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What a 1968 Columbia University protester makes of today's pro-Palestinian encampment

Eleanor Stein, law and human rights professor at State University of New York, was among hundreds of students protesting the Vietnam War in 1968 on Columbia University's campus.
Eleanor Stein
Eleanor Stein, law and human rights professor at State University of New York, was among hundreds of students protesting the Vietnam War in 1968 on Columbia University's campus.

Updated April 29, 2024 at 13:38 PM ET

The ongoing pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University that sparked nationwide protests and led to hundreds of arrests is drawing comparisons to a movement that took place there nearly six decades ago.

In 1968, five of the campus' buildings were taken over by students protesting the school's links to military research during the height of the Vietnam War. Students also protested a new, mainly student-only gym that was being built in Harlem's Morningside Park, a public park in Manhattan.

Police were called in to Columbia then, as they were last week, to remove the protestors on campus. In 1968, police arrested over 700 students.

"Once the arrests happened, the university really came together and the level of support went from, you know, a matter of dispute to close to universal," Eleanor Stein, one of the protestors in 1968, told NPR's Michel Martin. "The issue then became the conduct of the police and the choice of the administration to bring the police in rather than negotiating with the students."

Stein now teaches law and human rights at State University of New York.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On what was happening at Columbia in 1968:

It's hard to conjure up what that moment was for our country. It was a moment of real crisis. But the issues at Columbia, there were two really that were critical. Basically a war research body, the Institute for Defense Analysis, had a contract with Columbia, which could have meant participation in military research for the war.

The second issue was that Columbia was in the process of building a new gym, and they were building it in Morningside Park, one of the few green spaces in Harlem. And we felt that it couldn't be business as usual, that the university itself was engaging in an indefensible takeover of Harlem Lab and an indefensible participation and complicity with the Vietnam War effort. And students felt so strongly about this. We felt that whatever the risks, whatever the outcomes, we should demand that the university take action.

On how the university should respond to the current protests:

It seems like universities today are afraid of holding open and free discussions about issues of Palestine and Israel. I agree with what the students have done. They may have broken some vague university rules about how you congregate on campus, but they have not interfered with people going to class. I certainly haven't detained anyone or harmed anyone. They just want to have their points of view displayed and discussed and have it be on the agenda. And how could it not be on the agenda? It's one of the great issues of our day.

On the case for open and free debate

The purpose of a university is the open expression and exchange of ideas. That is our fundamental purpose, and especially ideas that are contentious and that have consequences. Those are exactly the issues that we should be looking at. We should have a semester long, campus wide seminar and teach in. They have access to the best scholars in the world on these subjects and people who represent different points of view. Why not have it all be openly discussed and debated? And I think once a university gives that up, they are really conceding the fundamental reason for their existence.

On the legacy of the 1968 protests

Copyright 2024 NPR

Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]