How Columbia Law School Saved Itself From Student Protesters In The 1960s

How Columbia Law School Saved Itself From Student Protesters In The 1960s

Radical students were changing everything we loved about Columbia. But I discovered that a few can stand up to the many, and prevail.
Jan Buck

In the post-World War II era, Americans’ spirits were buoyed by some simple realities. The U.S. had emerged from the war as the most powerful country on earth. Good had triumphed over bad. Our industrial might was powerful and unchallenged.

The Ozzie and Harriet days quickly came to an end, however. Major social changes were in the air and colleges and universities were about to play a major role. In the late sixties, the intensity of protest against the war in southeast Asia grew rapidly. What at first seemed like a phenomenon of Berkeley radicals was about to surface on a host of other campuses.

In 1968, I saw Columbia erupt, and campus life all around the nation was about to be turned upside down. The Columbia kids realized that with universal military service required, it didn’t matter if you were a 4.0 class president from Scarsdale High School; you could end up on your back mortally injured on the floor of a jungle.

A new movement was underway. It longed for the moral clarity of the civil rights movement, but it had a more urgent, self-referential purpose. America had had a good ride, but its progeny was not prepared to die to preserve it. Violence erupted. And why not? It was a matter of life and death on a personal level. And these young people chose life. Wild, reckless life. It was revolution. Ironically, too, the participants called it a peace movement. And then there was Woodstock. Free drugs, free sex. Rather than die over there, they took risks at home.

The anti-war movement built momentum on campuses across the country—from Berkeley to Kent State to Columbia. Buildings and institutions were overrun by young men and women, fighting fearsomely as much for themselves as for others. They terrified the custodians of the traditional order. What were those trusted custodians going to do? Columbia replaced its president with a Labor Law professor from its law school. He surely would know how to deal with antagonists. And he did, at least in the way large organizations typically deal with antagonists. He gave up.

The summer of 1968 at Columbia was marked by its schools acceding to student (that is, activist student) demands to change the fundamental teachings and curricula to the most bizarre and irrelevant of pursuits ever conceived. It was a pattern of radicalization replicated in school after school across the country. The student revolutionaries had won. Good judgment and common sense? Toss them on the scrap heap of history. The kids were free. And they wanted it their way.

Faculty members loved this new freedom. They saw nothing wrong with it. After all, tenure kept them immune from the consequences of lunacy. Besides, it gave them license not to teach but to preach their deeply held views, drawn from their isolation from the real world—and to do so with the imprimatur of moral virtue and certitude. Whatever reservations they might have had, they mostly abandoned to the direction of the students. Because the kids were in power now.

In 1968, when I returned to school, Columbia had changed. The student revolutionaries had been busy all summer upending the university and radicalizing it. And not just the undergraduate college: the graduate and professional schools also suffered under the coordinated tyrannical occupation. All authority and moral adherence had been humbled. Whole new bodies of courses and curricula, more political than educational, had been imposed. New grievance processes had been instituted, and political propaganda advanced. The law school was not spared.

As you might expect, the reaction of law school students and faculty to what had happened over the summer of 1968 was shock. This is not what we had bargained for; this wasn’t the school we had applied to or were admitted to, everyone agreed. We had sought out a grim, hard-driving legal education to prepare us for demanding, successful careers—not a fantasy world of the radical chic. So, on a yellow legal pad, I wrote in the top margin (pens and paper were still used in those days) the above sentiments and followed with something like, “We demand that the school revert to the way it was before these changes were made.”

With that, I took my pad to the bottom of the escalator and stood there to collect signatures of students who agreed with the petition, its sentiments, and its demand. I did it all day, every day, for about a week. My course work suffered, but I felt this was of ultimate importance. Every day. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard someone saying, “Buzzy, you’re doing all the work. It’s time we helped out a little.” It was one of my dearest drinking buddies and classmates, George Pataki. He took the pad and my place at the bottom of the escalator. Then one after another of our Champions of Common Sense took similar petition pads and collected signatures. At the end of a couple weeks, we had amassed hundreds of signatures and those of nearly all our classmates.

The Dean of the Law School in those days was an elegant and brilliant man, William Warren, who had been a professor of tax law at the school. Our group marched our signed petition up to Dean Warren’s office on the top floor of the building and showed it to him. He was speechless. But I saw a gleam in his eye. “Thank you, boys,” he said. “Let me take it from here.”

The Dean later asked us to attend a meeting in his conference room the following week. The Dean escorted us to the conference room, which had a long, highly polished mahogany conference table. Along one side of the table sat the gathered leaders of the student revolution at the Law School. They were prominent students, mostly from the class ahead of us. The Dean sat us down with him on the side of the table opposite the rebels who had been dictating to him all summer.

The Dean explained what had just happened. He allowed us to say our piece. And then he explained that after consultation with the President of the University, the administration of Columbia Law would comply with the petition and return the school to the processes, procedures, offerings, and customs in place at the beginning of the previous school year.

The rebel side, as you might imagine, was furious. Red-faced, they hurled vulgar epithets at all of us, including the Dean. In response, the Dean calmly rose from his chair and said, softly but firmly, “Gentlemen, this case is closed.”

Thus it happened that the Law School was the school at Columbia University that did not suffer the ravages thrust on the rest of Columbia University by its “Days of Rage.”

The infestation spawned by the student tantrums of the late sixties persisted, and the pathology intensified. As we all know, American colleges have fallen in line with this emasculation of the human spirit. It all started when those entrusted with the duty of preservation were intimidated and just gave up.

It would help the world considerably if we all remained mindful of Edmund Burke’s thoughtful admonition, “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” And, having understood that, we ought to take heart, take courage, and recognize that sometimes—as we discovered at Columbia Law School in 1968—a few can stand up to the many and prevail.

Jan Buck is President of Princeton Group International, a strategic consulting organization for the biomedical industry.

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