On October 14, 1968, twenty graduate students marched into room 407 of 66 West 12th Street where the course “The Abiding Quest for Freedom” was in session. The subject that evening was “Freedom and Education.” The instructor, New School chancellor Harry Gideonse, was lecturing on historical sources for the concept of academic freedom. The grad students interrupted the lecture, hurling questions at Gideonse about his qualifications to speak on the topic and demanding “an explanation of his record of suppression of academic freedom.” Gideonse fetched two security guards to remove the students on the grounds that they were not registered for the class. This was true — the course was offered in the New School adult education division and the protesting students were from the Graduate Faculty division. But the protestors refused to leave.

According to a report by Vice President Al Landa, who was called to the scene, the disruptors continued “to hoot and holler accusations and epithets” at Gideonse and were “on the verge of doing something physical.” The grad students’ account of the incident does not indicate an intention to do anything physical, but otherwise corroborates Landa’s. Several of the registered students entered the fray, getting into a shouting match with the disruptors. The chaos persisted for another half hour until Gideonse and Landa opted to end the confrontation by dismissing class early, promising that they’d make it up. At least one of the registered students demanded her money back.

Academic freedom — one of the New School’s core ideals — was a hot topic at American colleges in 1968. Inspired by the 1962 Port Huron Statement, student radicals at that time were not only claiming their right to protest the Vietnam War on campuses, but also to openly criticize university ties to corporate and government interests and to participate in everything from university policy-making to curriculum and hiring decisions. Students tuned in to these New Left concerns were coming to the New School burning to test these ideas. In 1967 the grad students had announced a “a new school within the New School,” with a slate of courses under the title of the “Institute for Radical Education”, which aimed “to change the system rather than servicing it.” In the spring of ‘68 undergrads in the recently-launched New School College had led a walkout in solidarity with a week of divisive protests at Columbia University.

The Gideonse action fit into a movement of protest erupting with growing urgency on university campuses across the U.S. in the late 1960s. But it’s possible that the New School disruptors did not expect the administration to so staunchly defend Gideonse. President John Everett censured the students on the grounds that it was they who had threatened academic freedom. In so doing, he harkened back to the New School’s 1935 constitution, created when the Graduate Faculty was forming. As part of its understanding of the nature of an institution dedicated to academic freedom, the document stipulated that no faculty member could “be a member of any political party or group which asserts the right to dictate in matters of science or scientific opinion.” This conception of academic liberty was a direct response to the crisis in Europe, where the scholars who were to form the University in Exile at the New School (soon renamed the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science) had been driven from government and academic posts, an expulsion that denied them not only their livelihoods, but also their right to express their ideas through teaching and writing. The professors who had drafted this constitution were vehemently opposed to any sort of political intrusion upon the academy.

Nor was this opposition solely a thing of the past. Immediately following the student-action the core faculty of the graduate division conveyed its unanimous, unequivocal outrage at the Gideonse disruption. “[T]o deny the teacher the right to state his views in an orderly manner” was “a fundamental breach,” they wrote, “an assault against the always fragile existence of an institution in which dissent, criticism, and the search for enlightenment are possible.” This breach was “incompatible with the traditions of the school.” As strong as this statement was and as unequivocal as it may seem, the makeup of the graduate faculty was changing in the late 1960s. A small handful of younger and more politically engaged scholars were joining the faculty. The aging professors’ enraged voice held sway even as the terms were shifting beneath them.

Landa knew that the radical students on campus were spoiling for a fight, and warned Everett that this was ”the first of many provocations.” The student activists, however, felt that choosing Gideonse to teach a course on academic freedom had itself amounted to a provocation. Gideonse had been appointed chancellor of the New School in 1966 after 27 years as president of Brooklyn College, where he’d polarized the community by aggressively pursuing suspected Communists, driving a number of faculty members from their jobs. Testifying in 1953 before the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, Gideonse justified his virulence. The Communist Party would stop at nothing, he explained, “to make American youngsters feel doubtful about the sincerity of our profession, our belief in freedom and democracy and equality.” He’d co-founded Freedom House, a Cold War anti-Communist watchdog and early advocate for U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and lectured widely, including at the New School in a 1948 program titled “Subversive Activity — What is It? What To Do About it?” While he sniffed at the blunt-force tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee, in a feat of logic Gideonse argued that, because Communists were stealth actors who masked their true beliefs, they were not due the same civil rights as other Americans. To his mind, there was complete continuity between shutting up campus dissent and upholding a notion of academic freedom.

Gideonse had had a Brooklyn College student newspaper shut down in 1950, believing that the American Communist Party was using it as a mouthpiece. After the fracas in his classroom, he probably wished he could shut down a New School student paper, too, when Granpa (“the newspaper the C.I.A. forgot to fund”) devoted two issues to the incident, unleashing its full-throated New Left critique — and high-style countercultural snark — upon him.

The New School chancellorship had been instituted in 1964 for outgoing president, Robert MacIver, with a broad charge to “assist in creating new programs and in the institution’s long-term planning and development.” Gideonse, the second to hold the post, had been nominated by Everett and appointed by the board with little discussion. Establishing a chancellorship in itself signaled just how far the administration’s self-definition had traveled by its half-century mark from the founders’ express intention in 1919 to create an educational enterprise that eschewed the trappings of a traditional college.

Did the administrators see the clash coming that looks so inevitable in retrospect? Had Gideonse read the May 1968 issue of Granpa, published at the end of the spring semester preceding the disruption of his fall course, he might have predicted the accident waiting to happen. Citing the recent protests at Columbia University as “the guide,” philosophy graduate student Richard Cutler called upon students to find a crisis around which to galvanize campus dissent and “precipitate an uheaval [sic] of the entire institutional power structure of the NS.” (Cutler’s proposal to organize around a teacher shortage in the Philosophy Department may have felt a bit too local to campus radicals itching for a fight.) Then along came Gideonse and his course on freedom. “He was red meat,” Rick Salutin, a New School grad student at the time, said in a recent interview. Gideonse was the ideal bogeyman, the pretext the students were seeking.

But the radical student faction faced a set of unique challenges in its efforts to galvanize campus dissent and disrupt the institutional power structure, because the students pushing through the crowded hallways of 66 West 12th Street did not constitute a cohesive student body. Gideonse’s “The Abiding Quest for Freedom” coursewas offered in the adult education division, the longest-running program at the school, and by far the largest. Enrollment in the adult division for the year 1964-65 was 18,000 — in the Graduate Faculty over the same period enrollment was 2,200. The adult division students were more diverse in age and goals than the graduate students. They came for a class or two and, being focused on jobs and families, were far less bent on treating the campus as a site of confrontation.

But in 1968 and for a few years to come the radical voices were loud and powerful and echoed across campuses nationwide. They were in ascendance, and it was exhilarating. “It’s something to feel the wind at your back,”says Rick Salutin. And the exhilarated grad students weren’t interested in building bridges with the larger, older, and more diverse adult education students. “We were really emerging as radicals and revolutionaries,” Naomi Jaffe, one of the Gideonse disruptors, said in a recent interview, “so we created a space that was not very welcoming to anybody that didn’t agree with those radical politics.” (Jaffe went on to spend the 1970s on the FBI wanted list as a member of the Weather Underground.)

Academic freedom was a core New School tradition. But whose tradition was it? It meant different things depending on whether you were a graduate student, an administrator, a member of the faculty, or an adult student seeking to squeeze an education into a busy life. What looked like freedom for one group seemed to be constraint to another.

Neither Gideonse nor the “Gideonse affair” is much remembered, now — certainly neither fit the New School Gestalt. But at the time Gideonse sincerely believed that he was carrying forward an idea of freedom that he and Everett and the Graduate Faculty held dear. The grad students, on the other hand, were extracting a new idea from the old and in the process claiming that their interpretation of academic freedom was the school’s founding intention. And the thousands of adult education students who passed through the school each semester, if they’d had time to stop and reflect, would likely have defined freedom — indeed defined the New School itself — in a wholly different way. Today, questions about freedom of speech on university campuses are swirling again, with alt-right claims to the First Amendment high ground, Antifa fighting back, and everybody attempting to navigate the tricky terrain. New School history suggests that the question isn’t so easily settled.

Gideonse remained chancellor until 1975 and retired without fanfare. While he had some nominal involvement in administrative matters, in a way he seems simply to have been absorbed into the wild, discontinuous place.The center rarely holds for long in a place like the New School. The definition of what the school is, of who owns its identity, often seems to be either in flux, in contention, or both. Despite recurrent, expensive efforts to centralize and unite, no one entity can claim ownership rights over the school’s identity. Or maybe it is owned by various forces in succession. Almost from its beginning the school has been more than one thing at once, its shape morphing depending upon where you sit. But as the Gideonse affair’s dispute about academic freedom suggests, in The New School’s search for an identity, a search that the school by its nature resists, maybe the quest itself is the thing.

The quest seems to be continuing today, another half century on, in the New School’s hundredth year. This past spring listening tours have been taking place across the New School community, tours meant to define the qualities the school wants in its next president. The institution is an utterly different place than it was in 1968. We look at our past and see so clearly where things went wrong. There is a self-conscious effort to do things differently this time — to listen to a range of voices; to finally get it right. But one thing the past seems to teach us, too, is how hard it is to see what the meaning and the motivations are of what we’re doing while we’re doing it.

Wendy Scheir directs The New School Archives and Special Collections. She has written and presented on a range of topics related to archives, including institutional identity, historical exhibition, appraisal of design records, and archival finding aids.