LAST SPRING, when students took over buildings at Columbia and other colleges and universities around the country, the United States Congress was outraged. "Infraction of university rules," Representative Louis C. Wyman (R-N.H.) said in May on the House floor, "has assumed disturbing proportions in recent months." He proposed--and the House overwhelmingly passed his proposal--to deny federal funds--in that case, National Science Foundation and Office of Education grants, loans, and scholarships--to students who "refuse to obey a lawful order of university authorities."
Not to be outdone, some of the more reactionary elements in the Senate--notably John Stennis, Margaret Chase Smith, Strom Thurmond, and Carl Curtis--tacked an amendment onto the National Aeronautics and Space Administration authorization bill in June denying NASA grants to colleges that bar military recruiters from their campus. As Mrs. Smith said at the time, "colleges cannot have their cake and eat it too." Curtis was more direct. "Institutions have an obligation, patriotic in nature," he said, "and in the interests of our country to cooperate with programs of the U.S. Government."
Later in the summer, both bodies passed similar "restrictive amendments" on the Higher Education Act, which provides financial support in varying degrees to some 1.4 million college students around the country. Last week, a House-Senate conference cleared up some of the language (college officials are now required to decide whether infractions are of a "serious nature" and actually "contributed to substantial disruption of an institution's administration," whereas the original House form would have cut off the funds without a hearing or intervention by college officials), but the measures passed last week are still remarkably close to those initially asked for by Wyman in his impassioned House speech in May.
In all cases, Congress has completely failed to understand what causes campus disturbances and why students are angry. Its reaction has been similar to its reaction to ghetto rioting--repression rather than constructive legislation.
THERE ARE abundant dangers in the restrictive amendments, forms of which are virtually certain to become law in a short time. (The NASA restrictions have already been enacted.) Harold Howe II, U.S. Commissioner of Education, has said that the measures set a "dangerous precedent." He and others, including President Johnson's science adviser, Donald Hornig, have felt that the restrictive amendments signal an intervention of Congress into college affairs.
The amendments will also be extremely difficult to enforce, and there seems little indication that college officials, unless forced to do so, will cooperate with the Congressional sanctions. Spokesmen for the Department of Defense, NASA, the Office of Education, and the NSF, have also criticized the measures, so that Congress's show of outrage may have little real effect.
Even as a way of punishing students who disrupt universities, the restrictive amendments do not do an effective or decent job. All the amendments discriminate against the poor, since those rebel students who do not receive federal aid are not affected by the provisions. Congress is playing with federal grants, loans, and scholarships as a form of punishment, a function that they were never intended to serve and one that they do not seem to serve very well.
Congress is punishing students, but its method of punishment is far from direct, and in the process it may be hurting the federal agencies that it is really trying to help. A Defense Department Official said that denying NASA funds to colleges that bar recruiters would "serve to handicap" the entire military recruitment program on campuses. In that case, too, Congress may have actually played into the hands of militant students, who, by getting their college to bar military recruiters, see NASA, another vestige of the federal presence, removed from their campus.
The amendments have been attacked from all sides by people in and out of education. They represent a reactionary temper within Congress that may now be difficult to stop. Students, faculty, and administrators have a duty to see that, even if enacted, these restrictive measures are never allowed to do the kind of harm that they are capable of doing.