Ex-Student Recalls '68 Columbia University Protests On May 22, 1968, all the scholarly research carried out by Columbia University professor Orest Ranum was burned. It happened while student protesters were occupying Hamilton Hall on campus. For nearly 40 years, Mark Rudd, head of the Students for a Democratic Society, kept a secret about that fire. It turns out, another student leader, J.J. Jacobs, deliberately burned the professor's research — the product of 10 years' work for a book on modern European history. NPR's Guy Raz speaks with Ranum and Rudd about those events and the revelation.
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Ex-Student Recalls '68 Columbia University Protests

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Ex-Student Recalls '68 Columbia University Protests

Ex-Student Recalls '68 Columbia University Protests

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

A mystery lasting four decades has finally been resolved. It happened at Columbia University in the spring of 1968.

(Soundbite of political protest)

RAZ: Thousands of students had shut down parts of the university, occupying buildings in protest over the school's ties to a pro-Vietnam War think tank, and over Columbia's plan to build a gym in Harlem - a plan some students called racist.

Unidentified Man #1: We call on all students, faculty, staff to support our strike.

RAZ: At the time, my colleague Robert Siegel, co-host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, was a 20-year-old senior at Columbia. He was also the main news anchor for the campus radio station, WKCR.

Take a listen to his coverage.

(Soundbite of archival footage)

ROBERT SIEGEL: The date, April 23, 1968. Acting dean of Columbia College Henry S. Coleman confronts demonstrators in the lobby of Hamilton Hall.

RAZ: The mystery I just mentioned has to do with a professor and a fire that destroyed 10 years of his research. For 40 years, no one knew who did it or why. The professor's name was Orest Ranum and back then, he was a young, newly tenured professor of history at Columbia.

Ranum was also friendly with many of the student protesters and sympathetic to their cause.

Dr.�OREST RANUM (Professor Emeritus of French History, Johns Hopkins University): Well, my view was that it was a perfectly understandable and predictable response to the crisis provoked by the Vietnamese War.

RAZ: One of the young men Ranum knew was Mark Rudd. He had arrived to Columbia as a freshman in 1965.

Mr.�MARK RUDD (Former Member, Students for a Democratic Society): I was just a nice, Jewish kid from the suburbs of New Jersey.

RAZ: But within a short period of time, Rudd was swept up in campus politics.

Mr.�RUDD: When I got to Columbia, the most interesting people on campus, the most vibrant, the most fascinating, were the people who were already, in 1965, protesting the war.

RAZ: By 1968, Mark Rudd became the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.

Mr.�RUDD: We looked around to try to figure out how to oppose the war in Vietnam. What's the best way to do it? And we realized that the best way would be to take on the war where we were. The university was involved in the war. It was not objective or neutral.

RAZ: So after several run-ins with campus officials, Rudd and his friends decided to mount a protest and a sit-in on April 23rd, 1968.

Unidentified Man #2: You are hereby directed to clear out this building.

RAZ: Hundreds of students occupied several buildings on campus, including the president's office. Outside, police stood guard, waiting to storm inside. Professor Orest Ranum decided he wanted to try and reason with the students inside.

Dr.�RANUM: And so I climbed in the window, and there I began a discussion with the students and tried to convince them to leave.

RAZ: The students ignored him, but some of them would now regard Orest Ranum as an enemy.

Mr.�RUDD: We thought liberals were hypocrites, and we thought professor Ranum fit this mold of a liberal hypocrite.

RAZ: About a month later, Mark Rudd and his fellow STS activists returned to Hamilton Hall to mount another occupation.

Mr.�RUDD: There was fighting outside the building. The police had attacked the students. There were barricades built at the entrances of campus. It felt like war.

(Soundbite of siren)

RAZ: At around 2 a.m. on May 22nd, the police went in. Mark Rudd and another prominent student activist, named J.J. Jacobs, were in the basement of the building.

Mr.�RUDD: J.J. came up to me and said: I'm going to start a fire. What do you think? Upstairs? And I said, go ahead.

RAZ: Jacobs went straight to Orest Ranum's office, took his files and burned them. The next morning, police escorted professor Ranum into Hamilton Hall to identify his files. There, he was shown 10 years of his research for a book on modern European history, all destroyed.

Dr.�RANUM: For several weeks, I was somewhat in the dumps, I think.

RAZ: Those notes were to have formed the basis for a book, a book he'd already signed a contract to write. There was no formal investigation. The students blamed the police for the fire. Within a few months, Rudd and Jacobs would go on to help found the violent Weather Underground. Ranum decided to move on, to put it behind him.

Dr.�RANUM: I didn't want to carry that around and be known as though as that experience. And I worked hard to convince colleagues to stop just seeing that experience through me.

RAZ: Late last year, Mark Rudd published his memoirs about life in the Weather Underground and in that book, he revealed for the first time that J.J. Jacobs had destroyed Ranum's papers.

Dr.�RUDD: What had happened was something very important. We had crossed the line, from nonviolent civil disobedience to violence - and to chaos.

RAZ: J.J. Jacobs died in 1997. Mark Rudd now teaches and lectures on nonviolence, using his own experiences as an example of what not to do. And Orest Ranum is now a professor emeritus of history at Johns Hopkins.

Dr.�RANUM: Yesterday, I received a letter, in fact a letter of apology, from Mark Rudd, which I will answer and accept with solemnity, I guess, not necessarily with pleasure. But I have never sort of held a brief - I don't make people into enemies. I try to understand them.

RAZ: That's professor Orest Ranum. He went on, by the way, to become a distinguished historian of France.

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