FOR MORE THAN A fortnight, a small band of students has been barricading an administration building at Columbia Hoping to pressure the University to sell its stock in U.S. companies with South African operations, the zealous anti-apartheid activists chained shut Hamilton Hall'smain entrance and pitched camp on the building's steps.
The demonstration should have sputtered out quietly, but due largely to Columbia President Michael I. Sovern's crisis mismanagement, it continues to occupy center stage in a media circus that shows only vague signs of abating. Unwittingly, Sovern has played into the protesters' hands, fanning the flames of controversy and prolonging the firestorm at Morningside Heights.
From the outset, the protesters have defeated their own cause through their choice of tactics. Repeatedly, the students have vowed to continue their vigil until Columbia's trustees promise to sell the University's $32.5 million invested in corporations doing business in South Africa. In the process, they have placed both the trustees and themselves in a paradoxical predicament, even if Columbia is prepared to compromise, it cannot make any meaningful concessions under duress.
The Coalition for a Free South Africa, the group behind the barricade, can rest assured that Sovern will not encourage future campus disruptions by submitting to their blackmail. The activists encamped outside Hamilton Hall are obstructing more than just the activity of the college; they're blocking progress toward their own objective.
Moreover, any divestment action coming purely as a concession would lack moral conviction. It would mortgage Columbia's intellectual credibility, and it would remove the symbolism of divestment from a moral plane altogether. The proponents of divestment must win their struggle through rational persuasion, not extortion. Otherwise, the most they can achieve is a hollow victory.
DESPITE ITS SELF CONTRADICTIONS, the Columbia protest has enjoyed an undeniable publicity bonanza. Since the blockade began, the Columbia campus has been overrun with reporters. The students 60s-style stand has captured the attention of media organizations ranging New York Times, the Associated Press, the BBC, and Tass, the official Soviet news agency..
The Coalition for a Free south Africa owes many of its headlines to Columbia's president, who has aided and abetted the demonstrators in their quest for attention. Sovern transformed what could have remained a campus controversy into an ongoing courtroom battle. Instead of keeping the protest and its resolution an in-house matter, Sovern sought a restraining order against the protesters from the New York State Supreme Court. The Court obliged, declaring that the protesters must clear the entrance to Hamilton Hall.
But the chains remained, and three days later, the Court dealt Columbia a decisive setback with a second ruling that favored the protesters. Somewhat ambiguously, the Court prohibited Columbia from using force to break up the demonstration unless the demonstrators become violent. The entire conflict is now pending a final resolution by the court. The thickening plot takes new twists-requiring new press reports-each day, and the suspense surrounding the barricade steadily mounts.
By sustaining the controversy and heightening the tension, Sovern has protracted a drama which draws intense press coverage. The media remains fascinated by the judicial battle, a contest pitting rebel students against the "Establishment" and prominent First Amendment attorneys against each other. Sovern should have foreseen the possibility of television news anchors leading their broadcasts with "Day 18 of the Columbia Hostage Crisis" if he crossed swords with the protesters on the judicial battlefield.
Sovern's reasons for making legal recourse are understandable. He was no looking for a peaceful solution or at least a judicial stamp of approval before removing the protestrs. The memory of 1968, when Black militants seized control of Hamilton Hall, still haunts Columia. A violent confrontation erupted after police moved in end that takeover.
Sovern knows that Columbia loses the propaganda war if it uses force against the self-styled civil disobedients. Indeed, Columbia can only claim a total victory if the students disperse of their own accord. At all costs, Sovern must avert a dramatic final confrontation that would the demonstrators a moral victor.
From the beginning. Sovern should have turned this battle of wills into a test of patience, downplaying the drama. The situation at Morningside Heights never demanded decisive action. Only a small of students are involved. On the lawn in front of Hamilton Hall, other undergraduates complacently play frisbee and football or study in the sun. And despite the chains, Hamilton Hall remains accessible through an underground tunnel.
The Columbia President should have left the protesters to maintain their vigil until they tired of the tedium. Without the threat of an impending clash or the excitement of a landmark legal case, the protesters' initial euphoria would quickly wear off. The endless speeches and slogans would become tiresome; the urban bivouac would lose its glamor. The demonstrators numbers would slowly dwindle until the most stalwart holdouts finally returned to their dorms.
By pursuing a more cautious strategy. Sovern could have undermined the ill-conceived protest, limiting Columbia's public relations losses Apparently, only an ambiguous court ruling now forestalls the protesters' eagerly-awaited showdown and certain disaster. Those who oppose the barricade can only hope that Sovern's patience exceeds that of the activists.