It Takes Great Numbers: The Activist Ivy

It Takes Great Numbers: The Activist Ivy

Defining Columbia’s activist brand through the students who make it

Published on April 25, 2017


potlight on a polished University President Lee Bollinger: a decade younger, glossy hair parted sharply down the right side, a sleek black suit, a navy blue tie. He stands before a curtain—red, velvet, loud. It is April 24, 2008, and he is giving opening remarks in Casa Italiana at the 40th anniversary conference of the 1968 protests at Columbia.

The conference was first conceived by a group of alumni who wrote to Bollinger in March 2007 to propose a gathering. Columbia had “neglected to confront the legacy of those times,” the group asserted in a statement, referring to the infamous protests—where protesters held sit-ins and rallies in demonstration of the University’s ties to the Institute for Defense Analyses during the Vietnam War and the construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park with segregated entrances for residents of Harlem. The protests came to a violent end, with an NYPD raid.

Before 2008, Columbia did not look fondly on the year 1968—there was no sweet nostalgia, very little pride, and the University resisted the protests’ association to the institution.

And so confront its history Columbia did—the mere act of providing space for the conference was a divergence from its past position on the protests. As Bollinger emphasizes in his speech, it an attempt to understand—an “opportunity for reconciliation.”

Bollinger walks up to the podium and waits to begin—he cannot find silence. Jeers, cheering, chatter.

Bollinger had been introduced by Nancy Biberman, a Barnard graduate from the class of 1969. But as Bollinger starts his speech, a man from the crowd begins to speak, his pointed words —assured, strident, and most likely from New York—cutting through the audience murmur. The man from the crowd speaks, and Biberman quickly jumps back onto the stage, grabbing the microphone. Bollinger steps back and puts on his thin-rimmed reading glasses.

“I would ask that people who have comments on any issues regarding Columbia or the events of 1968 please hold them—we will be discussing them over the weekend,” Biberman insists.

Bollinger buttons his suit and slowly lifts his gaze toward the crowd.

“Sorry to interrupt this,” the unidentified man continues. “And I will leave. But I want everybody to understand—I want you to understand—that what’s going on now [the construction of the Manhattanville campus] is an eviction plan that will be a hundred times worse than what we saw in 1968. Thank you.” And then he leaves.

The sentiment is shared: Clapping and chatting ensues from the crowd. The Manhattanville expansion is disturbingly reminiscent of the attempted construction of the Morningside Park gymnasium of 40 years earlier.

Bollinger begins his speech as the crowds’ cheers recede. The mic does not behave, drawing laughter as it emits a shrill hum throughout his speech. He makes jokes—this, too, draws laughter. It is clear from the back-and-forth between chatting and shushing that some of the crowd is receptive while others are less so. There is a divide in the audience that replicates that in the community.

His speech addresses Manhattanville, which hits a tender spot for much of his audience. Bollinger remarks that “this” University is not the same one in 1968, and that Manhattanville is not the same as the gymnasium. “[Manhattanville], I believe will be a test of this institution’s capacity to deal with these issues,” Bollinger asserts, “in a very forthright and creative and imaginative and sensitive way.”

“You already failed the test,” a woman from the crowd calls out, “Done.”

At the end of the speech Bollinger confirms that Columbia welcomes the 1968 protesters with open arms, and that the University is ready to confront 1968 and its legacy. “But again, back to the beginning, welcome back, really proud to have you here,” he concludes.

As Robert Friedman, graduate of the Columbia College class of 1969 and editor in chief of the 92nd Managing Board of the Columbia Daily Spectator (we’re now led by the 141st) wrote in a Spectator op-ed from 2008, “Forgiveness was a theme throughout the weekend.”

The 1968 protests were one of the most defining moments in the history of Columbia. More importantly, however, the impact on Columbia’s image was engendered by student action—not University effort.

After the 1968 protests, the devastating police raids—712 arrests, 112 students injured—elicited media backlash that caused the University to face a branding crisis.

While the 2008 anniversary conference marked a shift in public attitude, for many years after the protests, Columbia was not ready to embrace the activist image that it was branded on it like an inky stamp. “There was a real effort after 1968 to convince alumni and the general public, and probably the parents of prospective Columbia students,” Robert McCaughey, professor of American history explains, “that that was a moment in Columbia’s history rather than that that was a part of the fabric of the institution.” McCaughey has been a professor of American studies at Barnard College since 1969 and has focused his research on Columbia and its history. I meet him in his LeFrak office, his robust collection of books filling crevices in his walls like mortar.

This effort was demonstrated by Columbia’s attempt at reducing the visibility of the events. For instance, the movie adaptation of “The Strawberry Statement” from 1970a personal account of the protests from 1969—was not allowed to shoot on campus, author Jim Kunen says: “Obviously, they wouldn’t want this thing being re-enacted.” He was one of the 27 protesters in ’68 who chose to stay in Low Library even after the threat of a police raid.

But by 2008, there was a shift. The anniversary conference reflected the University attempt to embrace this past, or at least, to confront it. “That was kind of a watershed,” Kunen, who also spoke at the conference, recounts. “That’s when [the University] said, ‘Okay, this is now an important event in our history, a shared event. And, it was an important event. And, we can all get together and put it in perspective now.’”

While the aftermath of the 1968 protests negatively impacted the University—most students walked out of graduation, then-University President Grayson Kirk resigned, applications to the school decreased, and, as Columbia’s website puts it, there was a “downturn of the University’s finances and morale”—the period actually helped the school in an unexpected way.

Once several years had passed and the backlash over the violent clashes of the protests had begun to fade quietly, Columbia’s new image began to attract prospective students. Law School applications doubled in 1971. Roger Lehecka, a pre-professional adviser at the time told Spectator in January of 1971 that “a bent for activism” increased the appeal of the law school. “Interests are toward doing something other than corporate law,” he notes.

While the protests throughout history were directly targeting the University and its financial investments, they strengthened the appeal of the school to many, an appeal that endures today. Columbia carries a brand of activism—something it can’t quite shake off, but also something that perhaps it doesn’t want to completely cast off either. Many have applied to Columbia with their hearts set on the “activist Ivy,” where students hold the administration accountable, where students have a voice. But often when these students arrive, they become disillusioned with the reality of a school rife with student mobilization—where students having a voice may not be enough to create change.

The Branding and the Brand

At any given day at Columbia on Low Steps there’s a protest, a counter protest, and a counter counter protest—according to a favorite joke among tour guides, that is. Changing a light bulb at Columbia, apparently, would require more people than any other Ivy—one would change it, 50 would protest it, and 20 would stage a counter protest.

While some in Columbia’s administration promote activism, and others stay silent, the University’s reputation for activism will persist; it’s an impenetrable cloud that lingers over campus like thick Manhattan fog.

1968 defined Columbia’s activist image for decades. The 1985 anti-South African apartheid protests, the 1996 ethnic studies hunger strike, and the 2007 protests against Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking on campus gained widespread media coverage and only reinforced the school’s notoriety for progressive mobilization..

After Columbia College class of 2015 graduate Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry that Weight” performance art piece and movement against sexual assault brought Columbia’s activism back to center stage, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, CC ’92, SIPA ’93, gave the keynote speech at the 2015 Columbia College commencement ceremony. He encouraged students to continue their activism. “For many, Columbia is the activist Ivy, a place where you can come and fight for what you believe in,” he tells the crowd of students, some bearing red Scotch Tape on the backs of their caps in solidarity with “Carry That Weight.” “Columbia College and the larger university is a better place because of our [student activists’] presence in it,” Garcetti says.

Ultimately, it’s the students who keep Columbia’s brand thriving. A board member of the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee—who will remain anonymous due to a committee policy—calls it a “self-fulfilling feedback loop,” where activist students come here, and people perceive the school as an activist school, prompting more activist students to come.

When Sofia Petros, Columbia College sophomore and organizer with Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, came to Days on Campus in April of 2015, she had already been well acquainted with Columbia’s character. It was a factor that drew her to the school, and she wrote supplements about it. And when she got off of the infamous midnight double-decker bus tour of New York City, she returned to campus with Low Library lit up with messages from No Red Tape. She was able to see the protest culture she had heard about, and it made her more excited to come.

It was something I really wanted to do in college—and really wanted to find like minded people—and I wanted to build that skill and potentially be an organizer,” Petros explains. “Columbia felt like the perfect place where I could do that: where I could nerd out and then get really involved, and not feel like I was sacrificing either part of my identity.”

I meet with Petros late at night in the John Jay lounge during midterm week; the dimly lit room is brimming with anxious chatter about tomorrow’s Literature Humanities midterm.

In addition to the fact that some students choose the school for its activism, the school also chooses some students for that same reason.

Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions, says that the admissions office focuses on “fit” when admitting students. Admissions officers think about who would be most happy at Columbia and look for elements of that in applications.

“There’s a consistency in students who tend to be most happy here,” Marinaccio explains. To her, those applicants are “intellectual adventurers—students who look at a problem, and they want to know how they can fix it and change it, and know the whys and hows of a question. And, when they see something that’s going on in the world, they want to again change it, fix it, positively influence the world around them.”

Columbia’s brand perpetuates itself because students are the ones who define it. Every student protest brings more media coverage and, consequently, more voices to the chronicle of Columbia University activism.

While Columbia may have taken quite a bit of time to accept the impact that the protests of 1968 had on its name, it seems that today, parts of the University have in many ways oriented toward embracing, if not actively promoting its legacy of activism.

Columbia alumni magazines like Columbia College Today and Columbia Magazine influences Columbia’s image by updating alumni on the school’s current identity, documenting the evolution of the school between generation of students.

Columbia College Today—according to Bernice Tsai, who graduated from Columbia College in 1996 and associate dean for Columbia College alumni relations and communications who oversees the magazine—“allows our alums to get a sense of what the college and the University is like today.” The magazine is run through the dean’s office before publication, as well as occasionally Sydney Schwartz Gross, Executive director of communications and media relations.

Photo from the 1996 protests that contribute to Columbia's brand of an activist university courtesy of Marcel Agüeros, who graduated from Columbia College that year.

One feature in Columbia College Today, in the May/June 2006 issue, says Democratic congressman Jerry Nadler who graduated from Columbia College in 1969 chose Columbia because of his activist past. And Ai-Jen Poo, who graduated from Columbia College in 1996, “realized the power of grassroots activism as a College student,” according to the magazine. Poo was arrested in a protest against police brutality in 1995. In 1996, she was part of the protests for the creation of an ethnic studies department at Columbia and was involved in the occupation of Low Library and Hamilton Hall; Poo gets a feature of her own.

Tsai explains that the magazine does not “try to push out or promote” activism, but her engagement with alumni has led her to understand the deep impact that student mobilization has had on its Columbia students. At CCT, the pieces reflect stories that Columbia College students—“authentic” and “outspoken”—would want to read, and often that means writing about activists.

The magazine features “interesting people doing either grand things of impact or even small things in their communities,” Tsai says. “Or [things] that are in some way changing the world or making an impact.”

In the “University News” section of the Spring 2017 issue of “Columbia Magazine,” which is published quarterly by the University’s Office of Alumni and Development, there is an article titled “President Bollinger and Campus Community Speak Out Against Trump’s Stance on Immigration.” The picture in the center features a protest on Low Steps, with a big poster reading “RESIST.” The caption: “More than five hundred people gathered in protest at Low Library on January 31.”

Prospective students are perhaps most receptive, or at least, attentive, to the brand. With tours and information sessions peppered with stories and references to activism, it’s not a surprise that so many associate the school with activism.

According to a senior at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a member of the URC—who will remain anonymous due to a committee policy—many tour guides can’t help but speak about activism, because, quite simply, it’s part of the culture of the school. “Students aren’t explicitly told to address it, but I feel like most of the time, it does get addressed anyways either by necessity because it’s there or because people ask about it or just because of the history of the school,” he says.

Protests, sit-ins, and speak-outs happen at Columbia—that’s undeniable—and the URC knows it. The URC encourages addressing the subject, and according to the SEAS senior, it usually comes up.

If they’re handing out fliers, let them hand out fliers,” he explains. “We really don’t care—that’s part of what happens here.”

The URC is “officially” run by the admissions office, but the board member emphasizes to me that “it’s really run by students.”

A URC run by students means that tours, Days on Campus, and open houses evoke an image curated by students. Allowing students to influence the marketing for the school causes student perspectives on activism to imprint themselves on the University’s image as a whole.

The admissions office itself is also at least partly responsible for this promotion of Columbia. Last March, when I was deciding where to go to college, I received an email from Undergraduate Admissions that read, “When you are a Columbia student, you are a part of a community of scholars, athletes, artists, scientists, musicians, activists, engineers, and leaders, all of whom shape your time as a Lion.” The email, one of many sent to prospective students in an attempt to increase yield of accepted students attending the school, is very clear: There are activists at Columbia.

Another email I received that month, also from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, held the subject line “Diversity at Columbia.” This email said, “Activism takes many forms at Columbia,” and described Columbia’s “recent decision to become the first U.S. university to divest from the private prison industry, a decision catalyzed by student-led initiatives.” The student-led initiative it is referring to is Columbia Prison Divest which, after a series of letters, sit-ins and rallies, convinced the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing to divest from private prisons in April 2015.

“I think a lot of [Undergraduate Admissions’] overlying focus is the passion,” Petros, who is also a tour guide, explains. “The passion, the political spirit, the engaged spirit, the desire to bring intellectual ideas into actions, community-building. These are all buzzwords that I’ve heard them use.”

While Columbia does promote its activism in many ways, its branding is much more subtle than its West Coast activist-school-counterpart, University of California, Berkeley. Where we have Brownie’s, and Blue Java, and Joe Coffee, Berkeley has the Free Speech Movement Café, whose wall is plastered in a black-and-white aerial shot of a flooding crowd of protesters. We have Low Steps—they have Mario Savio Steps, named after one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

On Berkeley’s website’s “About” section it says, “From a group of academic pioneers in 1868, to the Free Speech movement in 1964, Berkeley is a place where the brightest minds from across the globe come together to explore, ask questions and improve the world.” In the timeline on its site, there is “Free Speech Movement” in 1964 and “Campus women organize and demonstrate” in 1972. When Columbia mentions 1968 in its history section, they don’t mention why students protested and merely list the negative repercussions of the protest on the school.

Our defining protest movement in 1968 is not nearly as venerated as Berkeley’s of 1964. However, regardless of the position the University takes on the activist image, it is clear that the reputation will persist.

Discrepancies Between the Two

“Whenever I can walk out of Low Library and not be led out in handcuffs, it’s a good day,” Benjamin Jealous tells the crowd of graduating seniors during his 2010 commencement speech.

Jealous, CC ’94, is the former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was awarded the John Jay Award for distinguished professional involvement in 2009. In March of 1993, Jealous was suspended for a semester after organizing a blockade of Hamilton Hall three months earlier.

It was part of a protest against Columbia’s plans to build a biomedical research facility on the site of Malcolm X’s assassination, the Audubon Ballroom. Columbia is not shy to mention it.

In April 2009, CCT published a feature about Jealous, whom it called in the headline, “A Force for Change.” “Jealous spent a significant amount of his free time as a community organizer and student activist,” Amy Perkel Madsen, who graduated from Columbia College in 1989, writes. “[These were] roles that eventually led to his suspension from Columbia for organizing a protest during his junior year.”

Like the feedback loop that the URC board member described, Columbia’s brand of activism is built and perpetuated by students who are sometimes punished for it. A fundamental question arises with a brand that was created and is maintained by students: What is the impact of an academic institution’s image and culture being crafted by its students? It seems the answer is not simple.

In an Eye article from 2015, Sejal Singh, then-Columbia College senior and vice president for policy of Columbia College Student Council, told the magazine, “It’s so strange that the administration will punish students for protesting and then 10 or 15 years later will put their face on a magazine to raise funds from alums.”

The Student Striking Coordinating Committee of the 1968 protests wrote about this discrepancy between Columbia’s progressive image and reality on campus on the third day of the protest. They list moments in Columbia’s history where Columbia has punished students and faculty who expressed dissent.

Photo from the 1996 protests that contribute to Columbia's brand of an activist university courtesy of Marcel Agüeros, who graduated from Columbia College that year.

Sulkowicz, or as she was branded, “Mattress Girl,” was picked up by every major news source. To the Washington Post, she was a “symbol for student activists against sexual assault.” The New York Times referenced analogies to the Stations of the Cross and Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. She received a solidarity tweet from Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand. Needless to say, people took notice.

And while she was Emma Sulkowicz, or Mattress Girl, or Hester Prynne, Sulkowicz was also simply “Columbia Student,” or “Columbia senior.”

The “Mattress Girl” brand became imprinted on Columbia. The SEAS senior and URC board member I spoke to mentions to me that on his tours, when he gets questions about Sulkowicz, people still refer to her as “Mattress Girl”—“which I almost think is a tad disrespectful,” he says.

And even “Carry That Weight,” which gained national coverage for its portrayal of vocal and politically engaged Columbia students, has a complicated relationship with the University’s administration. Before 2015’s Columbia College Class Day, the University’s GradZone emailed graduates informing them that they could not bring to the ceremony “objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people.” The University wrote “objects”—but many heard “mattresses.”


At graduation, Bollinger publicly didn’t shake Sulkowicz’s hand—in the video, he can be seen reaching for a water bottle when she reaches him. It was an act that brought the story back into the public eye. While a University spokesperson said the “snub” was unintended, the moment stuck.

For activist students, this discrepancy between branding and reality can create a strong sense of disillusionment with the system.

“There’s a slippage between their general pride in having discourse on campus through protest, especially when looking back on it as like a past event, that doesn’t necessarily correlate or match with their reaction to protests that happen now,” Amy Wang, Columbia College junior and organizer with CDCJ, explains. “Columbia’s often branded as the activist or the liberal Ivy or school in general—it’s often glossed over that a lot of that activism is directed towards the administration,” she says.

The Channels, the Rules, and the Last Resort

When Barnard Columbia Divest was first founded, in November 2012, with its original name of Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, members followed the rules. And, according to Iliana Salazar-Dodge, a founder of BCD and member of the 2016 CDCJ sit-in, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016, this may have been responsible for the group’s lack of success in their early years.

Salazar-Dodge explains that the reason why some of the professors were their allies for so long was because they were “willing to work with the [administrative] channels from the get-go.” The group began with a focus on “getting petition signatures and building awareness on campus,” and then transitioned to “creating a presentation for the Advisory Committee [for Social and Responsible Investing].”

In 2016, CDCJ conducted a nine-day sit-in in Low Library during Days on Campus, in an effort to persuade Bollinger to release a statement on the University’s investments in fossil fuels. On the Friday of the sit-in, Executive Vice President Suzanne Goldberg came to Low Rotunda to speak with protesters. She stood, facing a crowd of the members of CDCJ crouching on the Steps below.

Her main message to students: There are simple violations, and then there are serious violations. The way CDCJ went about their protest fell under the category of serious violations. “The purpose of the rules for University conduct is to enable the University to function while protecting students and others’ right to express their view passionately,” Goldberg tells the crowd.

“What the rules try to do is give many many ways for people to express their views,” she adds.

These “many ways” she refers to are the channels put in place by the administration for students to engage with them.

However, over the years, there have been instances of student activists facing the tediousness, and ineffectiveness of these methods of enacting real change. But the passion for change that prompted so many students to fulfill the activist feedback loop—coming to Columbia for activism—is not curbed by bureaucracy. And so, activist groups must ask themselves, can they truly create change if they don’t break the rules?

According to Salazar-Dodge, CDCJ had been following the rules all along, and that had gotten them nowhere. CDCJ connected the ACSRI in March 2016, to a statement from members of the Earth Institute about the importance of implementing a policy that facilitates a transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources. They recommended that the committee divest from companies in the coal-mining business, and that they should not hold shares in any companies that reject scientific consensus on climate change.

According to an Eye article, written two years before the sit-in, Sara Minard, former ACSRI education subcommittee chair, dubbed the process for obtaining proposals “confusing.” “Documents are addressed to the ACSRI and received by the committee secretary,” she writes, “and these are either considered formal proposals that the entire committee must vote on, or not considered. How this distinction is made is not clear. When the documents are actually received is not clear.”

Salazar-Dodge recounts CDCJ’s own troubles with this process. “And so we realized that this was a very flawed administrative channel or administrative system.”

As much of the activism at Columbia is oriented toward the way Columbia invests its endowments, activists’ past struggles working with the ACSRI point to the lack of impact students have when they follow the rules and stay within this administrative “channel.” For instance, during a panel on divestment from private prisons in January of 2015, Columbia Prison Divest was only given a two-minute window to speak, and there was no student representative on the panel.

Student council is another forum that students can hypothetically use to enact change. An Eye lead from this past March analyzes the deeply rooted shortcomings of this structure. Lack of concreteness in plans, quick turnover rate of students involved, the bureaucratic nature of Columbia’s administration—each office with its own purview—and conflicting voices within the council all contribute to the insufficient impact student councils can have on the school.

After CDCJ’s initial commitment to working through the channels, and their inability to secure their goals, CPD took a different approach. They integrated protests, rallies, and sit-ins into their methodology from the start of their movement.

CPD faced a similar difficulty attaining a meeting with Bollinger in September of 2014.

CPD also held sit-ins, protests, rallies, and a week of events called “People, Prisons, and Profit.” In addition, the group sent three letters to Bollinger over the course of a year.

After the former associate of finance, Ursula Bollini resigned, CPD lost an opportunity. She had proposed that the ACSRI host a panel on divestment from private prisons in October of 2015.

While CPD did engage with the administrative channels, its success came after a multiplicity of factors coming together, including, according to Salazar-Dodge’s perception of the events, its members’ more “disruptive” protests. On March 31, 2015, Bollinger sent an email to the Columbia Community, announcing ACSRI’s resolution to recommend to the trustees that Columbia divest its stock from private prisons and declared his support.

Two years later, the University announced it would divest from companies involved with thermal coal production, more than five years after BCD was founded. And while this was not its end goal, the decision is certainly a step in that direction. It took CDCJ longer to reach this point than CPD, but like Prison Divest, CDCJ did not restrict its efforts to bringing attention to the bureaucratic domain. Salazar-Dodge recounts that after two years or so, CDCJ decided it was time to change their tactics.

“We realized that we weren’t going to come to an agreement or some conclusion without more social pressure from the campus,” she explains. Members decided it was time to transition to continuing to build support on campus, and “potentially escalating.” To her, escalating means protesting without a permit, protesting without permission.

Basically, taking up space in order to have your voices heard regardless of whether we have permission to do it,” Salazar-Dodge says.

Taking up space through disruptive protest is dangerous—CDCJ faced threats of suspension and expulsion during its sit-in. For many student activists who are unable to secure change through the bureaucratic channels, however, demonstration is a risk worth undertaking.

When 712 student protesters were arrested in an NYPD raid in April of 1968, the University was sending a very clear message to activists: Students don’t run the school.

After Kirk resigned, William James McGill became president. According to McCaughey, he was selected with a specific intention in mind—he had previous experience dealing with protests under his tenure as Chancellor of University of California, San Diego. Throughout McGill’s tenure at Columbia, and that of his successors, activists faced intense scrutiny, leading to a history of arrests at student protests at Columbia. The last student protest to face arrests was the ethnic studies sit-in and hunger strike of 1996 during which President George Rupp authorized a police raid and 23 students were arrested.

Photo from the 1996 protests that contribute to Columbia's brand of an activist university courtesy of Marcel Agüeros, who graduated from Columbia College that year.

“If there’s one thing that institutions don’t like, it’s bad media, and so that really changed the dynamic around the strike,” Marcel Agüeros, one of the hunger-strikers and organizers of the protest explains. Agüeros is now a professor of astronomy at Columbia. At first glance, his Pupin office is the quintessential science professor’s office—posters about astronomy, shelves brimming with books about the subject. But a closer look reveals relics of his past of activism resting nondescriptly on his shelves. He pulls a binder off of his shelf, one of a few which hold fliers, letters, and other firsthand documents of the time.

To him, calling the police was “a completely stupid thing to do.” And he doesn’t think the University officials would do it again.

So far, they haven’t.

Once student activists have exhausted the bureaucratic channel process, they often turn to more escalatory tactics to achieve their goals. Goldberg says that only a “very narrow band of activity that violates the rules,” and that she “encourages engagement of all sorts of issues,” through the many different options students have for making their voices heard.

But is being heard enough to create change? In the power dynamics of a university setting, many students feel the answer is no.

However, they still feel intense scrutiny coming from disciplinary bodies in the administration like Goldberg when turning to demonstrations and protests. Despite it being over 20 years since the University has arrested a student during a protest, the NYPD often makes appearances during protests upon the University’s invitation.

In fall of 2015, members of CDCJ threatened to escalate its actions, according to Salazar-Dodge, if the ACSRI did not act on the civil disobedience pledge they were presenting. The pledge had 170 signatures of students who had committed to turn to protest if need be. She explains that CDCJ created a Facebook event with a specified meet-up spot, and when they arrived to this spot, they were met with over 40 police officers stationed along Broadway who had come for the protest.

University scrutiny of activists is not limited to NYPD presence. In July of 2016, CDCJ activists interrupted a University event hosting Spencer Dale, BP’s chief economist at the Center for Global Energy Policy, which was releasing the BP Energy Outlook annual report. They read a statement about the “violence that BP has specifically been tied to with regards to paramilitaries, kidnapping, and torturing,” Wang, who was part of the CDCJ protest, recounts.

However, through a video CDCJ posted on Facebook, the Office of University Life was able to pinpoint all students involved and began an investigation under the Rules of Conduct for the students who were part of the protest.

Behind the scenes, the relationship between students activists and the administration is tense, to say the least. But the shiny activism reputation, varnished with the allure of student passion and engagement, often veils the antagonistic relationship between the administration and student organizers and participants that is generated through vocal dissent against the University and an often unreceptive administration. Columbia students are passionate; they are vocal—they will take a very long time to screw in a lightbulb because of all the protests and counter protests that would ensue. But that doesn’t mean that voiced actions will create change. What does this mean for students who came to make change, only for their efforts to get lost in the process?

Many students come to Columbia for the activist spirit. They stage protests, sometimes on Days on Campus, during which prospective students see them and are inspired to join. The feedback loop continues, tightly enough that it threads Columbia’s image with a brand of activism.

On campus, however, many student activists are disheartened with what they feel is an often unreceptive administration. For Petros, Columbia’s activist past was a factor that drew her to the school. When she met with No Red Tape organizers during the New Student Orientation Program, the organizers told her about problems with the way they were being treated by Goldberg and the administration.

“That’s been a big tension,” Petros explains. “[Columbia] co-opting things that Columbia students do for Columbia’s brand but not supporting us when we’re doing it, only when it works for them.”


The finite lifespan of an undergraduate class is no match for the activist brand of Columbia—despite student disillusionment with activism on campus, despite long spans of quiet, despite the older administrations of the University’s efforts to bury it, the brand endures. The diverse activist chants of students throughout the generations steady into one lingering echo.

“I am not a leader, you understand,” Kunen writes in his article, “The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary.” “But leaders cannot seize and occupy buildings. It takes great numbers to people to do that. I am one of those great numbers.”

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