An in-depth look at a little-known prank.
By Sophie Levy
When Marc Rosenblum, CC ‘91, first stepped foot onto College Walk, tensions at Columbia were high. Numerous large-scale demonstrations rocked campus over a short period, from calls to complete Columbia’s divestment from South Africa, to protests regarding the school’s eviction of low-income residents from properties around campus. Yet, despite the frequency and fervor of these protests, frustratingly little changed. Feeling personally compelled to act, Rosenblum joined the Democratic Socialists of America where he dramatically ramped up the boldness of his protests to grab Columbia’s attention. Working with a group of 12 other students who shared his desperation for action, Rosenblum hatched a plan.
In the spring semester of 1988, their freshman year, the 12 students marched into the office of Michael Sovern, the President of the university at the time; wearing masks to protect their identities, the group occupied the room. Collectively, they called for Sovern’s immediate resignation, and demanded that Columbia fully divest from any relations with South Africa. When Sovern’s himself refused to come in to speak to the students, the group hatched a new plan. If the school was not going to take their protests seriously within the halls of the administration, they were going to need to take another approach. Rosenblum, along with fellow freshman Carl Meyer (CC ‘91), volunteered to execute the plan.
And so, at 12 a.m. on Friday, May 13, 1988, just days before graduation and the end of their freshman year, Rosenblum and Meyer set out to Low Steps with giant glass jars of red paint.
The two young men paused briefly to make sure no one was in close proximity to Alma—her central position on campus of pivotal importance to their plan—and took the glasses of paint and threw them at Alma Mater. The glass shattered. If they had not already attracted attention to themselves, the noise surely did the trick. Alma Mater was covered in paint. Red dripped down her body, symbolic of the blood Columbia had on its hands for its various controversial deals with South Africa.
After completing their mission, the young provocateurs quickly went their separate ways. Rosenblum almost made it to his Carman dorm unnoticed; however, a half dozen Columbia security guards were waiting for him in his room. As it turned out, Rosenblum and his suitemate had experienced a year-long struggle for the affections of a girl in their hall. When she finally started dating the suitemate, there was evidently lingering resentment between the three of them. After Rosenblum let his suitemate in on his plan earlier that day, his suitemate along with the belle, turned him in to the Columbia authorities.
Rosenblum attempted to move past the security guards and go into his room, but they insisted he follow them. They convoy proceeded to the basement of Low Library, where Rosenblum found himself the subject of “a complete interrogation.” They demanded that he tell them the names of everyone involved in the incident. When he wouldn’t give any names, they threatened him with suspension. Unwilling to betray his friend, Rosenblum refused to talk. As he recalls, “They were really very heavy-handed with me about, ‘give us the names or we’re going to suspend you,’ and I sort of called their bluff, and they weren’t bluffing.”
At the end of the disciplinary process, Rosenblum found himself suspended for the fall semester of his sophomore year. In order to return to Columbia for the spring semester, he had to petition by writing the university a letter requesting readmittance back into the University. After he was readmitted, he immediately created a left-wing newspaper called The Modern Times. It was through this newspaper that he continued to express his own political beliefs and details of Columbia’s various involvements both locally and internationally.
Now almost 30 years after the incident, Rosenblum admits he doesn’t harbor any hard feelings towards Columbia for the suspension. “I think it’s not a completely disproportionate response what they did. I don’t advise my college-aged kids to paint statues.”