Protest in Blue

Protest in Blue

Activism, Days on Campus, and Controlling Columbia's Image

Published on April 4, 2017

t snowed the first 10 days of April, 1996. Marcel Agüeros, who graduated from Columbia College that year, is sure of it. It was his birthday week, which he spent camped out in a big blue COÖP tent placed on the wilting grass just south of the Sundial. He was joined by three others—Heather Starr, alumna of Barnard College class of 1997, Michael Maldonado, who graduated from Columbia College class in 1996, and Joaquin Ochoa, a first-year in Teachers College at the time. They, along with fellow activists, had spent the prior two years working to convince the University to create an ethnic studies department. On April 1, they began a hunger strike in a last-ditch effort.

Agüeros drank two gallons of water a day, which he sometimes mixed with protein powder. After a few days, Starr dropped out of the strike as a result of severe dehydration. The University’s strategy was simple: Wait out the hungry and cold 20-something-year-olds until they could physically no longer bear the task they had set in motion.

The strike went on for 10 days outside. Eventually, the protest moved inside to Low Library where, after being turned down from meeting with then-University President George Rupp, over 150 students sat in overnight. And on that 10th morning, the New York Police Department raided the building and arrested 23 students.

After having spent the night in Low, Daniel Alarcón, who graduated from Columbia College in 1999, was standing that morning on the Steps. While holding the microphone for the head of the Black Students Organization, Alarcón felt a plop on his head. Alarcón, now a professor of broadcast journalism in the Journalism School, tells me this story in his Pulitzer Hall office, running his fingers through his thick black curls, explaining that his hair was like it is now, maybe a little bit longer.

“This bird had shat on my head,” Alarcón says.

Alarcón ran to his dorm to shower. When he returned, the students had been arrested. If not for the bird, he would have been one of them. This slimey twist of fate allowed Alarcón to facilitate media coverage of the arrests.

The University has not arrested students at a protest since.

Twenty years later, it isn’t snowing any more during the first few weeks of April. It’s Days on Campus—my Days on Campus. It’s so nice out, in fact, that my parents have to remind me that my college choice cannot be predicated on weather. I wander around campus, bearing an itchy white lanyard, a neon pink disposable wristband, and a decision that feels like the biggest and scariest I will ever make.

The nervous chatter and information sessions, students’ voices and honking horns, and blue and white balloons—so many balloons—merge into a steady Pantone 290-hued hum.

And as I take my obligatory picture in front of Low, my backdrop is the iconic marble steps. But this time Low Plaza is plastered with posters calling for the University to divest from fossil fuels. They drape the entrance to a building that is occupied—students from Columbia Divest for Climate Justice are sitting in.

My Days on Campus experience is not unique; Low Steps have been home to an abundance of student protests throughout the 20th and 21st century. I shared the Steps with a legacy of activism that has come to define Columbia—activism that has, over time, begun to seize that month when students are deciding where they want to go to college.


Depending on who you ask, the 1968 protests at Columbia are either a thorn in the side of the University’s history or a gleaming beam of progress and hope.

“We have exercised great restraint in the use of police and security forces, at almost all costs, we wish to avoid physical confrontation.”

—John Hasting, Director of the Office of Public Information at Columbia

Forty-nine years ago, activists fought against Columbia’s ties to the Vietnam War, its affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the proposed construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park with segregated entrances for residents of Harlem. The protest began with a rally at the Sundial on Tuesday, April 23, which was followed by a sit-in in Hamilton Hall. The next day, white students were asked to leave by black students in Hamilton Hall. Those white students then broke into Low Library and began an occupation of University President Grayson Kirk’s office. Later that day, architecture graduate students begin a sit-in in Avery Hall.

On April 25, Director of the Office of Public Information at Columbia, John Hasting, wrote a public statement, expressing the administration’s condemnation of the means of protest and emphasizing the University’s dedication to avoid using the police to curb the protests.
“We have exercised great restraint in the use of police and security forces, at almost all costs, we wish to avoid physical confrontation,” he writes. “The students have had ample opportunity to leave the building and to engage in lawful protest if they so desired.”

The Columbia Student Strike Coordinating Committee, a group organized in Hamilton during the occupation, together crafted specific demands to send to members of the administration the following day. “The only possibility of violence is from the police at the instigation of the administration,” they asserted. They also warned of violent counter actions taken by the right, the less progressives.

It seems, from the University’s public statements from the beginning of the protest, that the administration was committed to conveying to the public its dedication to avoiding use of the police. That is, until five days later, when the activist-administration relations took a turn for the worse.

On April 30, the NYPD broke into Hamilton Hall and Low Library and arrested 712 protesters. 112 students were injured by the raid. On May 22, another 177 were arrested.

Needless to say, classes were canceled for the rest of the semester.

The University faced severe backlash for its response to the protest. Most students walked out of graduation, the University Senate was established to give more voice to students as a result, and Kirk announced his retirement as president of the University. In addition, prospective students took notice: Applications to the school went down following the protests. According to its website, Columbia describes this period as a “downturn of the University’s finances and morale.”

Robert McCaughey and I meet in his Barnard office on Ash Wednesday, his forehead bearing a faded black cross. McCaughey has been a professor of American studies at Barnard College since 1969, during which his research has focused on Columbia. According to him, Columbia’s marketing team put forth a concentrated effort, after 1968, to try to fix the school’s image. He says the University worked to emphasize to the public that “it was a moment in Columbia’s history, rather than that was a part of the fabric of the institution.” They needed to prove that the adults ran the school—not the students.

The early 1970s saw a comprehensive change in administrative leadership and, moreover, administrative culture that would continue through the mid 1990s, starting with the hiring of William James McGill as the University’s 16th President. He was carefully hand-picked, according to McCaughey, having had experience dealing with protesters from his last tenure as Chancellor of University California, San Diego. The board of trustees had a clear goal: It needed someone who was going to maintain order.

“He [McGill] thought he was pretty good at doing it,” McCaughey says. “And the trustees who put him in the job didn’t think he was going to be serving as a kind of country minister parson or something.”

McGill was followed by Michael Sovern in 1980, of whom the New York Times writes in 1988: “If any one person is responsible for Columbia’s recovery, it is surely Michael Sovern, the former law school dean and provost.” Before he became the Law School dean in 1970, Sovern—who was a law professor at the time—was appointed to lead a 10-member faculty committee burdened with the task of “restructuring” Columbia after the protests of ’68.


There’s something about the month of April that brings Columbia students to Low for protest: in 1932, protests over the expulsion of Spectator Editor-in-Chief Reed Harris, in 1968, anti-Vietnam and gym construction protests, in 1985, anti-South African apartheid protests, in 1996, the ethnic studies protests, in 2014 and 2015, the No Red Tape protests, and, most recently, in 2016, the Columbia Divest for Climate Justice sit-in.

Maybe it’s the way the murky fog of midterms has lifted to reveal the sweet smell of summer, or that depleted students return from spring break with many more hours of sleep under their belt, or maybe it’s simply a peculiar coincidence. Either way, it’s quite the spring cleaning effort.

April is also the time when Columbia’s image is most fragile, because despite the fact that some protests were planned because of it, and others in spite of it, April is Days on Campus time. Hordes of prospective students flock to campus hoping to find their heart’s desire. It means that for a weekend, students can take control of Columbia’s image and use it to their advantage.

On April 22, 1987, under Sovern, 50 people were arrested while demonstrating against racism on campus. The morning before, around 20 activists from the Concerned Black Students of Columbia, or the CBSC, a group that formed in response to a racially motivated fight between black and white students in Ferris Booth Commons the month before, chained themselves to the Hamilton Hall entrances. They did not move for 11 hours. By noon, Hamilton was surrounded by over 100 demonstrators.

This blockade occurred during Days on Campus, though the weekend was not yet called this. And while some students felt it was “inconsiderate and wrong” that activists chose that day, according to a Spectator article, many prospective students were inspired and excited by the protest. “Visiting students who lingered at the fringe of the crowd yesterday afternoon seemed intrigued by the events,” the Spectator article says.

“I like it, actually,” one perspective student told Spectator. “It displays a little bit of fervor.” A prospective student tour guide added: “We’re getting a pretty good turnout. No one’s turned off by it [the blockade.]”  

Sovern eventually stepped down as University President in June 1993 after facing severe criticism for mishandling the University’s financial problems. He was replaced by George Rupp in 1993. But a new president did not mean that protests would die down.

Discussions between students and the administration about the creation of an ethnic studies program had been going on for decades, and in April 1996, the debate reached its height. The hunger strike was one of many actions taken over the course of two years. Agüeros and fellow activists had already led workshops and teach-ins, had “ongoing discussions with the University,” and held other protests.

“We had to act now or forever hold our peace,” Agüeros explains.

Agüeros, now a professor of astronomy at Columbia, was a senior at the time. We sit in his office, a high enough floor in Pupin Hall that the city below becomes a colorful jagged plane swallowing a glistening Hudson.

“If you’re going to go on a hunger strike, you have to be pretty desperate,” Agüeros laughs. “You don’t want to do lightly.”

The strike began on Monday, April 1—an unfortunate coincidence, according to Agüeros. They spent 10 days outside followed by doctors from Columbia’s Health Services. They were, Agüeros says, “sustained largely by the support of people around [them].” On April 10, they went to Low Library to meet with Rupp. After he refused to meet with them, 150 students gathered a sit-in, which was followed by the arrests of 23 students the morning after.

“Any big institution is bound by the laws of inertia and tends to stay at rest unless something moves it.”

—Daniel Alarcón, who graduated from Columbia College in 1999

Alarcón, a Columbia College first-year at the time, was part of the media side of the protest. According to him, pressuring the University to the point of calling the police was all a part of the activists’ plan. “We put them in a situation where they had to arrest people, which is exactly what we wanted because that put us in the newspaper and that increased the pressure on them,” Alarcón says.

But Alarcón explains that, as he grows older, he feels more sympathy for the administrative side of things and that the administration operates under restricted areas of movement if it wants to be efficient and effective at running a university. However, he admits, he does not think this means he and fellow activists were doing anything wrong in protesting the University.

“Any big institution is bound by the laws of inertia and tends to stay at rest unless something moves it,” Alarcón says.

The hunger strike did not gain attention until the arrests were made, under the authorization request of Rupp—22 charged with trespassing, and one charged with disorderly conduct. The University faced intense backlash.

“If there’s one thing that institutions don’t like, it’s bad media, and so that really changed the dynamic around the strike,” Agüeros asserts. But based on the intense backlash the University faced, Agüeros concludes: “It was a completely stupid thing to do [call the police], and I don’t think they would do that again.”

The protests ended through a negotiated agreement, prompting the University to form the Blue Ribbon committee, which examined how to implement ethnicity studies at Columbia. These efforts ultimately led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

The 1996 hunger strike also coincided with Days on Campus, though this was not planned. A Spectator article from April 16, 1996 describes the reactions of prospective students to the  protests, which mirrored those from 1987. Admissions officer Mary Beth O’Donnel tells Spectator that “Many of the kids chose Columbia because of its activism, so people are not shocked.” One student told Spectator the protest gave the school personality for her.

Students who were part of the protests, however, received a letter of censure that inhibited activist culture at Columbia for the following two years. While not detrimental to seniors, this meant that younger students effectively lost the ability to protest the University.

Everyone who would have been the natural next generation of leaders had the censure letter,” Alarcón recounts, “and didn’t want to risk their graduation, their financial aid, their status in the University.”

The impact, however, was not permanent.

Whether intentional or not, these Days on Campus protests of the past started a trend that student activists have capitalized on today. The last three years of Days on Campus programming have seen protests specifically targeting prospective students and the administration when it was in its vulnerable state of trying to sell a curated image of Columbia.

Following Emma Sulkowicz’s notorious “Carry That Weight” performance art piece on the subject of sexual assault on Columbia’s campus beginning in September 2014, No Red Tape handed out a letter to prospective students explaining its cause during that year’s Days on Campus. In the letter, the group condemned the way Columbia addresses sexual assault on campus and urged students to seriously consider the school’s response to sexual assault and the culture surrounding it before choosing a school.

Members of NRT also disrupted a tour, which ended with an information session. “We stormed in,” Becca Breslaw recounts. Breslaw is a senior at Barnard College, organizer with Student-Worker Solidarity, and was a member for her first two years of college of NRT, a student group that works to end sexual and domestic violence on campus. “We had our signs about consent-ed, and then one of us gave a talk out of the megaphone and interrupted the whole information session,” she says.

In 2015, NRT held another, more extensive protest. Like the previous year, the group interrupted an information session for prospective students and their families but also projected onto the façade of Low Library, “Rape Happens Here,” “We Deserve a Safe Campus,” and “Columbia Protects Rapists,” while members stood on the Steps holding banners. The protest was quickly disbanded after.

Amber Officer Narvasa, CC ’18, a member of NRT who was part of the protest, explained to Mic in 2015 the reasoning behind using Days on Campus to publicize NRT’s cause. “When prospective students come to the university, the administration likes to portray a certain image of itself,” she says. “And we feel it’s important that prospective students get the whole story and know the multiple ways in which the University is failing to keep students safe.”

Breslaw emphasizes that the purpose of the protest was not to impede students from wanting to come: “It’s to demonstrate that there are issues here, that are issues at all campuses, and that on your searches, when you’re looking for a university, you should be thinking about these questions.”

On April 14, 2016, another sit-in happened inside Low, beginning similarly to that of 1996. This time, members of CDCJ hoped to convince University President Lee Bollinger to release a statement on the Columbia’s investment in fossil fuels. But unlike the previous sit-in, no students were arrested.


“They knew that we were prepared,” Iliana Salazar-Dodge, CC ’16 and co-founder of Barnard Columbia Divest, which later became CDCJ, explains. A senior at the time, she stayed for the entire sit-in. She tells me that CDCJ activists were prepared and willing to face arrest. “They decided to wait us out because they would get more media backlash if they arrested us,” she speculates.

“I think that they would have waited us out literally until the end of the semester,” Elana Sulakshana, a senior in Columbia College studying sustainable development and history, says. Sulakshana, an organizer with CDCJ, was part of the sit-in for one day. She had left for class the morning after the group occupied the building, but in the time she was gone, Low Library was locked down, and Public Safety barred her from returning to the sit-in.

When Rules Administrator and Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg warned the activists of their possible punishment—suspension and expulsion—for conducting the sit-in, her approach may not have included arrests, but it was still aggressive toward the organizers.

Suzanne Goldberg, the executive vice president for university life, was consistently indeterminate, only presenting vague threats of punishment for violations to the students, which one student asserted to Goldberg in Spectator’s Facebook live stream of the sit-in. He compares the situation to a real world example—tax evasion—explaining if one evades taxes, they know the maximum punishment they could receive, and weighs their decision accordingly. “Whereas, here, you threatened us in the email by only mentioning suspension and expulsion, and didn’t mention the whole spectrum, and it seemed like a way to make us all stressed and divide us.”

After a long-winded reply from Goldberg that accused the student of looking for a “kind of predictability,” the student replied, “I just want to know if I am going to lose my scholarship money.”

In addition to locking down the building, Columbia canceled all events in the building, an action they blamed on the protesters. “What [the Rules of Conduct] restrict is disruption of the University’s ability to engage in the University’s activities, whether it’s class, whether it’s speaker events, or whether it’s the function of University business like the event that would have been in here tonight,” Goldberg says in Spectator’s Facebook livestream of the interaction. “It’s a serious thing to say that we are going to disrupt and we are going to take up a space that otherwise would have been used for a University event.”

But this wasn’t the first time Goldberg kept a firm control over activism without resorting to arresting students.

Earlier in the year, Salazar-Dodge and other members of CDCJ were going to present a civil disobedience pledge to the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing and told them, once they were in the Rotunda of Low, that if the committee was not going to act on the pledge, the group would have to escalate its actions. Over 150 students had signed the pledge. CDCJ created a Facebook event, where it specified a meet-up spot. But when students arrived, they were met with barricades and 40 police officers, who congregated along Broadway.

When a CDCJ activist asked a policeman why he were there, he cited a climate protest was supposed to be going on. Salazar-Dodge says that the police never actually entered campus but feels that their mere presence indicated that administrators were “scared” of the protest.

Amy Wang, a junior in Columbia College studying psychology and ethnic studies and a CDCJ organizer, recounts another instance that year of her facing surveillance from the administration. In July 2016, she and fellow CDCJ activists interrupted the release of the BP Energy Outlook annual report, presented by Spencer Dale, BP’s chief economist at the Center for Global Energy Policy. Wang, along with six other students, prepared a statement written prior to the event which they read at the beginning of the event.

“The statement,” Wang explains, “was about the violence that BP has specifically been tied to with regards to paramilitaries, kidnapping and torturing, activist labor, environmental activists, environmental activists in Latin America, in addition to other non-commitments by the company to actually making steps towards carbon-free clean energy.”

They were approached by Goldberg following the event. “I believe she had looked at the video that we posted to our website and Facebook and identified individuals through our video,” Wang explains. The email Goldberg sent students involved indicated that she had, in fact, been notified of their protest through a video CDCJ had posted on Facebook.

This protest was the first activist event to be investigated under the new Rules of Conduct. “A person is in violation of these rules when such person individually or with a group, incident to a demonstration … briefly interrupts a University function,” the rule states.

By 2016, Days on Campus had been well established by previous activists as a day of protest. CDCJ decided it would be the perfect weekend to conduct their sit-in, which—just like in 1996—was a last resort effort. Occupation of Low Library began on April 14.

“[Columbia] does pride itself on showing how forward-thinking liberal activism-oriented it is when literally during that time, where they were trying to push that history, they were punishing their own students for something that isn’t really that radical.”

—Evelyn Mayo, Barnard junior and co-founder of Divest Barnard

The assumption of CDCJ’s organizers was that University officials would be inclined to try to forcibly remove them from the building because they needed to use the space, but that activists would have extra padding in terms of punishment because of the need to protect the image of the University to prospective students during Days on Campus. Because of these factors, CDCJ activists hoped that the sit-in wouldn’t last long and that the administration would have an incentive to address the group’s demands or, at least, sit and talk.

“It turns out that calculation was wrong,” Sulakshana says. “They just moved all of the events, kind of reshuffled things.”

CDCJ is not doing a Days on Campus protest this year due to the University’s change of venue for events and the consequent lack of effectiveness of the protest. To activist groups, the administration tightened its grip on prospective-student-time. Prospective-student-time is no time to mess around.

Evelyn Mayo, Barnard junior and co-founder of Divest Barnard who participated in the sit-in for a day, says she sees Days on Campus protests as highlighting the hypocrisy of Columbia’s attitude toward activism.

“[Columbia] does pride itself on showing how forward-thinking liberal activism-oriented it is when literally during that time, where they were trying to push that history, they were punishing their own students for something that isn’t really that radical,” she says.

Salazar-Dodge agrees that the protest was aimed at making a broader statement about the University’s bureaucracy. “This is how stubborn the administration is, and this is the length to which we have to go to in order to make our voices heard,” she says.

Like Breslaw, Sulakshana says the protest was not meant to deter students from coming to Columbia. “It’s more about showing them that there are these alternative spaces,” she says, “and a lot of people come to college and maybe haven’t had experience with activism or just don’t really know what that is or looks like or means or why it’s important.”

But as conspicuous as these Days on Campus protests are, they may actually support—not just  hurt—the University and its image. Sofia Gouin, a sophomore in Columbia College, like many others, was excited to see the protests. She wrote supplements about activism, and the 2015 Days on Campus protest only fueled this excitement.

Amelia Roskin-Frazee, a Columbia College sophomore and member of NRT, who declined to comment, wrote an op-ed for Spectator in 2015.The Days on Campus protest influenced her to determine she made the right choice in picking Columbia. As a survivor of sexual assault, she acknowledges Columbia’s many flaws in dealing with sexual violence and praises NRT for raising awareness about an issue that many universities had been and are widely apathetic to in her piece. “Being at a place like Columbia, where activists raise awareness about sexual violence, is something I’ve wanted for years,” she writes.  

The Days on Campus protest is a gamble. It can paint a dark cloud over the polished, prestigious image the University etches for prospective students. The activism makes them think, makes them wonder. But it can also make them feel—feel so much that they want to be part of it. Gouin returned from the midnight bus tour during Days on Campus to see Low Library bearing NRT’s projections and felt inspired; and when I mention NRT’s Days on Campus protest during our interview, she snaps passionately, nodding in appreciation.

Gouin puts it best: Days on Campus, the carefully constructed, shiny blue snapshot that could make or break an admitted student’s school-choice, is when the Columbia administration gets “metaphorically caught with its pants down.”

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