In the fall of 1968, a young Columbia Law School student marched down Wall Street to protest the war in Vietnam with thousands of other students.
Forty-three years later, that student, University President Lee Bollinger, says he supports Columbia students who have found themselves downtown in recent weeks, with frustrations that seem to echo his generation’s own.
“I think today there is a similar feeling,” he said, referring to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that began three weeks ago in protest of corporate greed, unemployment, and corruption in the financial sector. “In both, very, very serious things happened. The political systems seemed unable to cope with those problems, and civil demonstrations are perfectly legitimate, reasonable, and at times highly effective ways to change that.”
In an interview with Spectator on Thursday, Bollinger said that financial institutions have not adequately apologized to the American public for their role in the financial meltdown that has left many broke, angry, and worried about the future.
“My own view is that Wall Street bears a very significant share of the responsibility for the failures of these systems and the resulting, negative effects on the entire society and beyond,” he said, adding that financial institutions and government agencies have still not adequately acknowledged their role in the crisis that resulted in the loss of 8.5 million jobs.
Bollinger has served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, an agency which regulates financial institutions and implements monetary policy, since January 2007. In July 2010, he was appointed chair.
“I think the Federal Reserve Bank has acknowledged very publicly that there were major mistakes made, significant mistakes made ... I have admired that willingness to acknowledge that and certainly supported it,” he said. “I do not have the feeling that that has been the wide practice.”
When asked if he wished he had done anything differently with his position at the Federal Reserve, Bollinger said he wished he’d known more.
“I think like everyone, I should have asked more questions,” he said. “I have great respect and admiration for them [employees of the Federal Reserve Bank]. I think they’re deeply committed public servants. These are not people who are lazy or don’t care or who are in the pockets of the people they’re regulating.”
Bollinger said that while he has not spoken to participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests and doesn’t have a “clear sense” of their demands, he understands their anger and is sympathetic to the cause.
“I think there are many ways to engage in this,” he said. “Understanding what happened is very important, trying to fix things is important. I think protesting is just one of many ways. I think it’s fine to do that. I support any kind of civil protest as a form of trying to address the important issues but I do think there are many, many ways.”
As a law school student and recent transplant to New York City, though, Bollinger said he was “very much engaged” with the anti-war movement along with his wife, the artist Jean Magnano Bollinger. He remembers how the protests he attended were broken up with violence and that participants were attacked. He added that he has the sense that political systems have failed to address the concerns of protesters then and now.
“I think people underestimated the amount of anger here,” he said.