As the Columbia University School of General Studies celebrates its 70th anniversary, the "GS at 70" series highlights critical moments in the creation and growth of the School.
by Robert Ast '08
To be a student on a college campus in 1968 and consider oneself an agent of history was, if grandiose, not necessarily incorrect.
In 1960 college students in Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville organized and carried out influential lunch-counter sit-ins protesting segregation, which led to a new era of student activism through organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known for its members’ roles as Freedom Riders and its voter registration initiatives. The Civil Rights Movement became the wellspring from which other activist movements focused on equality—the feminist, gay liberation, and Chicano movements, among others—drew encouragement and strategic inspiration while making significant strides throughout the decade.
The politicized campus was not only an American phenomenon, with students in many countries—including West Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and France—all mounting major demonstrations in 1968. Protests tended to feature a mix of local concerns and larger ideological issues, but often centered on the Vietnam War. For many young American men, who could obtain a draft deferment while enrolled in college, the war and the campus became intertwined.
“Everybody started reading, when they were about 17 years old, what your options were to avoid the draft,” said Paul Teitelbaum ’17GS, who was a Columbia College freshman in 1968. “‘Do I go to Canada?’ ‘Do I burn my draft card?’ Everybody was aware of these things and paid very serious attention.”
The Columbia student uprising in 1968 began with a rally protesting the University’s effort to build a gym on public land in Morningside Park and its ties to military research, which then spiraled into the occupation of several buildings on campus, beginning with Hamilton Hall and Low Library. As normal operations were suspended and additional buildings “liberated,” the campus became a destination for individuals who wanted to show support, join the occupation, or just check out the scene. An attempt was made to occupy Lewisohn Hall, but students, faculty, and administrators from the School of General Studies intervened and set up a 24-hour guard on the building.
“The Columbia strike got bigger every day, and it welcomed people from outside the University,” Teitelbaum said, recalling the occupation of Low. “I sat in the President’s office—anybody who walked in the window was good. That’s why it was so dangerous, and that’s why [the administration] hesitated so long before they moved on it.”
While a diversity of opinion could be found on the uprising, the GS community was unanimous on another issue of the day: allowing the school to grant the Bachelor of Arts degree. For reasons that had long since become obscure, GS students received a Bachelor of Science degree for every course of study, even fields in the humanities. Students and some faculty saw this as one of many problems in administrative logic that needed to be addressed during this eventful year in Columbia’s history.
On April 30, 1968, the NYPD stormed and cleared Low Library and Hamilton Hall, resulting in more than 700 arrests and roughly 150 injuries. In response to the uprising, Columbia implemented a number of changes, such as the formation of the University Senate, to give both students and faculty greater participation in the governance of the University.
One such example of this greater involvement came in support of allowing GS to grant the Bachelor of Arts degree. A multifaceted campaign involving GS students, faculty, alumni, and constituents from other schools—including the Columbia Spectator editorial board, which endorsed the GS B.A. by citing Confucius: “In education there are no class distinctions”—brought the matter to the central administration, and in December 1968 the University Council granted GS the right to award the B.A.: a significant step toward equality that continues to have an impact today.
From June 1-4, 2017, GS alumni, students, and staff celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the School of General Studies. To view event photos, please visit the Columbia University School of General Studies Alumni Facebook Page.