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What about Columbia?

It’s been a rough spring on the Morningside Heights campus, where I spent four years nearly a lifetime ago.

Sixty years ago I was fortunate and grateful to graduate from Columbia College, the Ivy League undergraduate school within Columbia University. I didn’t think much about it then, but as time has gone by I’ve come to appreciate the education — and the opportunity — to study and learn at Columbia, the recently much-disparaged institution.  I was an American  history major. My teachers were academic luminaries, giants in their fields, and  personal highlights included an ethics seminar with Ursula Neibuhr, co-taught with her  husband the famous theologian Reinhold Neibuhr;  modern drama with Eric Bentley; European history with Fritz Stern; 20th Century American history with Walter Metzger; diplomatic history with Henry Graff; and Slavery and the Civil War-era with the unforgettable James P. Shenton, who advised me: “You are more interested in history as it affects the present. You should be a journalist.”

And so I was, and so I still am. But there will be no Columbia commencement on Morningside this year. Due to security concerns related to pro-Palestinian protests, the university has canceled the event, or at least moved it 100 blocks north to what used to be known as Baker Field, now the Baker Athletic Facility. There the schools that comprise the university will hold smaller separate ceremonies. The Class of 2024, whose high school graduations were also canceled, due to the pandemic, will forever remember the college graduation that wasn’t.

But how different it was for my generation of Columbia grads in May and June of 1964.

Born in 1942, I was a war baby, part of the so-called “silent generation” that for the most part did not protest. In October 1963, I sat quietly listening to Madame Nhu, de facto First Lady of South Vietnam, in McMillin theatre, off College Walk. The 800-seat theater was packed, the audience attentive and polite. Outside, however, some 300 milled about, according to press reports, some chanting “No Nhu is good news,” and throwing eggs as she emerged. Across Broadway, I recall a handful of pickets carrying signs decrying “McNamara’s War.” The following spring,  a few students protested an awards  ceremony for N.R.O.T.C. seniors.  A few years later, Navy ROTC would be barred from campus recruiting. But most of us in the Class of 1964 were otherwise preoccupied. I was on Jester, the college humor magazine, which staged an “all purpose” protest at the sundial in the middle of campus.

"SHAME" "Stamp Out Flaming Ducks" Mock outrage at Columbia Jester's All-Purpose protest in 1964

From college I went to work as a journalist, first as Washington Bureau librarian for the old New York Herald Tribune, then as a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, where my first assignment was to “join” the antiwar movement. Another long story. Then came the major antiwar protest and sit-ins at Columbia in the spring of 1968, with  students occupying the university president’s office and other buildings, which ended violently.  The students were protesting university involvement in war-related contracts and a controversial gym that was to be built adjoining the campus on sloping Morningside Park, bordering on Harlem.

A year later, I attended an alumni event at Philadelphia’s Union League where the message was: The adults are back in charge, feel free to donate again.

In between, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and Chicago hosted the Democratic National Convention that nominated for president the once “happy warrior” Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. Outside the convention hall, antiwar protesters and Chicago police engaged in a bloody confrontation, in a “police riot,” many said, and demonstrators chanted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” The confrontation and chaos televised live to the nation fed into the Republican narrative that infused the racist campaign of third party candidate George Wallace and elected Richard Nixon, ushering in a generation of conservative reaction.

Which brings me, at long last, to this spring’s pro-Palestinian campus encampment, which ended only with mass arrests, and after the violent takeover of Hamilton Hall, where many of my best classes with my best professors were held.  The Columbia encampment was marred by incidents and accusations of antisemitism. Some Jews participated in the protest against the Israeli response in Gaza to the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and hostage-taking of Israelis. Other Jewish students said they felt unsafe.  Some have sought to minimize the verbal and physical attacks on Jewish students, even on those not counter-protesting but wearing Star of David necklaces or kippahs. I cannot.

In this fraught atmosphere, the campus was closed to outsiders.  Students were unable to attend in-person classes or enter Butler Library to study for finals.   Columbia’s main commencement was canceled! This, as my class approaches a 60th anniversary milestone reunion, itself uncertain, due to the school’s earlier decision to designate us (and the Class of 1969) as “Golden Lions,” unworthy of our own separate events accorded to subsequent five-year anniversary classes.

As I write this, I am struggling with my own mix of emotions. The country, much less the campus at Columbia and other schools from coast to coast,  is so polarized. I mourn the loss of life in both Israel and Gaza, and I fear for the future, in the Middle East and here in my own country. Generally, I try to keep these posts politics-free.  Still, there is a binary choice in this fall’s presidential election.  One does not have to take sides in the current conflict to recognize what Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote:

The former president seeking election promises to be far more anti-Palestinian, urging Israel to “finish the job” in Gaza, and promising to reimpose and even expand his travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries and to cut off aid to Palestinians. He’s the one who led the anti-Muslim “birther” campaign against Barack Obama, claimed thousands of Muslims cheered the 9/11 terrorist attack and told Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Somali American Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

At a Wisconsin rally, he attacked the “raging lunatics and Hamas sympathizers at Columbia and other colleges.” Milbank concludes: “Yet the pro-Palestinian activists, through their actions, would return the author of this ugliness to the White House.”  Echoes of 1968? It’s something to think about.


 A proud moment. Columbia commencement, June 1964.

Here I am with my parents and sister. Butler Library is in the background.


  1. Ken Rossignol on May 11, 2024 at 8:47 am

    Great work recalling real history. You might be one of the few still reading the once-great Washington Post.
    Biden buying votes of elitists by making middle-income Americans pay their student debt to attend your alma mater might be worthy of your attention. Who paid your college tuition and cost? My bet is you and your family did.
    Voting to toss the braindead bozo Biden, who is abandoning Israel, encouraging those who will wipe it from the face of the earth while completely wrecking America with a corruption-polluted family and his neo-Obama socialist death march, is not complicated for me.
    Your note about wanting to keep politics out of your writing shows me that you are forever practicing what you learned at Jester. Did you recall Biden being the editor of the publication while he was attending law school there?
    I only wish that you and your quality work ethic were still producing news and views that readers could rely on instead of the crap at the Post today.

  2. Patricia on May 11, 2024 at 9:34 am

    Gene, very thoughtful piece, thanks!

  3. Terri Shaw on May 11, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    HI Gene
    After you graduated from Columbia College I was at the Journalism School, class of 65, I think. After that I went to the AP New York bureau and covered the demonstrations at Columbia in 1968 including the morning when NYPD came in–some on horseback. That year the graduation was held at St. JOhn the Divine and I was kicked out because I was carrying a two way radio of some type at the request of my AP supervisors.
    And Ken, Columbia was very generous with financial aid for me and my daughter (Barnard). I am delighted that folks of modest means could attend and if my daughter’s $100,000 debt could be forgiven I would be grateful

  4. Michael Kraft on May 17, 2024 at 10:11 pm

    Good article, especially the last couple citing Milbank’s column. Having grown up in Detroit, I’m very concerned that the emotional reactions from the Arab-American population might give Trump Michgan’s key electoral votes.

    I helped cover the anti-Vietnam war protests in Washington for Reuters after I returned from London and thought that some of the anti-American government signs and chants by some of the protestors turned off a lot of “Middle America. I saw a recent poll indicating that a majority of Americans were turned off by some of the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli nature of some of the demonstrations, including the blocking of roads and access to airports.

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