Insurrection at Columbia: The Groovy Revolution


You could tell something more than springtime was brewing at Columbia by the crowds around the local Chock Full, jumping and gesturing with more than coffee in their veins. You could sense insurrection in the squads of police surrounding the campus like a Navy picket fence. You could see rebellion in the eyes peering from windows where they didn’t belong. And you knew it was revolution for sure, from the trash.

Don’t underestimate the relationship between litter and liberty at Columbia. Until last Thursday, April 23, the university was a clean dorm, where students paid rent, kept the house rules, and took exams. Then the rebels arrived, in an uneasy coalition of hip, black, and leftist militants. They wanted to make Columbia more like home. So they ransacked files, shoved furniture around, plastered walls with paint and placards. They scrawled on blackboards and doodled on desks. They raided the administration’s offices (the psychological equivalent of robbing your mother’s purse) and they claim to have found cigars, sherry, and a dirty book (the psychological equivalent of finding condoms in your father’s wallet).

Of course this is a simplification. There were issues involved in the insurrection which paralyzed Columbia this past week. Like the gymnasium in Morningside Park, or the university’s ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis. But beyond these specifics, the radicals were trying to capture the imagination of their campus by giving vent to some of its unique frustrations. In short, they had raised the crucial question of who was to control Columbia? Four buildings had been “liberated” and occupied by students. The traditional quietism that had been the pride of straight Columbia was giving way to a mood of cautious confrontation. The groovy revolution — one part dogma to four parts joy — had been declared.

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The rebels totaled upward of 900 during peak hours. They were ensconsed behind sofa-barricades. You entered Fayerweather Hall through a ground floor window. Inside, you saw blackboards filled with “strike bulletins,” a kitchen stocked with sandwiches and cauldrons of spaghetti, and a lounge filled with squatters. There was some pot and a little petting in the corridors. But on Friday, the rebellion had the air of a college bar at 2 a.m. In nearby Avery Hall, the top two floors were occupied by architecture students, unaffiliated with SDS, but sympathetic to their demands. They sat at their drawing boards, creating plans for a humanistic city and taping their finished designs across the windows. In Low Library, the strike steering committee and visiting radicals occupied the offices of President Grayson Kirk. On the other side of the campus, the mathematics building was seized late Friday afternoon. The rebels set about festooning walls and making sandwiches. Jimi Hendrix blared from a phonograph. Mao mixed with Montesquieu, “The Wretched of the Earth” mingled with “Valley of the Dolls.”

It was a most eclectic uprising, and a most forensic one as well. The debates on and around the campus were endless. Outside Ferris Booth Hall, two policemen in high boots took on a phalanx of SDS supporters. Near Low Library, a leftist in a lumberjack shirt met a rightist in a London Fog. “You’ve got to keep your people away from here. We don’t want any violence,” said the leftist. “We have been using the utmost restraint,” answered his adversary. “But,” insisted the lumberjack shirt, letting his round glasses slide down his nose, “this gentleman here says he was shoved.”

In its early stages, at least, it was a convivial affair, a spring carnival without a queen. One student, who manned a tree outside Hamilton Hall, had the right idea when he shouted for all to hear: “This is a liberated tree. And I won’t come down until my demands have been met.”

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Ray Brown stood in the lobby of Hamilton Hall, reading a statement to the press. His followers stood around him, all black and angry. It was 7.30 p.m. Sunday, and the press had been escorted across a barricade of tabletops to stand in the lobby while Brown read his group’s demands. By now, there were dozens of committees and coalitions on the campus, and students could choose from five colors of armbands to express their sympathies (red indicated pro-strike militancy, green meant peace with amnesty, pale blue meant an end to demonstrations, white stood for faculty, and black indicated support for force.)

But no faction worried Columbia’s administrator’s more than the blacks. They had become a political entity at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning when 300 white radicals filed dutifully from Hamilton Hall at the request of the blacks. From that moment, the deserted building became Malcolm X University christened by a sign over the main door. In the lobby were two huge posters of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. That was all whited were allowed to see of Hamilton Hall. The blacks insisted on holding out alone, but by joining the demands of the people in Harlem and the kids in Low, they added immeasurable power to the student coalition. This is easier explained by considering the University’s alternatives. To discharge the students from Hamilton meant risking charges of racism, and that meant turning Morningside Park into a rather vulnerable DMZ. To eject only the whites would leave the University with the blame for arbitrarily deciding who was to be clubbed and who spared.

In short, the blacks made the Administration think twice. And Ray Brown knew it. He read his statement to the press, and after it was over, looked down at those of us taking notes and muttered, “Clear the hall.” We left.

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There was a second factor in the stalemate and its protraction. The issue of university control raised by the radicals had stirred some of the more vocal faculty members into action. They arrived in force on Friday night, when it became known that police were preparing to move. When the administration issued a one hour ultimatum to the strikers early Saturday morning, concerned faculty members formed an ad hoc committee and placed themselves between the students and the police. This line was defied only once — at 3 a.m. Saturday by two dozen plainclothesmen. A young French instructor was led away with a bleeding head. The administration backed down, again licked its wounds, and waited. It played for time, and allowed the more militant faculty members to expend their energies on futile negotiations. All weekend, the campus radio station, WKCR, broadcast offers for settlement and their eventual rejection. While the Board of Trustees voted to suspend construction of the gymnasium pending further study, they made it clear that their decision was taken at the Mayor’s request, and that they were not acceding to any of the striker’s demands. Over the weekend, factions multiplied and confusion grew on campus. This too played into the administration’s hands. Vice-president David B. Truman blamed the violence, the inconvenience, and the intransigence on the demonstrators. When a line of conservative students formed around Low Library to prevent food from being brought to the protesters, the administration ordered food for the anti-picket line at the school’s expense.

Finally, it called the first formal faculty meeting in anyone’s memory for Sunday morning. But it made certain that only assistant, associate, and full professors were present. With this qualification, the administration assured itself a resolution that would seem to signify faculty support. Alone and unofficial, the ad hoc committee persisted in its demands, never quite grasping its impotence until late Monday night, when word began to reach the campus that the cops would move.

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At 2.30 Tuesday morning 100 policemen poured on campus. The students were warned of the impending assault when the University cut off telephone lines in all occupied buildings. One by one, the liberated houses voted to respond non-violently.

While plainclothesmen were being transported up Amsterdam Avenue in city buses marked “special,” the uniformed force moved first on Hamilton Hall. The students there marched quietly from their sanctuary after police reached them via the school’s tunnels. There were no visible injuries as they boarded a bus to be led away, and this tranquil surrender spurred rumors that a mutual cooperation pact of sorts had been negotiated between police and black demonstrators.

Things were certainly different in the other buildings. Outside Low Memorial Library, police rushed a crowd of students, clubbing some with blackjacks and pulling others by the hair. “There’s gonna be a lot of bald heads tonight,” one student said.

Uniformed police were soon joined by plainclothesmen, identifiable only by the tiny orange buttons in their lapels. Many were dressed to resemble students. Some carried books, others wore Coptic crosses around their necks. You couldn’t tell, until they started to operate, that they were cops.

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At Mathematics Hall, police broke through the ground floor window and smashed the barricade at the front door. Students who agreed to surrender peacefully were allowed to do so with little interference. They walked between rows of police, through Low Plaza, and into vans that lined College Walk. In the glare of the floodlights which normally light that part of the campus at night, it looked like a bizarre pogrom. Platoons of prisoners appeared, waving their hands in victory signs and singing “We Shall Overcome.” A large crowd of sympathizers were separated from the prisoners by a line of police, but their shouts of “Kirk Must Go” rocked the campus. Police estimated that at least 628 students were jailed, 100 of them women. Officials at nearby Saint Luke’s Hospital reported that 74 students were admitted for treatment. This figure did not include those who were more seriously injured, since these were removed to Knickerbocker Hospital by ambulance. Three faculty members were reportedly hurt.

Many of the injuries occurred among those students who refused to leave the buildings. Police entered Fayerweather and Mathematics Halls and dragged limp students down the stairs. The sound of thumping bodies was plainly audible at times (demonstrators had waxed the floors to hamper police). Many emerged in masks of vaseline applied to ward off the effects of Mace. Police made no attempt to gas the demonstrators. But some of those who had barricaded themselves in classrooms reported that teams of police freely pummeled them. A line heard by more than one protester, as the police moved to dislodge groups linking arms, was “Up against the wall, motherfuckers.”

There was no example of incredible police brutality visible at Columbia on Tuesday morning. It was all credible brutality. Plainclothesmen occasionally kicked limp demonstrators, often with quick jabs in the stomach. I saw students pulled away by the hair, scraped against broken glass, and when they proved difficult to carry, beaten repeatedly. Outside Mathematics Hall, a male student in a leather jacket was thrown to the ground when he refused to walk and beaten by a half dozen officers while plainclothesmen kept reporters at a distance. When he was finally led away, his jacket and shirt had been ripped from his back.

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The lounge at Philosophy Hall, which had been used by the ad hoc faculty committee as an informal senate, became a field hospital. Badly injured students lay on beds and sofas while stunned faculty members passed coffee, took statements, and supplied bandages. The most violent incidents had occurred nearby, in Fayerweather Hall, where many students who refused to leave were dragged away bleeding from the face and scalp. Medical aides who had moved the injured to a nearby lawn trailed the police searching for bleeding heads. “Don’t take him, he’s bleeding,” you heard them shout. Or: “Pick her up, stop dragging her.”

The cries of the injured echoed off the surrounding buildings and the small quad looked like a battlefield. Those who were awaiting arrest formed an impromptu line. Facing the police, they sang a new verse to an old song:

“Harlem shall awake,
Harlem shall awake,
Harlem shall awake someday … ”

Though two of Mayor Lindsay’s top aides, Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer, had been present throughout the night, neither was seen to make any restraining move toward the police. Commissioner Leary congratulated his men. And University President Grayson Kirk regretted that even such minimal violence was necessary.

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By dawn, the rebellion had ended. Police cleared the campus of remaining protesters by charging, nightsticks swinging, into a large crowd which had gathered around the sundial. Now, the cops stood in a vast line across Low Library Plaza. Their boots and helmets gleamed in the floodlights. Later in the morning, a reporter from WKCR would encounter some of these arresting officers at the Tombs, where the prisoners were being held. He would hear them singing “We Shall Overcome,” and shouting, “victory.”

At present, it is difficult to measure the immediate effects Tuesday’s police intervention will have on the university. Most students are too stunned to consider the future. On Tuesday morning they stood in small knots along Broadway, stepping around the horse manure and watching the remaining policemen leave. Their campus lay scarred and littered. Walks were inundated with newspapers, beer cans, broken glass, blankets, and even discarded shoes. Flower-beds had been trampled and hedges mowed down in some places. Windows were broken in at least three buildings and whole classrooms had been demolished.

It would take a while to make Columbia beautiful again. That, most students agreed. And some insisted that it would take much longer before the university would seem a plausible place to teach or study in again. The revolution had begun and ended in trash, and that litter would persist to haunt Columbia, and especially its president, Grayson Kirk.

1968 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein about the student revolt at Columbia University

1968 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein about the student revolt at Columbia University


Columbia Grad Student Strike Could Hinge on Trump Ruling

The scene that unfolded yesterday on the campus of Columbia University has become a familiar one across the country: teachers leaving their jobs to grab protest signs and join a picket line. The five-hour event — which turned into a rally, then a march, before forming back into a picket line that cut through the center of campus — marked the first day of a planned weeklong strike by more than 1,000 of the university’s graduate students, who are seeking recognition as employees with collective bargaining rights.

“The university has been pretty consistent with their opinion that we’re not workers,” said Rosalie Ray, a Ph.D. student in urban planning who is currently a teaching assistant for one urban planning studio and part of the union bargaining committee. She spoke loudly to be heard over chants from the picket line in the background: “When do we want it?” “Now!” “If we don’t get it…” “Shut it down!”

“Shutting it down” isn’t far off from what graduate students are doing at Columbia. The number of graduate students who participated on the first day left hundreds of core classes and recitations without instructors in the last week of classes before finals.

“People you see walking teach the main undergraduate classes,” Ray said. “There are research assistants, and their labs are currently quiet. There are teaching assistants who may have their own sections. All of those things are shut down.”

Some undergrads looked on with curiosity while others passed by, seemingly indifferent — but many will be affected by the strike. Graduate students teach roughly one-third of the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization sections. The union offered a one-week notice before the strike began, and, according to the Columbia Spectator, teachers adjusted their syllabi in advance. The union also assisted professors who didn’t want to cross the picket line in booking space in local churches in order to hold classes off campus.

The current conflict at Columbia ties into a larger, highly political process of unionizing at private universities, something that ebbs and flows with presidential administrations. When Columbia graduate students voted to unionize in August of 2016, most weren’t expecting Donald Trump to take office three months later. His presidency has pitted students against the Columbia administration in an unlikely battle, with students fighting for bargaining rights they won under Obama, and the university pushing for a court battle under Trump.  


While the Columbia strike piggybacks on a nationwide movement of education strikes from Kentucky to Jersey City, tension between the school’s graduate students and administration has built over several years. Graduate student instructors first discussed the possibility of unionization back in January of 2014. The students’ goal was to improve their labor conditions — in their roles as both teachers and research assistants — and to also have a stronger say in decisions affecting their work.

After graduate students appealed to Columbia for voluntary recognition of the Graduate Workers of Columbia University, the administration hired Proskauer Rose, an international law firm known for its work in labor law, to fight their petition. (Organizers view the firm as anti-union, as it represented both Yale and Duke on their campaigns to block unionization.)  

At the time, the law was on Columbia’s side. After Brown University took its graduate union to court, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 2004 ruling that stated graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, and proctors were not employees of the university, reversing an earlier decision they had made in 2000 allowing a graduate union at New York University.

In 2015, the NLRB dismissed several petitions by the Columbia students for the right to unionize. Then, at the end of that year, the board issued an order granting review of the students’ case to consider whether or not to overturn the Brown ruling. In August of 2016, the board overturned its ruling, at which point Columbia graduate students voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the United Automobile Workers as GWC-UAW Local 2110. (Ed. Note: The UAW also represents Village Voice staff.)

Decisions from the NLRB change with the presidential tide. NYU established its graduate union under Clinton; the Brown case was ruled on under Bush, then overturned under Obama. Three months after the union vote, Donald Trump was elected president and began remaking the NLRB into an agency more hostile to unions. With Columbia declining to bargain, the university is expected to use a number of legal maneuvers to bring a case before a federal appeals court.

At Tuesday’s strike kickoff, anger with the university overlapped with anger at its president, Lee Bollinger. Though Bollinger once said Donald Trump was a “challenge to the central idea of a university,” some students felt he was banking on the Trump administration to help Columbia dissolve their union.

“Bollinger talks a lot about democracy,” said Noah Rauschkolb, a Ph.D. student in renewable energy. “He doesn’t really value it.”

Noura Farra, an international student in the sixth year of her computer science Ph.D., said the political climate has undoubtedly shaped the urgency of unionization. “We need extra protection for international students, who are often the most vulnerable of the graduate population,” she said. The union’s bargaining proposal includes an expedited grievance procedure if undocumented students are facing dismissal from the country. The proposal also asks Columbia “to declare itself as a sanctuary campus and declare their support for international students affected by the political climate,” Farra added.

Graduate students teach roughly one-third of the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization sections.

Sexual harassment of graduate students from professors at the university — which Ray called “an open secret” — also looms large. Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman, a graduate student in Latin American and Iberian cultures who is not teaching her Hispanic Cultures II course this week, said “The university’s mishandling of gender-based misconduct and sexual harassment has been discouraging.” (In a Medium post Allen-Mossman co-signed with a collaboration of Ph.D. students, the authors referenced — but did not name — professors who women are told they “should never be alone in a room” with.) The bargaining proposal, Allen-Mossman said, calls for a neutral, third-party grievance procedure that would better hold sexual harassers and the university accountable for claims of harassment.

Besides the overarching demand for a contract ensuring higher wages, better benefits, clearer work expectations, and more transparent employment policies, some students at the picket line offered more specific concerns. Rauschkolb said the mechanical department, where he studies renewable energy, is known for late pay. “We’re waiting at least six months to get reimbursed” for work and travel, he said. “We want to make sure our contract guarantees we’ll actually get paid on time.”

Ph.D. students also seek better funding for their work. Valerie Stahl, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, said her department doesn’t allow Ph.D. students to teach courses — and therefore uphold their funding — once they’ve been enrolled for five years. “Considering that the median time to a degree in the social sciences nationwide is estimated at eight years, running out of funding after our fifth year is a major concern,” she said.

A Columbia spokesperson sent a statement to the Voice saying that “we have long supported unions and collectively bargain with more than a dozen unions representing thousands of University employees. But we believe that student teaching and research assistants who come to Columbia for an education are not ‘employees’ under the law.” The statement continues, “We do not understand why the GWC-UAW prefers the pressure tactics and disruption of a strike to a definitive, non-partisan resolution of that legal question in the federal courts.”

After students voted overwhelmingly to go on strike, the university offered a concession: medical benefits to the dependents of graduate students. (While graduate students currently get medical benefits, the union is fighting for dental insurance as well.) “So they’re willing to give us some of the money as long as we keep organizing,” Ray said. “But it’s the power-shifting stuff that’s the real struggle.”

As the picket line adapted a chant more commonly reserved for Trump — “Hey hey, ho ho, Bollinger has got to go” — Ray promised the union wasn’t going anywhere. Without recognition, she said, they’re prepared to go back on strike next semester. They know the pressure they put on the university to bargain could have greater repercussions. If the university holds out and sends the case to court — and it rules in Columbia’s favor — it will negatively affect the ability of other private university students to unionize under Trump.

“Columbia could decide at any time to recognize us,” Ray said. “But we think it’s likely we’ll be doing this again.”


Columbia Graduate Student Employees Can Now Unionize

The National Labor Relations Board ruled yesterday that graduate students employed as teachers and research assistants at Columbia University have the right to form a union. The ruling overturns more than a decade of labor precedent and is likely to have wide-ranging implications for private universities around the country.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, graduate student workers at private universities around the country had demanded the right to collectively bargain for contracts with university administrations. Those efforts came to a screeching halt in 2004, when the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency tasked with overseeing labor organizing, ruled that graduate employees’ relationship with their universities is primarily as students, and that for this reason they did not enjoy the rights of employees.

For twelve years, that decision, made by a board dominated by appointees of George W. Bush, has been the law of the land, though graduate employees at public universities, whose rights are protected by state law, could organize. In 2013, New York University, a private institution, opted to voluntarily recognize its graduate workers union. (Full disclosure: As a Village Voice staffer, I’m a member of the United Auto Workers 2110, which represents the NYU graduate students and which supported the Columbia graduate workers throughout their organizing efforts and appeals to the labor board.) NYU was in an unusual situation, however, fighting multi-front wars against unionizing grad students, overburdened adjunct faculty, gouged students, and hostile neighbors angry at its expansion. This exception notwithstanding, graduate organizing at private universities was dead in the water.

But the NLRB is composed of presidential appointments, and while the board that handed down the 2004 decision was dominated by Republican appointees, the current one is stacked with Obama appointees more friendly to workers’ right to collective bargaining. Despite amicus briefs filed by other Ivy League institutions arguing that allowing graduate workers to collectively bargain would damage the educational process, the board opted to reverse its prior decision, rejecting its old reasoning decisively: “Student assistants who perform work at the direction of their university for which they are compensated are statutory employees,” the ruling declares.

The response from graduate organizers was jubilant. “We’re so thrilled to see that two and a half years of organizing has paved the way for union representation,” said Paul Katz, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at Columbia, yesterday. “When I’m working on my own research, I’m clearly a student. But when I’m at the front of the room, teaching fifteen students about, let’s say, the history of ancient Greece, a topic completely removed from my own research, when I’m grading their papers, when I’m providing them with guidance, there’s no doubt that in that capacity, I am a worker, doing the sort of work that makes Columbia University great.”

Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia, said he was pleased with the ruling as well. “It’s part of our democracy that workers have the right to engage in collective bargaining if they wish to, through a union,” Foner said. “I have always found it disconcerting that the Columbia administration, like the administration of many other private universities, has fought so hard to prevent the unionization of these workers.”

In a statement released yesterday, the Columbia administration said that it disagreed with the ruling. “We believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee. First and foremost, students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third-party in this scholarly training.”

The national board ruling leaves unresolved the question of which graduate students will qualify to vote in the election necessary to bring about a union at Columbia, but graduate organizers say that as soon as the local board resolves that issue, they’re eager to begin campaigning, and hope to hold a vote on whether to unionize as soon as possible.


Flat Top Brings the Neighborhood to You

For chefs and restaurateurs, this truly is a town without pity. Rare is the Gotham restaurant that lasts longer than a mayoral term. Yet even with the endless cycle of openings and closings, losing a beloved haunt feels painful. It also intensely focuses attention on the latest darlings. Flat Top, from the team behind nearby hot spot Jin Ramen, is well on its way to achieving darling status.

A bistro nestled in the knolls of Morningside Heights, Flat Top glows with candlelight from inside its expansive front windows. A monochrome mural painted on brick depicts a bridge’s undercarriage, contrasting with a row of wooden booth-backed tables. It’s an inviting space that feels instantly familiar, and Flat Top would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood. On 121st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, it has garnered the attention of Columbia University students and faculty, area residents, and doctors, staff, and visitors from St. Luke’s hospital a few blocks south. Downtown dwellers have also been sniffing around, as word trickles out about chef Charles Cho’s competent cooking.

The uptick in goat, seaweed, and other “it” ingredients is a welcome arrival, but I’ll be damned if I’m not tickled magenta to see another applause-worthy chicken dish in this blustery metropolis — this one a steal at $18. The ample, herb-roasted breast sits in a pool of grassy jalapeño sauce, a scattering of fresh Brussels sprouts leaves evoking the broad strokes of Jasper Johns’s Green Target. Thick disks of potato round out the plate, hidden under the lush sauce.

Service is friendly and helpful, though not without an occasional hiccup. After running into my ophthalmologist dining with his family, I observed them endure an extended wait while the kitchen corrected a technical issue with a plate of mussels. And at the end of one visit, our server neglected to bring the brownie-square petit fours we’d received on previous visits.

“New American” is the moniker food writers give to restaurants with hodgepodge menus. Cho incorporates a broad repertoire, with elements from European and Asian cuisines mingling on the plate, sometimes to ill effect. If the chicken is a study in green, Cho’s striped bass is an ode to yellow. When the place opened in mid-July, summer’s peak corn was starting to pop up. Dining on the eve of a polar vortex, the pile of sweet corn, partially submerged in slightly saccharine peanut-miso vinaigrette, felt out of place. The bass itself was lovely, covered in a ginger panko crust that didn’t overwhelm the delicate fish.

Plating on other dishes is decidedly less dramatic, including another holdover from summer, a bowl of soft burrata cheese enclosed in a ring of off-season cherry tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar and arugula. It has no business being on a winter menu.

Questionable seasonality aside, the menu is full of flourishes that keep things exciting enough to warrant return visits. The brown-and-off-white combination of mushroom risotto beneath Parmesan foam had an extra layer of depth from being cooked in porcini stock. Sister restaurant Jin Ramen’s noodles are a triumph; Cho’s fusion udon pasta comes coated in a slick beurre fondue, a butter emulsion that’s thinner than the more common beurre blanc. Hidden beneath a chiffonade of the mint-like shiso leaf, a quenelle of the marinated Japanese cod roe called mentaiko adds a provocative if grainy texture. It’s a head-scratcher until a squeeze of lemon ties the ingredients together.

Like any good neighborhood restaurant worth its salt, Flat Top features a noteworthy burger. Cho gets a beautiful sear on the organic Angus beef patties, covered in chile-spiked mayonnaise, arugula, and tomato. Best of all is the bun, a house-made brioche affair as soft as a potato roll. Brioche is controversial burger-bun material in that it goes stale quickly and often suffers from overwhelming the meat through bulk. Soft and sleek, this is undoubtedly one of the better brioche burgers available, along with its perfectly crisp Parmesan-dusted steak fries.

Desserts include an invigorating affogato made with vanilla ice cream and Blue Bottle espresso. The bitter blend mellows as it melts the frozen treat. There’s also what appears to be an ode to Marcus Samuelsson’s Arctic Circle dessert from Aquavit 1.0 (goat cheese parfait with blueberry sorbet). Here, it’s goat cheese cheesecake with cranberry compote, the stewed fruit perfectly accenting the sour-sweet dairy.

With the death of every local favorite, a newcomer arrives to take its place. In Manhattan’s northern reaches, a place like Flat Top can have a future.


Watching the Wheels

In order to reach David Andrew King’s office on the third floor of Buell Hall, a beautiful old brick building nestled in the center of Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus, I take a Metro-North train from my home in Fairfield, Connecticut. The station is just a few miles south of where two trains collided in mid-May, injuring more than 70 people, some critically, and halting service on one of the country’s busiest railroads for almost a week. Today, like most days, my train is delayed due to maintenance. My peak-hour one-way ticket cost $15.75, and it takes me an hour and 15 minutes to arrive at the Harlem-125th Street Station. “There’s an old joke,” King will tell me when I arrive. “Everybody’s least favorite transit system is the one they rely on on a daily basis.”

I had wanted to try riding a Citi Bike—the new and controversial bike share program colonizing sidewalks in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn—from the 125th Street Metro-North station to Columbia, but the bike docks don’t yet extend north of 59th Street, so I walk to the subway on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue instead. I pay my $2.50, push through the turnstile, and take the downtown 3 train to 96th Street. I walk the stairs up and around the station, pace the platform for 10 minutes, and then ride the 1 train back uptown to 116th Street—Columbia University.

When I finally knock on King’s door, I’m thinking what most people do at the end of a long commute: There’s got to be a better way. But while so many New York area residents begrudgingly accept inconvenience as a way of life, King is trying to determine what the future of transportation might actually look like in Manhattan, the outer boroughs, the suburbs, and beyond. As an assistant professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, specializing in transportation and land-use issues, King analyzes what makes sense (and what doesn’t) in our transportation system and encourages his students to do the same.

“If we look forward five years, 10 years, 15 years, I suspect that we’re going to have a much different relationship with transportation in our adult lifetimes,” King says. “We’re going to likely have self-driving cars, and really that may have a dramatic influence on cities. Everyone could essentially call a taxi anytime they wanted to. We wouldn’t have to supply parking anymore.”

King teaches four courses under the umbrella of urban planning: a survey course on methods for planning research, a transportation economics and policy class, an elective on transportation and land-use planning, and, finally, a year-long thesis course for second-year master’s students. During the summer months, however, King focuses on his own research, not just studying the city’s past, but imagining its future.

Sitting at his desk with his back to a small window overlooking the campus, King speaks passionately about problems facing our transit system, and how what he sees as a misallocation of public funds and a closed-mindedness toward new technologies have kept it from evolving properly. It’s easy to picture King some 23 years ago as a 20-year-old college dropout opening a bar in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis—the center for the arts in the Twin Cities—and becoming involved in local planning politics after his friends’ independent coffee shops were forced to provide a high number of coveted parking spaces for their modest, 1,000-square-foot businesses.

“It ruined their opportunity,” says King, who went on to complete both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota before earning a Ph.D. from UCLA. “That was one of the things that got me interested: the way cities value the arts and small-scale business.”

King has written extensively on cruising for parking spots, a common phenomenon that worsens congestion in the city and contributes to air pollution. In theory, the solutions to these kinds of problems sound like little more than common sense: Encourage people to forgo their cars by improving public transportation choices, revamping taxi and jitney services, or hiking parking fines and congestion tolls.

“I’m very interested in what cities and communities can do,” he explains. “I’m skeptical that we should be sitting around with our urban problems and waiting for Albany or waiting for Washington to step in and make the changes.”

The MTA serves roughly 10 million trips per day, fully one-third of the daily transit trips in the entire country. Yet New York’s subway and bus systems seem poorly equipped to get commuters where they actually need to go.

“Our transit system is focused on getting people in and out of the Manhattan core, but that’s not where the jobs are growing; the jobs are growing in the outer boroughs and suburbs,” King says. “It’s very difficult if you live in the South Bronx to get to a job in Brooklyn. The distance might not be any different than the distance to midtown, but it’s impossible for you to get there in a reasonable amount of time. That is a huge challenge to the city. How can we provide the appropriate transportation choices to where people need to go, and not just in and out of midtown?”

Ultimately, what King craves is innovation—a sign that real progress is being made, and that the city is not just spinning its wheels, so to speak, with easy fixes. Citi Bike is one such solution, according to King, and even if it’s met with opposition from residents who don’t want to see bike share stations installed in front of their apartment buildings, he believes the new program will eventually win over the majority of the public.

“I think the biggest challenge to it, just like any investment or any change, is that there is a strong status quo bias,” says King, who hopes Citi Bike will quickly expand to Morningside Heights and other parts of the city. “As people are introduced to it, it turns out they love it, and the few people who are opposed will eventually change their minds when they realize it’s not a terrible thing.”

King also sees students as an ideal demographic for programs like Citi Bike. “Students are a natural fit for this,” he explains. “They’re also a natural fit for car shares, because they’re not going to have access to a car to the same degree. Another advantage of students is they have odd schedules. With setting a bike share up in a commuter neighborhood, the rack will be filled at 8, and then at 8:05 it will be empty. But students come and go throughout the day, so they will naturally redistribute the bikes a little bit easier.”

What may truly determine the future of transportation in major metropolitan areas, King believes, is the pairing of vehicle shares and new technologies. Cars that can park themselves and adjust their speed according to traffic flow are already on the market, but companies like Toyota, Audi, and even Google are making gains in developing fully autonomous systems.

King predicts that once implemented, self-driving cars will look something like a sophisticated, high-tech taxi network. This, along with a changing economy, could soon make vehicle ownership a thing of the past.

“If people decide that they don’t want to own their vehicles anymore, that will have a dramatic effect,” says King. “Young people now are more likely to have student loan debt, and it’s very difficult to, in your 20s, buy a house, buy a car, pay off your student loans, save for retirement. Something’s got to give, and it seems like the house and the car are going away because they require a substantial amount of upfront money.”

King’s former students, ironically, may be some of the few who will still be able to afford car loans. Planning is “booming” right now, according to King, and he says that his school’s recent alumni are finding jobs working for the city, the state, consulting firms, architecture firms, engineering firms, and community advocacy groups to help organizations better navigate an ever-changing urban landscape. King’s former teaching assistant Maxwell Sokol graduated from the program in 2012 and is now a planner at Parsons Brinckerhoff, a large planning, engineering, and construction management organization in New York. Since starting his job last September, Sokol has been working on a high-profile environmental impact statement for the Department of City Planning concerning a proposed rezoning of a 73-block area surrounding Grand Central Terminal.

If King’s predictions are right, however, the urban landscape that organizations like Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Department of City Planning are hoping to navigate will be far less congested in years to come. But even for someone like King, it is still hard to determine exactly what this New York will look like, or when it will arrive.

“It’s difficult for me to say what the optimal way is,” he says earnestly, “but it’s not what we have now.”


Fred Hersch

Columbia University’s hip Program in Narrative Medicine presents the New York premiere of My Coma Dreams, a jazz-theater work based on dreams and nightmares the fine pianist experienced during a two-month near-death blackout in 2008. The patient ultimately triumphs in Hersch’s humanist collage of free improvisation, Thelonious Monk-ish compositions, and musical-theater tunes.

Sat., March 2, 3 & 8 p.m., 2013


Free Online Classes: Unlocking the Ivory Tower

If you haven’t heard of MOOCs yet, you will. In fact, if you haven’t already taken a MOOC, seriously, what’s wrong with you? MOOCs are taking the educational world by storm: The New York Times has already proclaimed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC”; Columbia University will offer its first MOOCs this spring, while the University of Virginia fired its president (temporarily, it turned out) for foot-dragging on MOOCs. Blogs and educational journals are awash with debates over whether MOOCs are the future, are overhyped, will save higher education or destroy it.

For the uninitiated, MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, and they are simple enough to envision, if a bit unsettling for those whose notion of college coursework invariably involves desks, whiteboards, and the physical presence of other living human beings. Drawing from the online courses that have become increasingly popular in recent years, MOOCs blast down the two main barriers to access to higher education—having to pay tuition and having to be admitted to college—by opening themselves up to all comers, for free. This leads to some eye-popping class sizes—100,000-student classes aren’t unusual—and equally eye-popping claims about how the new format will revolutionize the world of higher education.

Courses in which students and professors never meet face to face aren’t new, of course. Columbia chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan notes that the university’s engineering school began offering learn-by-VHS-tape courses way back in 1986. And the past several years have already seen many forays into online coursework, including Khan Academy and Apple’s iTunes U, which provide college-level educational videos for download.

The difference with MOOCs, says Andrew Ng, the soft-spoken Stanford computer-science professor who, along with his colleague Daphne Koller, launched the for-profit MOOC company Coursera in April, is “we’re not just offering video; we’re offering complete courses. We went through the student course experience and pervasively tried to figure out which are the components that could be provided at scale to 100,000 students.”

The heart of the idea behind MOOCs is what’s being called the “flipped classroom,” already a hot trend in brick-and-mortar courses: Instead of having professors waste their time on canned lectures that students nap through, get them to put those talks online, for students to watch at their own leisure, opening up class time for actual discussion. “We know that students learn best not by passively listening but by practicing with the material,” says Ng. “And I think the website does a better job providing that than does a large lecture class.”

Ng’s deeper goal, though, is more lofty: not just to bring college coursework into the Internet age, but also to bring it to the masses. “What I’d love to do is to give everyone in the world free access to the best professors from the best universities,” says Ng. “I think the world would be a more interesting place if we could give a poor kid in Africa nearly the equality of opportunity as a kid born in the wealthy suburbs of D.C.”

Throwing open the gates of academia and allowing knowledge to spill out certainly sounds great. But the reports from the ground are more complex: While super-massive classes have promise, say MOOC veterans, putting together the components of a successful classroom out of YouTube videos and a Web discussion board is far easier said than done.

The popularity of MOOCs, advocates say, speaks for itself. Coursera in particular has quickly piled up head count, registering more than 2 million students in its first nine months. (“We reached our first million users faster than Facebook,” boasts Ng.) Those are impressive numbers, even if only a small fraction of students who sign up complete the courses—likely an unavoidable consequence of a system in which enrolling is as simple, and commitment-free, as clicking a single Web button.

And universities have proved equally enthusiastic, with MOOC offerings rising exponentially every semester: More than 21 major universities have signed up with Coursera, while others have affiliated with Udacity (also launched at Stanford) and edX (a joint start-up by Harvard and MIT). “They’re all jostling for position, I think, not entirely sure where they’re going to go,” says Martin Haugh, who will teach one of the inaugural Columbia MOOCs, in financial engineering and risk management, via Coursera starting next month.

Haugh and his co-instructor, Garud Iyengar, have taught online courses before, but never one of this size. (As of early December, more than 30,000 students had already signed up, and the final count could be double that.) Haugh says they’re still feeling their way about how to translate the coursework into a massive format, including Coursera’s recommended system of taped mini-lectures of eight to 15 minutes, interspersed with quizzes.

Part of MOOCs’ popularity with students, no doubt, is the first “O.” By design, they’re available for free to anyone with a Web browser. “I’m pretty broke right now, so I can’t afford college classes,” explains Christine Segarra of Yonkers, who was tipped off to Coursera by a friend after she’d dropped out of college for financial reasons. She signed up for a Michigan course on science fiction and fantasy and is now taking a Duke class in reasoning and argument. “I haven’t been to school in six, seven years, so it’s good to get my feet wet,” she says.


Even those who have dropped out of MOOCs before finishing—Coursera won’t release completion rates, but many individual courses have reported figures below 10 percent—have good things to say about the material available for free home learning. Grant Bremer, a Brooklyn resident who works in the financial industry, is perhaps a typical MOOC student in that he has started several classes, but finished none, something he blames on the demands of a full-time job and family. “I enjoyed it for those three weeks,” he says. “I really love the content there—it’s fantastic that I can interface with a professor from Stanford or Princeton. But it feels so distant and impersonal. It’s just a series of YouTube lectures and multiple-choice questions.”

Laura Gibbs, a literature professor at the University of Oklahoma, signed up for the same fantasy course as Segarra, for a different reason: She has taught online courses for years, though limited to about 30 students per class. “I love teaching online, and I think it has so much potential. Is ‘massive’ part of that potential or not? I’m really not sure.”

Gibbs ended up blogging about her experience at, relating tales of the growing pains that strike when professors and students alike are thrown headlong into the mass Internet. Much of her ire was reserved for the Coursera discussion boards—the piece that is supposed to make MOOCs more than just another way to sit around in your pajamas and watch educational videos, yet which she says turned into an unmoderated free-for-all that included everything from basic questions going unanswered for weeks to Americans criticizing their U.K. classmates for using British spellings. Bremer is equally dismissive: “My first reaction to the discussion board was this was crap—a whole bunch of people saying, ‘I’m from the West Coast!’ ‘I’m from Brazil!’ There was a lot of noise to get through.”

It’s a complaint that points to a deeper problem with the open aspect of MOOCs: If a large part of the value of a college education is the discussions you have with other students about the material, in a MOOC no one knows whether the student next to them, is, as it were, a dog. “At the university, you take a class, you have prerequisites,” says Bremer. “There’s an assumed level of competency. Yet there’s none of that here.”

While Gibbs says it can be fantastic to get people from around the world collaborating, she agrees that it can present a huge challenge as well: “People did show up at this class with all kinds of purposes in mind—some of which were like the purposes of a University of Michigan upper-division English major, and some of which were very different, like all the international students who just wanted to practice their English. Now, practicing English is a great thing to do, but it’s not something that this professor, I don’t think, had in mind when he designed the course or chose the books.”

Ng says that making the discussion boards “more social” is at the top of his to-do list and notes that students are increasingly using Meetup to arrange face-to-face study groups, especially in major cities like New York. But other MOOC problems seem more inherent to the format. Grading is one of these. Because even modern adjuncts would balk at grading 30,000 papers in one sitting, Coursera has instead turned to a two-tier model: automated evaluation and peer grading.

Each has its drawbacks, say MOOC veterans. Automated scripts are, well, automated, and are best limited to subjects like math or engineering where multiple-choice exams are the norm. (It’s generally agreed that MOOCs have a tougher time with humanities coursework; Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has stated bluntly, “We are not doing humanities.”) Yet even in strictly quantitative subjects like math, Bremer argues, multiple-choice grading for college-level courses leaves a lot to be desired, since there’s no way to give partial credit, say, for a correctly reasoned answer undermined by a single flipped minus sign somewhere in the calculation.

To allow for more complicated assignments, such as essays, some Coursera courses have turned to peer grading, in which students mark up one another’s papers and rate them on a scale of 0 to 3 for both form and content—arrived at, according to Ng, after determining that more detailed scales were too daunting for amateur graders.


Yet farming out the grading process to the masses comes with some knotty problems. In her blog, Gibbs detailed reader comments that ranged from useless (“Ug”) to hostile (“My guess is you lived in one of the Carolinas where you neither spoke nor wrote a high quality of English”)—something exacerbated, she says, by automated software that gives students credit for commenting on one another’s work but which has no way of judging the quality of the comments.

Things can get even dicier, say MOOC students, when it comes to plagiarism, which many have worried will be the format’s Achilles heel. Peer graders in Gibbs’s class were directed by other students to use anti-plagiarism sites such as PlagTracker, which inaccurately flagged quotations from source material as plagiarized—leading to a backlash in which students pressed one another to promise not to check for plagiarism at all. And besides, adds Bremer, the penalties for violating an online honor code are minimal: “Are you going to lose your tuition? Are you going to go before the honor committee? No, you just open up another account and there you go.”

Even if MOOCs can clear these hurdles, two more huge ones loom before free online classes can put any significant dent in the way that academia is constructed. First off, no MOOCs thus far offer college credit: Coursera in particular outright bans credit for its courses, instead offering “certificates” that, in theory, students can wave at prospective employers in lieu of an actual diploma to show their competence in a subject. One reason for this is no doubt to ward off fears by university partners that MOOCs will provide a way for students to evade paying tuition; another has to do with the troubling prospect of pass-fail online credits being graded either by a computer or by 15-year-old kids in São Paulo.

An even bigger question, meanwhile, is how to pay for all the staff time involved in developing and implementing Web-optimized courses, not to mention the cash that the MOOC companies require to run their end of the bargain. (Coursera and Udacity are both for-profit enterprises; the smaller edX is nonprofit.) Ng is loath to consider charging even a nominal fee for classes—”poor kids in India, poor kids in China, not only do they not have five dollars, they don’t even have a credit card,” he says—but ask how he plans to make all this pay for itself, and things get more nebulous: Students could be charged a nominal fee if they want a certificate, he suggests. (Udacity recently began experimenting with an $89 proctored exam for students who desire a meatier credential.) Last month, Coursera also announced Coursera Career Services, in which job recruiters will pay a fee to get the names of top computer-science-course certificate-holders; no word on any headhunter interest in fantasy writers.

And while universities have been quick to throw their hats into the MOOC ring, their long-term goals seem to be less about breaking down ivy walls than learning how to supplement what their paid students are already learning. Columbia’s main goal in joining Coursera, says Sreenivasan, is to “get a sense of what we can learn from this new big space that can also apply to our students. We want to try various experiments, and this is just one set of those.” His counterpart at Michigan, Martha Pollack, says that if MOOCs are going to have a future, they’re going to need to spin off some benefits for the universities providing the content: “Either it’s going to have to make a tremendous difference for our students on campus, or we’re going to have to have some kind of financial model that allows us to break even.”

From what MOOC students say, colleges have little to worry about in terms of competition: Every student interviewed by the Voice agreed that while online courses are great, they’re no substitute for real college coursework. And even Ng agrees that virtual study groups can’t fully replace the college atmosphere: “If you’re admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, and you’re debating staying at home and taking online courses, I would say go to the university for sure. A university experience is much more than just content.”

Gibbs, meanwhile, thinks that trying to turn MOOCs into an extension of the traditional classroom is exactly the wrong way to harness the power of online learning, especially because there are already plenty of online textbooks and YouTube educational videos for Web learners to choose from. “I think the real power of MOOCs is not as content delivery; I think the power of MOOCs is in getting people to create and collaborate together,” says Gibbs, citing DS106, a digital storytelling class that University of Mary Washington professors Jim Groom and Alan Levine have offered since the spring of 2010, where students team up to create everything from radio plays to movie posters. “Get people to make a wiki,” she suggests. “Get them to annotate The Iliad in Slovenian and put it online.


“What these MOOCs have shown us is that people want to use the Internet for education—they don’t just want to share cat pictures,” continues Gibbs. “The missing ingredient right now in terms of online education is not content. The missing ingredient is not superstar professors from elite universities. The missing ingredient is educational communities that really work.”

For now, though, the pioneers of this brave new world remain cautiously hopeful. “I think it could really revolutionize education,” says Haugh, the Columbia MOOC prof. “But what do I know?”


Disaster Preparedness Researcher Says We Failed to Learn Our Lesson from Hurricane Katrina

A pretty catastrophic hurricane hit the Gulf Coast in 2006 that should have served as a lesson to the rest of the U.S. on the importance of disaster preparedness.

Unfortunately, the problems we’ve seen in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are all too similar to those that persisted during Hurricane Katrina, Irwin Redlener, a professor of public health at Columbia University, said at yesterday’s “After Sandy: Climate and Our Coastal Future” panel discussion at Columbia.

“Every single problem that you may have seen or may see as the weeks and months roll on, was forewarned by our experiences back then,” Redlener said. “All of it was forewarned by what happened in Katrina in 2005.”

Redlener acknowledged the admirable courage that many first responders displayed during Sandy. But, he ultimately concluded that the overall preparation and response to the storm was unacceptable — a conclusion supported by the myriad of power, public health and structural mishaps that crippled many parts of the Tri-State Area.

“We get very excited. We’re having symposiums like this. There’s a lot of media coverage. At some point we’re going to be hit with another blast of complacency,” Redlener said. “And, this is what I really am concerned about: ‘how to keep up the momentum that we currently have, for at least a few minutes now, to try and make sure that we really reach towards real solutions.”

Redlener was particularly critical of our evacuation systems, infrastructure systems, and lack of dedication to protecting the vulnerable members of society: the young, the elderly and the poor from natural disaster.

He said he’s been calling for sweeping improvements to the country’s infrastructure since 2006 — an ambitious project which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates would cost the U.S. $2.2 trillion to undertake.

Redlener understands what an enormous price-tag the project carries but believes it would serve as a tremendous stimulus and job-creator for the economy. He noted that if his call for nation-wide infrastructure improvement had been heeded back in 2006, we’d be several years into construction by now, and it would’ve cost the country $1.7 trillion back then.

He and other panelists also argued for more substantive discourse about climate change in politics and the media. NASA Climate researcher Cynthia Rosenzweig said Hurricane Sandy was a very unique and rare type of storm — in terms of size, direction, surge and speed.

“It was a one-in-multi-century event. It’s hard to know exactly because we don’t have a lot of data for 500, 600, 700 years storms. But absolutely, it was a multi-century event,” Rosenzweig said.

Despite her analysis of the “unique” storm, Rosenzweig’s research indicates that global warming is having a real effect on the impact of strong storms — particularly when it comes to rising sea-levels and flooding.

“When you have sea level rise, it’s like having a higher basketball court,” she said. “When you’re going to try and do a slam-dunk, or have a coastal flooding storm, your base is higher and it’s easier to have that slam-dunk of coastal flooding.”

Fellow panelist Adam Sobel, a researcher of ocean climate physics at Columbia University, projects that storms are becoming increasingly more intense, but cautions that there’s not enough data available to be absolutely certain.

“Our understanding of the physics tells us that they will, and our best computer models tell us that they will,” Sobel said. “It’s too soon to see ahead in the observations -not because of any scientific problem other than that the hurricanes vary so much naturally. There’s so much natural fluctuation that it takes a long time to see a trend.”

Redlener called for the conversation about climate change to move beyond just the realm of science, and seriously enter into the dialogue of national and local politics.

“The fact of the matter is that science alone rarely brings about the changes that we all desire,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are really going to have to address [the problem], with the big dollars, big commitment and big-boy pulpits.”


Goodbye, Affirmative Action?

On October 10, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could spell the end of affirmative action at U.S. universities. Fisher v. University of Texas is a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student whose 2008 university application was rejected, she claims, because of her race.

Depending on how the court rules on Fisher next year, the complexion of college campuses could drastically change, particularly at the most competitive schools. Because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires all institutions receiving federal funds (which most schools do in the form of student loans and grants) to comply with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, private as well as public universities would feel the effects. It’s one reason why both Columbia University and Fordham University have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of race-based affirmative action.

“A decision overruling affirmative action would be disastrous,” says Michael Olivas, the director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston. “There is simply no substitute for race.”

Yet schools will push for a diverse student body, even if the use of racial preferences is outlawed. Many observers predict that if race is outlawed as a factor in admissions, it will give way to a proxy: economic class.

Fisher is just the latest in a long series of court cases attempting to determine where to draw the line on race as a consideration for admission to colleges and universities. The Supreme Court’s last major affirmative action ruling, in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, allowed the continued use of race as one factor in admissions decisions for the purpose of creating diversity.

At the University of Texas, where Fisher was denied admission, race only plays a small direct role in admissions. In 1998, the university instituted a race-neutral “10 percent” plan that fills about 70 percent of its admissions slots. Under the plan, high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class are guaranteed admission to any public university in the state. Because high schools in Texas remain largely segregated, this method has proved effective in ensuring that nonwhite students still have a shot at state universities: UT now ranks sixth in the nation in granting undergraduate degrees to students of color.

For the remaining applicants, UT does a full file review, which includes looking at high school grades, SAT scores, performance on a test that the university administers, recommendations, high school classes taken, quality of high school attended—and, yes, race.

Fisher’s lawyers say she does not object to the 10 percent rule. But the Supreme Court is free to strike down any part of UT’s admission policy, from the 10 percent rule, which is peculiar to UT, to the use of affirmative action altogether.

“The court doesn’t often take cases that are idiosyncratic, so you begin to wonder whether some justices may want to reconsider the basic principle set down in Grutter v. Bollinger,” says Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and the defendant in the 2003 case when he was president of the University of Michigan. “That would be a tragedy, and I and others hope that won’t happen.”

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the University of California presents itself as a cautionary tale of the possible effects of outlawing affirmative action. California ordered its universities to stop using race in admissions in 1996; since then, the percentage of first-year students at UC Berkeley who are African American has fallen from 7.3 percent to 3.5 percent, and at UCLA from 6.7 percent to 3.8 percent. UC says in its brief that none of its alternative efforts—outreach programs, putting less weight on SAT scores, instituting a percentage program, even considering an applicant’s life circumstances and family income—have worked.

Bollinger predicts the same will happen to private universities if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action. “You will end up with student bodies that look much as they did at any university in the 1960s or ’70s,” he says.

Deborah Archer, associate dean of academic affairs at New York Law School, sees firsthand the need for classroom diversity. She teaches courses on civil rights and racial discrimination. “If I have a class of 18 white students, one black student, and one Latino, my class can’t have a helpful discussion,” she says. “What happens is that one black student becomes the spokesperson for the whole race. Students leave thinking that’s what all black people think. There has to be a diversity of perspectives in order to have a rich class discussion.”

While Bollinger and Archer paint a dire picture of a future without affirmative action, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, holds out hope for economics-based affirmative action. “Universities have put into place a new system,” he says. “They don’t directly provide a preference based on race, but they are making admissions decisions with an eye to the end result of creating racial and economic diversity.”


Kahlenberg argues that economically disadvantaged students deserve a leg up in admissions, but they aren’t getting any extra help. He points to a study by the Century Foundation and Georgetown University that found socioeconomic obstacles outweigh those of race on SAT performance. And yet as a study by former Princeton president William Bowen has found, black, Latino, and Native American students get a 28 percent boost in admissions over what would otherwise be expected given their academic records, while low-income students receive none.

Under affirmative action, Kahlenberg says, “universities assemble classes with fairly wealthy students of all races. As long as universities are allowed to use race in admissions, they are unlikely to pay attention to socioeconomic status. Rather than use race as a proxy for disadvantage, a fair system would give the preference based on disadvantage itself. This way, we add economic diversity alongside racial and ethnic diversity.”

Kahlenberg co-authored a new Century Foundation report that shows economics-based affirmative action has created diverse campuses at schools where the outlawing of racial preferences initially produced a drop in minority enrollment. UT Austin, University of Washington, and University of Florida, among others, looked at parental income, personal hardship, family responsibilities, status as a first-generation college student, and average SAT score at the applicant’s high school. This focus on economic factors has produced at least as much racial and ethnic diversity as racial preferences had in the past.

Richer universities such as Columbia are in the best position to put economics-based affirmative action to work, says Kahlenberg, since they can provide financial aid for students who need it. Yet they have preferred race-based plans, which skew toward admitting more higher-scoring middle- and upper-class students of color: 86 percent of all African-American students admitted to the most selective universities, a subset of whom get in without affirmative action, are from middle- to upper-class families.

In fact, according to Bollinger, Columbia reviews all applications for many factors, including socioeconomics and race. But he warns that looking at socioeconomics alone will not result in a diverse class: “Most people who are from lower socioeconomic standing in the society are white, and if you look only at socioeconomic status of the family, then you will more likely admit a white student than an African-American, Hispanic, or Native American student.”

“If your goal is racial representation, then using race is far more efficient,” Kahlenberg says. “My argument is that we should be concerned about economic diversity as well, but universities would have to admit some low-income white and Asian students along the way, and that’s not something they’re interested in doing.”

One program that could serve as a model for economics-based affirmative action is New York state’s Educational Opportunity Program, which was established in 1967. EOP admits and provides support for economically disadvantaged students who show potential but who do not have all the credentials for admittance to a particular university.

Stony Brook University EOP Director Cheryl Hamilton defines potential as a student who, despite disadvantages, shows the desire to succeed academically. Some EOP students, for example, graduate at the top of their class, but their high schools are under-resourced and might not have provided college-prep work. Hamilton attributes the program’s success (its six-year graduation rate is 78 percent) to a structured tutor program and intensive academic counseling that focuses on the unique needs of every student.

Race is not a factor in being admitted to EOP, and yet the program creates diversity because it takes the same approach in reviewing applicants that Kahlenberg advocates. The program looks at extenuating circumstances in the lives of its applicants, including their economic status, whether they attended an under-resourced school, or had to work to support themselves or even their families. (Columbia offers the Higher Education Opportunity Program, the private school version of the program.)

“EOP is open to students [of all races],” explains David L. Ferguson, associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Stony Brook. “However, these programs have a mission to increase the representation of economically disadvantaged and underrepresented students.”

Although Stony Brook does not use affirmative action in admissions decisions, Ferguson does believe that race should be considered to foster an environment in which students can examine many different perspectives. “A diversity of people and ideas strikes me as what universities ought to be about,” he says. “There are historical patterns of discrimination that have been so egregious that colleges and universities have a responsibility to consider that history in admitting and supporting students.”

There is an effort to counter the diversity argument, and Roger Clegg is at the forefront. He’s president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that focuses on issues of race and ethnicity, in Falls Church, Virginia. Clegg argues that diversity doesn’t justify discrimination—especially because, in his view, the educational benefits of diversity are little while the costs, which he says include divisiveness and resentment, are high.


“It’s simply untenable to have a legal regime that sorts people according to skin color and treats some people better and other people worse on the basis of which silly little box they check,” Clegg says. “More and more it’s Asians who are being discriminated against in favor of Latinos. What’s the historical justification for that?”

Robert Teranishi, a professor of higher education at New York University and the author of Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Education, says this is an oversimplification. “It’s not like universities say we’re going to reject student A so we can admit student B,” Teranishi says. “It doesn’t work that way. Race is just one factor among many that colleges have to take into account. In fact, legacy admits [students given preference for admission to a university because a family member is an alumnus] can be a large portion of incoming students at highly selective schools, and rarely do legacy admits include Asian Americans, blacks, or Latinos.”

Eliminating affirmative action forces universities to be more resourceful in getting the students they want. In fact, a few of the universities Kahlenberg studied—UC, Texas A&M, and the University of Georgia—discontinued legacy preferences along with racial preferences. Kahlenberg says that was a positive effect of the ban on race-conscious admissions and that more universities should do the same.

Still, the most qualified minority candidates admitted to the top schools via affirmative action would be most impacted.

If affirmative action is struck down, Orfield worries, and class-based affirmative action becomes the rule, it will be these middle- and upper-class students admitted to top universities under the policy who will lose.

“The top schools in this country produce a disproportionate number of our leaders,” Orfield says. “Where you go to school matters a lot.”


Stopping the Next Plague

Simon Anthony thumbs his iPhone while standing in line at a busy deli near Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights. While waiting to pay for his meatballs and french fries, an e-mail from a radiology lab pinged his inbox: the results from samples of monkey blood serum that he’d had analyzed for an enzyme that betrays the presence of retroviruses similar to HIV.

“Oh, this is interesting,” he says without lifting his eyes.

He’s searching for zoonotic viruses, the sort that are capable of jumping from animals to humans, which is his specialty. He is a key researcher in the largest-ever virus hunt, a global $75 million project, funded largely by the United States Agency for International Development. Called PREDICT, its aim is to identify “the next HIV” before it breaks out.

In just a couple of years, the 31-year-old has discovered 130 novel viruses. Now, the e-mail on his phone suggests that he will be adding one more.

He is tall and slender, with light brown hair that forms a small wave. In his London accent, he draws out vowels, particularly when he says viiiruses. He is a trained opera singer who practices tap dance and the waltz during otherwise wasted minutes of laboratory life, like waiting for a centrifuge to stop spinning. In and out of the lab, he wears V-neck sweaters, skinny jeans, and stubble, an unassuming uniform for someone who spies on nature’s conspiracies to unleash a plague on New York.

Every year, he sifts through 5,000 samples of blood and tissue, many from wild animals in disease hot spots around the world. But he chases down threats close to home, too. Already this year, through molecular detective work, he has uncovered two important finds in New York and the region: specimens related to HIV in bush meat smuggled into John F. Kennedy International Airport and a deadly avian flu that leaped into seals in New England—evidence that it might spread into humans.

Rather than wait for pandemics to occur, scientists like Anthony try to stay one step ahead. This approach, called “biological intelligence,” or “surveillance,” is similar to how the CIA keeps tabs on foreign governments.

Surveillance is the first step in the modern approach to combating infectious diseases, which have skyrocketed over the past century and kill more people worldwide than cancer. Scientists believe this method is crucial, considering that, like HIV and SARS, three-quarters of new illnesses come from wild creatures.

But Anthony’s goal is not simply prediction, but to understand the natural balance of pathogens and what throws it out of whack. Little is known about the universe of viruses, like how and why they hopscotch among species or how many exist. By charting it, Anthony hopes to better understand the dangers they pose, to learn how to prevent transmission, and to create necessary therapeutics.

And his contribution has been remarkable. His discoveries represent about 7 percent of viruses known to science. Although no official count exists, Stephen S. Morse, former director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness, believes the young scientist holds a unique distinction. “I don’t think anyone else can make the claim to have found so many new viruses,” says Morse, who is the director of PREDICT.

And today, it looks like Anthony is close to another quarry. There is evidence of retroviruses in the monkey serum he had tested. The image on Anthony’s iPhone is of X-ray film containing a matrix of dots. Eight of 10 are opaque, a sign that there are traces of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, a substance retroviruses hijack cells with. He decides to delay other tests, of throat swabs taken from sick gorillas, to pursue the lead. “Maybe I’ll just bump everything on my to-do list,” he says. “Scientific intrigue trumps everything else.”

After lunch, hot on the trail, Anthony hustles to the Center for Infection and Immunity, part of Columbia University, where he is a postdoctoral fellow. The lab occupies the top three floors of a tower on West 168th Street. It has wood floors, glass-walled offices, and large windows framing the George Washington Bridge. Hovering over countertops crammed with tubes and pipettes, more than 60 researchers work at the center. The place hums with the sound of oversize freezers cooling samples—thousands of plastic vials holding the DNA of viruses.

It is one of a half-dozen labs dedicated to pathogen discovery, the science of finding harmful microorganisms, and is one of the best virus-hunting machines on earth: More than 500 novel agents have been discovered there, more than at any other lab. Its scientists have been instrumental in spurring the use of molecular techniques to look for DNA, a widely imitated advancement that allows scientists to find viruses in a matter of days. Until just five years ago, it took years.


Viruses have no cells of their own; they break into a host cell and reproduce, often killing the host. Likened to lunar modules for their shapes, they are one-hundredth the size of bacteria and are not, strictly speaking, alive.

Anthony is searching one serum for retrovirus DNA. He sets up a test called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique used in forensic DNA fingerprinting. PCR copies genes many times, so they are easier to detect. He outfits himself with the weapons of a virus hunter: latex gloves, disposable fabric sleeves, pipettes. And an occasional silly joke: Another researcher who works nearby suggests they write a song describing PCR and post it on YouTube. “It’ll go viral,” she says. Then, with a look of concentration, he injects monkey serum samples—transparent liquid in clear tubes—into new vials filled with a liquid that will bind to retrovirus DNA.

Many of his discoveries begin this way. His goal is to obtain sequences of virus genetic code, which subsequent steps will fill in. When in hand, Anthony will plug them into BLAST, an open-source database of DNA sequences. If the piece of code is not there, he has discovered another new virus.

The samples—blood, tissue, feces—arrive by mail every three months. Inside a nondescript cardboard box is a layer of dry ice and 500 plastic vials. He inventories each tube and places it into the large freezers, like giant Frigidaires, where they are kept at 80 degrees below zero Celsius. The lab has so many—it receives 10,000 a year for all the projects—some had to be moved to a spillover bank in the Bronx.

Because wild animals produce the majority of infectious agents, the project sends field veterinarians around the world to sample primates, rodents, and bats, which are released unharmed. Those animals are hugely abundant, live near humans, and are close relatives of ours, so viruses they carry can jump to us with relative ease. Most samples are shipped to Anthony.

Periodically, he travels to the Amazon or other hot spots to scope out animal populations for testing. But a sterile lab environment seems a more natural workplace for the London-born scientist, who wears a zebra-striped bow tie. As a colleague from one trip recalls, he was comically “out of his element” in the Peruvian Amazon. Anthony recounts the trip with dry humor. “I’d have my little field gear on, and they’d be like, ‘Aren’t you hot?'” he says, mimicking his friends. “They took the mickey out of me for wanting to look clean, even when it was sort of sweltering in this blipping forest. I’d be like: ‘No. The vest goes with this outfit.'”

His colleague explains, “He wanted to look just right even though we were in a place where there was no looking good.”

Although PREDICT was not the first effort to hunt viruses this way, it is the largest. The project is halfway through a five-year grant, and tens of thousands of samples have been collected. Mostly through Anthony’s analysis, it has found 150 viruses. “It sounds great; it sounds really impressive,” he says. “But it really is just a case of turning over the stones to see what’s underneath.” The majority of viruses are not harmful; Anthony has not identified anything immediately dangerous. Until he does, the researchers will not begin the costly and time-consuming steps to develop therapeutics. Their discoveries aside, these scientists have hardly left the driveway: By one expert’s estimate, the 2,000 known to science represent two-tenths of one percent of all viruses.

The monkey serum (which came from macaques in Asia, though Anthony cannot specify where because of an agreement with a foreign government) has not yet revealed all its secrets. Although the radiological results show the presence of retrovirus’s telltale enzyme, he has tested only for known sequences, which were not present. The samples will undergo powerful genetic tests to show the full constellation of what they contain. That preliminary result could actually mean the discovery of a new type. “I’m wondering whether or not we have a divergent retrovirus that is different enough that it is not being picked up,” he says.

The same animals Anthony surveils in distant jungles are smuggled into New York’s airports. In fact, to obtain some of his most important samples, he and his colleagues only needed to drive to Queens. When authorities at Kennedy International Airport seize illegal bush meat, they call the scientists to sample it before incineration. In 2010, he and his colleagues began to study bush meat confiscated at Kennedy and airports in Washington, Philadelphia, Houston, and Atlanta.

Bush meat is eaten around the world for subsistence and tradition. In some African cultures, the meat is believed to posses spiritual qualities and impart strength and courage. In parts of central and west Africa, bush meat accounts for as much as four-fifths of dietary protein. Unlike in Asia and South America, where primates are rarely consumed, in equatorial Africa, nonhuman primates are more common fare.


The most abundant types of bush meat are exactly what PREDICT is looking at: primates, rodents, and bats; and handling meat is an effective way of contracting viruses they carry. More to the point, it is widely accepted that HIV leaped to humans through the hunting, butchering, or consumption of chimpanzees in west Africa. Likewise, SARS was transmitted from civets, a wildcat prized as a delicacy in China.

According to records obtained by the Voice, authorities at Kennedy airport have seized 130 pounds of bush meat in the past five years. Items labeled as “NHP”—nonhuman primate—were among the things port officials could identify.

During that time, officials at Dulles International Airport seized 236 pounds of “smoked monkeys,” “bats cooked whole for consumption,” and rodents. More than 1,000 pounds were intercepted at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, seaport, along with smaller shipments at Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport. Records show most shipments originate in a few countries: Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon among them.

We can only guess what authorities do not find, but one estimate holds that 15,000 pounds of bush meat slip through U.S. customs every month. “I feel there is a lot of stuff that gets through that we don’t see at the moment,” Anthony says. Globally, the trade is far bigger. One study found that nearly 300 tons of bush meat entered Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport annually.

The scientists analyzed bone marrow and trachea from green monkeys, spinal nerve and eye from baboon, and flesh from mangabey and chimpanzee, all primates. Photographs of the meat show two intact monkey heads, one with the torso still attached, a furry, curled hand and a complete eight-inch arm. In January, the scientists published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE. They announced that the primate meat contained two strains of herpes and four of a species called Simian Foamy Virus. SFV is related to HIV and known to infect humans, but it has not been linked with disease. Still, the presence of these viruses “highlights a potential health risk,” they wrote.

Much bush meat is dried or smoked, which can effectively kill pathogens. But deep below top layers kissed by smoke or sun, viruses survive in moisture-rich places like uncooked tissue, bone marrow, eyeballs, and brains. “If you’re importing a piece of jerky, I don’t think the level of risk is very high,” Anthony says. But government photographs of bloody meat in plastic bags show different. Of the chunks examined in the study, the scientists wrote, “most items contained moist inner tissue.”

Today, scientists comb the natural world first and later ask if a species they find is pathogenic. For most of modern history, they saw fit only to study agents known to cause disease.

In 1951, Manhattan’s Rockefeller University took an early step in that direction, establishing searches, as one historian writes, “aimed in a shotgun approach at ‘what may be out there.'” A string of discoveries followed, but within two decades, money ran low, and it abandoned the project. By the 1980s, still a fringe pursuit, pathogen discovery had all but fallen away.

But in the 1990s, techniques from molecular biology were first applied, and the field underwent a renaissance. Suddenly, after decades of slow and faulty methods—growing viruses in lab rats or petri dishes—scientists could detect them with simple tests.

W. Ian Lipkin, director of Anthony’s lab at Columbia, was the first person to do this. In 1990, he pioneered this practice by identifying that a virus causes a neurological illness in horses, a process that took three years. In 1999, he discovered that West Nile virus caused the outbreak of deadly encephalitis afflicting New Yorkers. He was invited to be the lab’s director in 2002. At the time, it was “a couple of empty floors that needed to be renovated,” according to Morse, his colleague then and now. Last year, he acted as scientific adviser on the bio-thriller Contagion. Today, he is investigating whether viruses are behind the unknown causes of chronic fatigue syndrome and autism.

Lipkin built the lab around pathogen discovery, all the while developing new techniques. He and his colleagues invented a new diagnostic method for identifying microbes, MassTag PCR, that instead of detecting single microbes, detects dozens of bacteria and viruses at the same time. He helped develop GreeneChip, a glass slide containing 500,000 genes that is used to test for virtually all known pathogens. His methods were fast and cheap. As he led the charge, the time needed to find a virus shrank from years to days. A team of scientists at his lab can identify an unknown pathogen in hours.


As the field matured, outbreaks were fueled by globalization. A major study published in Nature in 2008 showed an increase of outbreaks in each of the past six decades, nearly quadrupling between the 1940s and the 1990s, when there were almost 100. Infectious diseases are now the second-biggest cause of death worldwide, after heart disease. They account for 17 million deaths per year and kill one in six in developed countries and twice as many in the developing world.

The increasing menace made scientists “sit up and take note,” as Anthony puts it. They would soon pick up where the “shotgun approach” left off, but they did not know where to search. A colleague of Anthony’s, Peter Daszak, had an idea. In 2008, he published an influential study mapping the places where diseases are most likely to emerge, based on geography and past outbreaks. These “hot spots” are the Amazon and Congo basins and the most densely populated parts of Europe, China, India, and North America. Basically, any place humans and animals are crammed together. New York, the archetypal dense global city, is a bona fide hot spot.

The new model “changed the way people looked at [outbreaks],” Anthony says. It gave rise to “the very concept that this may not be so random.” The year after the map was published, literally using it as a guide, several organizations embarked on the global hunt.

As the field’s renaissance unfolded, Anthony, the son of a onetime pub owner and an opera singer, graduated from the University of Wales, where he studied zoology. He was offered a job as an elephant keeper at the London Zoo. But the next day, a keeper tripped and was killed when an Asian elephant stepped on him. Because of that, Anthony decided not to go.

At the time, foot-and-mouth disease was at its height, leading to the deaths of millions of cattle in Great Britain. Enjoying lab tests to find evidence of viruses, he joined the effort to study it. Later, he earned a doctorate in molecular virology at Oxford, where he began using time in the lab to tap dance and waltz—remnants of his days as a young operatic baritone. He took a fellowship at the San Diego Zoo to focus on wildlife disease before being hired by Columbia. Although he works closely with Lipkin, Anthony has free rein to do what he pleases. “I’m working on the next level of pathogen discovery,” the young scientist says.

Their shotgun approach to finding viruses has its share of deep-pocketed supporters as well as critics, who point to the failure to head off a public health catastrophe, much less find “the next HIV.”

“What have they found? Not much,” says Robert B. Tesh, a respected senior virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch who is not involved in PREDICT. “In my opinion, it’s a lot of hype.”

Anthony didn’t bristle at that swipe by a fellow scientist. Although the aim is to prevent the next great pandemic, he points out that there’s a lot of less dramatic groundwork that has to come first.

“Our aim is to gather information about the different viruses that exist in wildlife, and this is no small challenge,” he says. “We are at the beginning of a long road here.”

He adds: “This project is not designed to avert global pandemics in two years, or even five years. This is a long-term initiative, and over that long term, we will gather much more information about viruses that exist and implement the ability for countries all over the world to respond as they occur. The goal was never to do it within two years, because that’s impossible.”

Anthony adds that while critics exist, PREDICT has garnered partnerships from major research institutions, Columbia and University of California, Davis, among them, as well as 20 nations that have signed on. PREDICT scientists help labs in those countries improve pathogen discovery, at times building labs from the ground up. “That’s a huge contribution to public health,” he says.

“The other thing you have to bear in mind is how do you measure whether we’ve averted a health crisis? We have the unfortunate situation where if we are successful in setting out to do what we want to do, we’ll never know it. . . . But we can measure the number of viruses we have found, our knowledge of global viral diversity, and the labs we’ve set up around the world.”

Anthony walks to one of the lab’s massive freezers to retrieve some gorilla throat swabs, the samples he’d put off to look at monkey serum. He pulls the door open, and mist pours out. Inside, dozens of shoebox-size containers hold tubes scribbled with letters.

He dons an insulated glove, brushes frost from a box, and slides it out. The swabs, like mini Q-tips, were taken from Rwanda gorillas that might have contracted something from humans; the virus travel works both ways. (This happened in 2009 when gorillas in a Rwandan national park died of a human respiratory infection, theorized to have jumped from ecotourists.)


Anthony wants to know what viruses are on the swabs, both gorilla and human. But because the samples have not yet been lysed—a process that renders pathogens incapable of infecting—there is a chance he could inhale a virus. The job must be done in “the BL3,” as he calls it, a special lab named for its next-to-highest biosafety level.

Behind a door marked “Biohazard,” he pulls a protective suit over his skinny jeans and slides a respirator over his hair. Looking like an extra in a Contagion sequel, he extracts liquid from the vials holding the swabs. Then he spins it in a centrifuge to separate bacteria and gorilla cells, which form dense pellets.

With a needle, he removes the liquid while making sure not to suck up the pellets. Next, he injects it into yet another vial, this time inserting a fine filter with holes large enough for virus particles, but not cells. Again, he spins the tubes in a centrifuge to push the liquid through the filter, hopefully leaving a “fairly pure” sample: a few drops containing only viral DNA.

Standing by the centrifuge, there is nothing to do but wait. Moments like that are when he waltzed while earning his doctorate. And he might do a few steps in the BL3, too, but it is nearing the end of a long day, during which he has zipped up the stairs between the lab’s floors many times. His stubbly face looks weary through the helmet, slightly crooked on his head. Inside the respirator mask, a tiny lightbulb (indicating that the electric filter is on) gives his face a blue cast. When he speaks, his voice sounds like he’s talking into a bucket. “I spend half my life writing on tubes and waiting by centrifuges,” he says.

Later, he would find that the throat swabs held a bounty of viruses: an adenovirus, a form of which can cause pneumonia in people; a new enterovirus, related to the human kind, a type of which causes polio; and five kinds of polyomaviruses, at least three of which are brand new.

And as is often the case, he found mysterious genetic sequences—”dark matter”—that don’t fit with any known life-form. About a third of the genetic codes he finds are dark matter, unidentifiable shadows at the edge of scientific knowledge. “It may be rubbish; it may be bacteria,” he says. “It could be anything.”

On a recent afternoon, Anthony sits at a small table in the atrium at Lincoln Center. On weekends, he makes the 100-block trek from his apartment, by the lab, to work here. The former baritone likes being near the Metropolitan Opera, which he attends when he can. With his coffee and laptop, he could be any New Yorker or English tourist. Instead, he is a guy whose job is to know what conspiracy nature has in the works. And he might be the first person to know when it has been unleashed.

He explains his most recent bit of spying on the natural world. It began last fall when dead harbor seal pups began washing ashore in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Over four months, 160 seals, many of them juveniles, inexplicably died. Surfers bumped into their bloated carcasses, which tossed among the waves and littered foggy beaches. The animals had not expired due to injury or malnutrition, common causes in the wild. They had succumbed to severe pneumonia brought on by a respiratory infection that left lesions on their trunks and flippers.

Local authorities sent Anthony lung tissue from five infected seals, and the detective set to work. He tested for a wide range of pathogens and within two days had found a suspect: an unknown influenza subtype. By the end of the week, he had compared its genome to that of other viruses, and found that it is closely related to a flu that infects the intestinal tract of ducks. Somehow the virus jumped hosts, probably along the shore where the animals’ habitats overlap.

The resulting paper was published in the journal mBio in July. A couple of months earlier, the U.S. government had asked scientists to withhold research about dangerous mutations in bird flu because of security reasons. Major news organizations picked up the study (as did the The Onion, which ran a fake man-on-the-street interview series: “Aw, jeez, now you tell me. I just picked up a couple of seal steaks at the Price Chopper,” lamented Barbara Suarez).

Anthony explained the subtle threat to the world. To invade cells, viruses use receptors, like little doors. This virus, now known as seal H3N8, had acquired a key to seal cells, when before it had only keys to bird cells. After jumping into seals, it adapted to jump between them. “Because of that, there’s every likelihood that this virus can therefore infect other mammals, too,” he says. Without further study, no one knows whether seal H3N8 might leap to people, much less if it could be as deadly as H1N1, a flu strain that killed 10,000 people in six months during 2009.


The jump to mammals from birds is bigger than a jump between two mammal species. In other words, the virus had already made the difficult initial leap. Anthony can’t be certain seal H3N8 is capable of infecting humans, but it has a stronger chance now that it has migrated to one mammal. “You have to imagine the possibility is certainly there,” he says.

At times, the reaction to his discoveries and those of others can be overblown, he says, citing undue fear that we are “one or two mutations away from a pandemic.” If that were true, “there would be outbreaks every other day, and as a species we would have a hard time existing,” he says. Until science has mapped the universe of pathogens, no one can say precisely what reaction is appropriate. We know only that every landing airplane, every infected seal, poses some risk. “I think it is also important to emphasize that it is very unlikely that seal flu will either jump into people or cause disease simply because these events are so rare,” he says. “What is important about this study is that it teaches us about how viruses emerge in new mammalian hosts.”

On this rainy day, he shares a table with an aging woman in the packed atrium. She eavesdrops as he speaks about how pathogen discovery is done and the need for scientists to continue the shotgun approach. As she stands up to leave, she mentions her amazement at how far science has come. It was the second time in weeks that a stranger in the atrium said something like that. He has gotten such comments many times.

Just the other day, he was opening a bank account at a Chase on Ninth Avenue in midtown. The banker offhandedly asked, “What do you do?” When he told her, she wrote her phone number on a piece of paper, handed it to him, and said: “Give me a call when you find something serious. I want to be the first to know.”