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The Uprisings at Columbia University, Then and Now

In the 1970s, by the time I was studying at Columbia University in New York, the crisis of 1968, marked by student unrest against the Vietnam War and racism, had begun to fade. It hadn’t been forgotten, though. Violent protests, student arrests, and even the occupation of the university president’s office by students left a mark for years.

Even now, Columbia remains a symbol of student protests in the U.S. Other universities take their cue from it.

Back then, later in the ’70s, we had satisfied our youthful revolutionary instincts and were focused on our studies and careers. We had settled down.

Today, half a century later, Columbia students have once again rebelled against the system in general and the university in particular, for a cause few would have expected: the Palestinian issue, given the large number of American Jewish students there.

It’s almost certain that, just as demonstrators then changed the course of the Vietnam War, they will now change the course of the Palestinians’ struggle for recognition of their own state.
So, the Columbia administration, after initially showing patience, tolerance, and negotiating with the occupation of the historic space on the main campus in front of the famous Low Memorial Library, eventually called the New York Police to clear the area. More than 100 students were arrested.

However, the protesters didn’t give up. They continued occupying the space, camping there, refusing to leave unless the university met their demands – a series of measures.

A couple of days ago, under immense public and political pressure, the university administration sent ultimatums to the occupiers, warning them of the consequences under university rules and the law if they didn’t vacate the space.

The students did as expected. Instead of leaving the courtyard, they occupied Hamilton Hall, a historic building that has been occupied before, starting in 1968.

Whether the decisions of the university authorities are right or not, especially the one to call the police, is something that will be debated for years.

However, it’s important to remember that the protests are peaceful – so far. This is a crucial point. Otherwise, the university authorities would indeed be obligated to call the police to protect the safety of the students and the university property.

I believe the authorities rushed to show power, authority, and determination, without considering a fundamental purpose of educational institutions: that dialogue, freedom of speech, and dissent are part of the educational experience and knowledge acquisition. And that if a student, especially a student of a top university, lacks sensitivity and doesn’t engage with the major issues of the day in their own innocent way, in the long run, not only do they and the university lose, but so does the society they will one day be called to lead.


This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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