project of the leftist groups from mid-September, was no less focused on a single issue than SU4V, it was recognized without real debate. Despite overwhelming support for the peaceniks, many groups voiced opposition to Students United for Victory on the grounds that it was a single issue and temporary club. Still, Students United for Victory was recognized by handful of votes, with many groups abstaining.
Undeterred by this inauspicious beginning, Students United for Victory immediately began a to counter flyer the left. For the Democrats running the club, this led to some unnerving incidents where radicals called them everything from jingoists to reactionaries to fascists. The campus radicals even responded by taking a page out of 1984 and misappropriating George Orwell. Of course, the various anarchists and socialists who did this may have been ignorant that Orwell called their predecessors in World War II, "objectively pro-fascist." Within weeks of being recognized, and despite limited funding and vociferous and opposition, which included physical threats, SU4V extended its activities to include a "Rally for America" held in Washington Square Park, the home of numerous anti-war rallies in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile the group sponsored programs to write servicemen abroad and to send them tokens of our affection and esteem.
The following semester, Students United for Victory not only continued these patriotic activities but also began a campaign to bring back the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and allow military recruiters on campus. Despite the presence of dozens of students enrolled in ROTC, the university did not sanction them. The university was willing to accept tuition payments from the military, but refused to give students credits for the ROTC classes, much less allow them to be held on campus. Students are forced to commute to Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx for their ROTC classes, in addition to their full academic schedule at Columbia. Working with other groups on campus, SU4V reached out to alumni in order to pressure the university. Last April, along with the College Republicans, and Conservatives, SU4V held a forum on returning the ROTC. Furthermore, they introduced a new subsidiary group, US Military Veterans of Columbia, to support veterans and reservists at Columbia. Perhaps deterred by the sight of Alumni veterans speaking in front of a large audience, or by the possibility of loosing funding under the Solomon Amendment, the law school reversed course and allowed military recruiting. Still, the university has put up many impediments to reinstating the ROTC. Despite the recent student vote supporting the ROTC, President Bollinger has refused to endorse the ROTC or bring the matter before the University Senate. The primary arguments against the ROTC are that the university would be endorsing or participating in the anti-homosexual policies of the military and the specious claim that the military would be able to dictate academic policies.
This latest academic year, the newly renamed Students United for America (SU4A) began with a discussion of the future of the World Trade Center site held with Imagine NY, and with events commemorating the events of the previous September. Later in the semester, SU4A held a forum with Muslims Against Terrorism to explain the war on terrorism and to counter the propaganda by the campus Muslim Students Association and other groups other terror-apologists hiding behind false claims of anti-Muslim bigotry. SU4A brought the debate about Iraq to the College Democrats, showing the university that liberating Iraq was not a partisan issue. The biggest event so far was the co-sponsorship, along with the College Republicans and Conservatives, of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism's (http://www.avot.org/) first forum in its college tour. This event, whose speakers included Bill Bennet, James Woolsey, L. Paul Breimer, and Frank Gaffney, drew 600 attendees and hundreds more were unable to get in. There were only 100 protestors and those, who entered the event and asked questions, found no support for their positions.
The period leading up to and including the latest war against Iraq have been especially busy. As the war began over Spring Break, it was inevitable that there would be much acrimony upon the return of students. The radicals on campus, who were mysteriously able (against standard regulations) to make reservations over the vacation, got off with two events on the Wednesday after they returned. Fortunately, neither went off as the leftists expected. The afternoon of the 26th, the leftists held an anti-war demonstration bringing 400 students not all of whom were Columbia students. The night before, an unadvertised counter-protest was set up. The anti-anti-war protestors, many of whom only found out about the event when they checked their e-mail that morning, numbered approximately 100.
In the evening of the March 26th, 30 professors participated in the now infamous "Teach-in" where Assistant Professor De Genova called for a "million Mogadishus" to applause by the audience. The following afternoon, administrators folded under pressure from a mere 50 protestors, after a professor threatened a repeat of 1968. These student radicals, egged on by faculty and staff were able to meet with key administrators. After falsely claiming to represent the majority opinion, the radicals demanded that Columbia University make an anti-war statement, refuse to co-operate with efforts to ensure national security by following up on foreign students, and to divest from all companies making money off the war. Since then, the student radicals and their fifth column in the faculty and administration have been calling for an end to all military contracts at Columbia. Given the administrations lack of will in refusing the demands of the radicals, it is fortunate that approximately 400 students rallied in support of the troops and in opposition to the anti-war faculty.
With the resounding victory of a pro-ROTC referendum, April has been a resounding victory for the voices of reason at Columbia. Nevertheless, the battles on campus continue with weekly dueling events. In the larger picture, the University Senate has yet to even consider the return of the ROTC. As the faculty teach-in amply demonstrates, anti-war sentiment and even distaste for America is the orthodoxy among the faculty. It is entirely in character that the new Provost will be Alan Brinkley, a speaker at the anti-war teach in and a member of the committee, which chose politics over fact in giving the Bancroft Award to Michael Bellesiles. It is time that the patriotic liberals in the faculty have the courage and determination shown by the members of Students United for America in standing up to the radical students, faculty, and administrators. Finally it is time that all students and concerned alumni go beyond the ambitions of SU4A, and demand that the laudable goal of diversity at Columbia extend beyond race and into ideology. Students at Columbia and around the nation deserve no less.
Ron Lewenberg was the founding president of the Columbia College Conservative Club. He is currently a computer consultant in New York.