The generation that drove the Columbia riots of 1968 made a rousing return to campus Friday afternoon to mark the 40th anniversary of the creation of the University Senate.
Current and graduated students, former and incumbent senators, and participants in the ’68 protests joined in on a full-day program hosted by the Senate and the Office of the Provost. While some said that the Senate—which was born out of the riots—has lived up to the legacy of 1968, others commented that members have lost a sense of urgency.
At the event, attendees viewed a three-hour screening of filmmaker and Columbia Journalism School student Paul Cronin’s documentary detailing the occupation of five campus buildings by student protesters in 1968. An afternoon panel about the University’s internal restructuring followed the screening, which included the inauguration of the Senate in May 1969.
Panelists included former University President Michael Sovern, CC ’53—whose administration first proposed the Senate—and former provost William Theodore de Bary, CC ’41 and first chairman of the Executive Committee. Also present were figures instrumental in the Senate’s creation, including Harold Wechsler, CC ’67, Neal Hurwitz, CC ’66 and GSAS ’77, and Mark Weiss, GSAS ’68.
Panelist and chemistry professor Ronald Breslow was among the first faculty senators elected in 1969. “Sometimes in the worst of times, good things are done which turn out to be worthwhile. I think that [the Senate] was one of them,” Breslow said, referring to the Senate’s creation in the wake of the riots.
“I applaud the University Senate,” said Stefan Bradley, a professor of history at Saint Louis University and author of “Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s.” “It’s one thing to shout with a bullhorn and to take over buildings, but it’s another thing to sit down and do the very boring work of providing a structure and trying to do things and go through the political process. They needed this jolt to make the University Senate possible.”
Though audience and panelist conversations focused largely on the birth of the Senate, panelist Hurwitz questioned the composition of the Senate today. As co-leader of Students for a Restructured University in the ’60s, he remarked, “The SRU never, ever wanted a Senate with 62 faculty, 24 students, six research folks, two administrative staff. … The bottom line was, I think the proposal was that we have equal power.”
Moderator and current Senate manager Tom Mathewson said in an email that he did not believe the current Senate has kept up with the legacy of the 1968 Senate. “I think the accomplishments of the first few years of the Senate reflect that sense of a legislative mission,” he wrote. “Inevitably, perhaps, the urgency faded as the university’s affairs returned to normal. Forty-one years out, the Senate certainly has work to do, but it sometimes feels a little like a cargo cult, with an array of powerful but underused legislative customs and procedures, waiting for a cataclysm that may never return.”
But University senator and Middle East, South Asian, and African studies professor Frances Pritchett said that while the Senate may lack certain powers, it continues to play an important function on campus: “It doesn’t have a budget and can’t do certain power politics, but is important in terms of moral authority and policy-setting for the whole University.”
She also believes that the Senate is the only place for some issues to be aired, recalling the Senate’s role in the anti-apartheid divestment campaign in 1978 and University relations with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which is banned on campus.
Some Senate members said the event made them nostalgic for the early days of the organization, despite the turbulent history that surrounds it.
“Collectively they really conveyed the sense of urgency—shared by all the groups involved at the time—of the project of saving the university by rebuilding university governance after the turmoil of April 1968,” Mathewson wrote.
William Phipps, Senate manager from 1982-1996, wrote in an email that the event was “stirring.” Phipps also said he considered today’s systems of University governance somewhat flawed. “Friday made me wish that all the energy and brains that went into establishing these governance bodies at colleges all over the country … had been sustained and renewed every year since.
“It also made me nostalgic for the days when students were trying not only to stand up for their own interests, but were more politically involved and passionate about finding the right human ideals that are worth living for and fighting for,” Phipps said.