Revolutionary War

A Columbia radical from the '60s walks the campus with his not-so-radical son

Andrew Avorn doesn't remember, but he saw Columbia University for the first time when he was three years old. Jerry Avorn, his father, had brought Andrew with him to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Columbia's 1968 student strike. In those days, Jerry was a pre-med, hippie-bearded activist who covered those events for Columbia's student newspaper, The Spectator. He later compiled his reports from the various sit-ins and Mark Rudd rallies that spring into a successful book, Up Against the Ivy Wall, published that same year. Thirty-eight years later, the public looks to campuses like Columbia for a parallel movement—a loud and raucous anti–Iraq war movement—but finds instead a lull.

Jerry, now 58 years old and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, still holds dear the activism of old, feeling sorry for the daily monotony endured by the baby-step style of the current generation's should-be radicals, while Andrew, 21, who's part of that crowd and recently finished up the first semester of his junior year at Columbia, embraces and espouses his generation's pragmatic approach to changing the world. After Andrew's last final exam, as he prepared to pack his father's car for winter vacation at his parents' home in Brookline, Massachusetts, the three of us went on a stroll through the Columbia campus to investigate where all that youthful angst once spilled and what keeps it at bay these days. Andrew emerged from his fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, which has a Jewish lean, into a cold day dimming into night. Jerry soon met us on the stoop.

There's not much linking father and son by sight. Jerry's a head shorter, and round in the middle, with a scruffy beard bending around his jowls. The distinguished look of graying hair is overruled by his casual shaggy windblown hairstyle—still clearly a hippie at heart even in beige slacks, a zip-up leather coat, and loafers. Andrew's built like an athlete, tall and lean. His short hair pronounces his square jaw. He's not a Republican, but if he were transported to the '60s his outfit couldn't have been more red; he wore a navy sweater with the collar of a pin-striped polo sticking over the neckline. "If you had told me in '68 that I'd have a son who would go to Columbia and join a fraternity," said Jerry, "I'd have fallen over in a faint." But it's when Andrew and Jerry start speaking that the familial traits appear; they're both passionate about the current state of affairs. It's the era and atmosphere that are different—at least that's what Andrew says.

Jerry Avorn, now at Harvard Medical School, with his son Andrew
photo: Michael Howard
Jerry Avorn, now at Harvard Medical School, with his son Andrew

We entered the campus at 114th Street and trudged north until we reached the sundial. It's circular and sits in the center of College Walk, the most trafficked area of the campus. Jerry explained the monument's importance in history; it doesn't seem like it could be the same place where college students sit now, snacking on deli sandwiches. The student demonstrations, which led to a weeklong sit-in, started right there on April 23, 1968. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) initiated the protests. The SDS opposed the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War as well as policies practiced by the university's then president, Grayson Kirk, such as affiliating the university with a weapons research institution, building a gym for Columbia on public land in Harlem, and stifling dissent by not allowing protests to occur indoors.

Andrew has also used the sundial site for activism. His event was for the Pro-Israel Progressives, an organization he founded. Last October, they handed out leaflets with the heading, "Ten Reasons Why Liberals Can Be Pro-Israel."

"If you want to have an event here," said Andrew, "you have to register the space."

"I don't remember having to do any registering at all," replied Jerry. "We just did stuff."

"We probably have to register because of you."

The terms protest, activism, and civil rights have dotted dinnertime conversation ever since Andrew's youth. "Up against the wall, motherfucker," a catchphrase of Jerry's generation, was as common an expression as "Got milk?" has become for the next. From those beginnings grew a politically aware young man. When Andrew entered Columbia in 2004, the Iraq war was already raging, but was not yet determined to be the out-of-control, money-sucking, civilian-slaughtering debacle it is today. It seemed plausible that the circumstances could become comparable to the Vietnam War situation, but Andrew never wanted—not even in the case of a full-blown quagmire—to follow in his father's footsteps. "Sign-waving bearded campus radicals don't exist anymore," said Andrew. Now that the war has grown increasingly unpopular, Jerry wondered why college kids aren't raising their voices.

"I guess I got to say I'm a little sad," said Jerry, scanning the empty campus.

"Ah, ah, all right," cut in Andrew, "I have a few things to say about this." He went on to list three reasons why campuses aren't protesting. He began by stating the obvious: There's no draft directly affecting college students. He went on to say that students don't see the same connection Columbia had with the war effort as they did in the '60s, when the campus affiliated itself with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research group for the Department of Defense. Students saw the IDA as a part of the war effort, one they saw as unjust. The IDA connection helped spark the debate between the student body and the administration that eventually snowballed into the spring sit-ins.

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