Kirk, Grayson Louis

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KIRK, Grayson Louis

(b. 12 October 1903 near Jeffersonville, Ohio; d. 21 November 1997 in Bronxville, New York), educator, university administrator, and president of Columbia University from 1953 to 1968, who earned national notoriety in 1968 with his infamous decision to call in riot police to quell a massive student uprising at Columbia.

Kirk was born on a farm in rural Ohio to Traine Caldwell Kirk, a farmer, and Phoebe Nora Eichelberger, a school-teacher. After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1924 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he served as principal of a local high school during his senior year, Kirk briefly considered a career as a newspaper correspondent. Instead, he pursued further education in political science, earning a master's degree from Clark University in 1925, and in 1930 a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, where he began his teaching career. On 17 August 1925 he married Marion Louise Sands; they had one son.

Kirk cemented his reputation as an astute scholar of international relations with the publication of his first book, Philippine Independence (1936), an examination of U.S.-Philippine relations. The New York Times hailed it as "an expert and brilliant analysis," sentiments that were repeated for Contemporary International Politics (written with W. R. Sharp, 1940), The Monroe Doctrine Today (1941), and The Study of International Relations in American Colleges and Universities (1947). In 1940 Kirk left the University of Wisconsin to join the faculty at Columbia University. When the United States entered World War II he reduced his teaching duties to serve in a number of positions within the U.S. State Department. He participated in the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944 and the San Francisco Conference in 1945, where he helped write the charter of the United Nations. With the war's end, Kirk returned to Columbia but moved from teaching to administration. In 1949 he was chosen provost and in 1950 became acting president of the university while Columbia president Dwight Eisenhower served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. When Eisenhower was elected president of the United States in 1952, Kirk seemed his obvious successor.

As president of Columbia, the portly, pipe-smoking Kirk substantially transformed the university. More than any preceding president, he compiled an astounding record of fund-raising successes. During his fifteen-year tenure Kirk quadrupled the university's endowments, created six new academic institutes, cultivated a science faculty that won four Nobel Prizes, built more than a dozen buildings, and doubled the number of volumes in the libraries. Nonetheless, his fund-raising triumphs could not compensate for his poor relations with students and faculty, both of whom saw him as an imperious authoritarian.

Ideologically, Kirk remained isolated from Columbia's student population. While he came out against the Vietnam War in 1968, his reasons were far removed from those of antiwar protesters. Instead, he argued that the United States should extricate itself from the conflict because civil disobedience encouraged disrespect for the law, and violence had "almost achieved respectability." While radical students were becoming increasingly distrustful of government, Kirk encouraged university-government relations, most particularly through his membership in the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a consortium of universities engaging in government research. Nor did he see harm in corporate partnerships. In 1967 he came under fire for using sales of a cigarette filter to support the university. These tactics were bound to cause conflict with Columbia students, whose leftist leaders, including the dynamic Mark Rudd, president of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), resented the administration's complicity with defense research and capitalism. The particular actions of Kirk and Columbia were secondary. As Rudd put it, "the issue is not the issue." For leftist students, the university was merely symbolic of larger social problems.

The breaking point came with the university's plan to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, a public area near the campus in Harlem. This multimillion-dollar facility, which included a smaller gym for the Harlem community, would have effectively usurped the park from the neighborhood's low-income African-American residents and seemed representative of what many saw as the university's racism and near colonial disregard for the community. Student protests against the plan yielded no response from Kirk, except for a ban on indoor student protests.

On 23 April 1968 Rudd led a group of approximately 150 people, including white and African-American students and a number of nonstudents, in a protest against the gym and Columbia's support of IDA. The group, which grew throughout the next day, seized five university buildings by 25 April, including Kirk's office, and took three administrators hostage. The protesters refused to leave the buildings without a promise of amnesty, and campus gates were locked while the faculty debated its options. Although Kirk proclaimed at a news conference on 25 April that the university "at almost all costs … wish[es] to avoid physical confrontation," on the night of 29 to 30 April the administration requested that police end the seizure. While the African-American protesters marched calmly from their buildings to be arrested, others resisted police efforts. By 30 April, although the university was back under the administration's control, 600 students had been arrested, and evidence of excessive police force was receiving public attention, causing sentiment to swell in support of the protesters.

A student strike was immediately called, effectively shutting down the campus again. The strikers' demands included halting construction of the gym, amnesty for the protesters, and the resignation of Kirk, who had become their nemesis. In late May violence erupted once more, as police force was used to end protests against the suspension of four students. While Kirk proclaimed that he would not "resign under fire, because that would be a victory for those who are out to destroy the university," he announced his retirement in August, saying that campus events prevented him from fulfilling his duties. In October the Cox Commission, created to evaluate the campus uprising, placed a significant measure of blame on the Kirk administration and its heavy-handed tactics. For radical students across the country, Columbia represented a major victory—the longest student protest to that time, the first at an Ivy League university, and one that had resulted in a major shift in administration.

After his retirement Kirk faded from public view, dying of natural causes at his home. Although he improved Columbia in many ways during his term as president, Kirk is best remembered as a symbol of the generation gap of the 1960s. His personal views clashed directly with youthful radicalism, which resented and criticized universities as repressive institutions supporting imperialism and oppression both at home and abroad. Kirk's decision to use police force emphasized this gap. While many people at the time criticized his actions and supported the students, Kirk's response to the protesters was emblematic of a growing conservatism in the late 1960s. The reaction of this conservative wing to the protests made by privileged students was to advocate a return to law and order, symbolized best by the administrations of the Republican presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald W. Reagan.

Biographical information on Kirk can be found in Current Biography (1951); Lester A. Sobel, ed., Facts on File Yearbook 1968; and Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (Dec. 1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Nov. 1997).

Mary Rizzo

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