Five students drinking Gatorade and water for a week are apparently all it takes to bring a major university to its knees. Columbia has had more than its share of lunatic events this year - the noose, the cancellation of the Minuteman speakers for the second time, inviting and then abusing the Iranian madman, and last week another controversy over a biased comment someone had scrawled into a library book. But the collapse of the university in the face of five student hunger strikers - the number was reduced to two students before the university folded - makes all the previous lunacies seem sane.
The strikers got most of their scattershot agenda. New faculty will now have to endure diversity indoctrination as part of their hiring. Columbia's core curriculum, much too "Eurocentric" for the strikers, will now feature more more required courses on Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More money and staff will be added for ethnic studies. The Office of Multicultural Affairs will be expanded and another high-ranking diversicrat will be named to the administration. The collapse will cost Columbia at least $50 million.
But the university's reputation for weakness and cowardice in the face of PC-mongering is not the key to this story. Columbia has been working for years to expand north into Harlem. It wants to add to its campus four large blocks from 129th Street between Broadway and 12th Avenue as well as three properties east of Broadway. Columbia must run the gantlet of many hearings and approvals, including those of the City Council, which is unusually sensitive to racial complaints about the curriculum and behavior of a historically white institution about to annex a chunk of Harlem. The strikers played the race card by denouncing Columbia's "institutional racism."
Columbia may have feared that one or more of the hunger strikerrs would become seriously ill or die. One abandoned the strike after fainting in the library and two others quit to get medical help. But the real aim was to protect the expansion program. One professor told me it was "a brilliant move" by President Lee Bollinger to buy off the protesters for only $50 million, while at the same time demonstrating some politically useful concern for racial and ethnic studies.
But it's only a brilliant move if it doesn't teach future strikers how easy it is to get concessions from Columbia. Protestors are still trying to kill the expansion into Harlem. Bollinger's decision to buy off the strikers may lead to more protesters and larger demands.