Reflecting On the 1969 Student Strike

News Feature

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 1969 student takeover of University Hall, an event that shook the Harvard community to its roots and helped change the way a generation viewed education and authority. Television viewers across the nation saw police raid the building at dawn the next day, and students boycotted classes for more than a week in protest. Today, in the first of a two-part series, a look at Harvard then and now Wednesday, a grown-up generation remembers.

"People back then would stop doing drugs, forget their homework, and come out and participate," recalls Marjorie A. Angell '67-9, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who joined the student protests in 1969.

It's hard today to imagine a time when thousands of Harvard students regularly held vigils and marches to protest the U.S. government's foreign policy; when buttons and banners were in and studying was a sign of political apathy; when three-quarters of the student body would boycott classes to show solidarity with classmates clubbed by police after taking over a University building.

Harvard itself could not end the war in Vietnam, and most students realized it--but they were looking for a way to disassociate themselves visibly from national policy, to bring the issues home to America's campuses. Universities across the country became surrogate targets for anger and disillusionment.

"Students were disturbed that Harvard as an institution did not distance itself from the war," says Professor of History Charles S. Maier '60, then an instructor. Because Harvard did not distance itself from Vietnam--by terminating contracts with the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), for example--"it was somehow complicit," Maier adds.

Students couldn't fight the president, so they fought the authority around them," recalls one student activist. ROTC was seen by SDS members as the staffing mechanism for an army used to repress popular movements.

The battle at Harvard climaxed with the April 1969 occupation of University Hall--but political activism at the University did not rise overnight. Tension had been growing for several years. In 1967, 71 students pledged to refuse the draft: when Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara came to speak at the Institute of Politics and refused to debate an anti-war spokesman, 800 students blocked his car and McNamara escaped through the University's underground tunnels.

In October of 1967, 300 students imprisoned a recruiter from Dow Chemical, a manufacturer of napalm for use in Vietnam, for several hours in Mallinkrodt Hall. When the dust settled, 74 students had been placed on probation, and 171 received official warnings from the administration.

In December of 1968, 100 students, angered by not being allowed to sit in on Faculty meetings on the status of ROTC, held a sit-in at Paine Hall. Fifty-seven were eventually placed on probation.

But though protest was growing across campus, the student body was not yet unified in its goals or tactics. The SDS was never backed by a majority of students, but it raised issues and debate at a time when tensions were already high.

It took a growing intransigence on the part of the administration, and later the use of force in clearing University Hall, to unify student protest, and to crystallize the political divisions already growing in the community.

President Nathan M. Pusey '28 and fellow top administrators were seen by students--and many faculty members--as overly inflexible and unwilling to listen to student demands. "He was pretty dogmatic in response to challenges to authority," recalls Lamont University Professor John T. Dunlop, who served on the student-faculty Committee of 15, which debated disciplinary action against the protestors and made recommendations on restructuring the University in the aftermath of the crisis.

"Pusey was too aloof, he didn't understand the urgency of the situation," says Maier, adding, "Negotiation unfortunately wasn't in his vocabulary."

In a January 1968 report to the Board of Overseers, Pusey vocalized his hardline stance in a way that heightened the anger of protestors. "Safe within the sanctuary of an ordered society, dreaming of glory, they play at being revolutionaries and fancy themselves rising to positions of command stop the debris as the structures of society come crashing down," he wrote.

But the final straw for most moderate students, and the issue that "radicalized" them, was decision to call in the police to clear University Hall. Before the bust, the occupiers were a clear minority; after, they became "a martyred band that had destroyed the credibility of a university and its decision making procedures," as one observer put it.

Administrators claimed that police force was the only alternative--the students had gotten into the building's records and were distributing material "about the personal affairs of faculty members," according to Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. "The administration had lost all control over the building and could not have persuaded students to come out," the dean recalls.

"A lot of people had an illogical, medieval notion of a university--that secular authority should not be allowed in no matter what," says Martin H. Peretz, a Social Studies lecturer who considered himself part of the "middle left faction" of the Faculty in 1969.

The use of force to evict the student protesters did more than unify the student body--it "crystallized the polarization in the faculty that had begun earlier," recalls Maier. The Faculty had been split from the beginning between support of student demands and alliance with the administration; although most viewed the University Hall take-over as inappropriate, many were even more horrified by the sudden police action.

In the wake of the bust, the Faculty split into two organized factions, a liberal caucus and a conservative caucus, which Maier calls "embryonic political parties." Meetings became more frequent, larger, and more heated; "It was really tense," recalls History Department Chairman John Womack Jr. '59.

In the absence of any other generally accepted authority--students were reluctant to meet with administrators during the strike--Faculty members became more and more involved in trying to defuse the crisis. Emergency Faculty meetings took place twice a week; committees--including, for the first time, student representatives--were set up to look into all aspects of both student and administration complaints.

After a heated debate, the Faculty voted in mid-April to press the Governing Boards to strip ROTC of all privileges not accorded to other extra-curricular activities--for example, free use of University rooms, and scholarships--and to grant amnesty to students arrested for participation in the take-over. Students seemed responsive to the Faculty's willingness to listen to demands; on April 18, when 5000 students voted to suspend the strike after nine days, they cited the "Faculty's commitment to continuing progress" as their chief reason for agreeing to return to class.

The personal toll of the crisis was great: in late April, then-Dean of the Faculty Franklin L. Ford suffered a stroke, and later resigned; Fred L. Glimp '50, then-dean of the College, left Harvard for 10 years. On the student side, 13 were eventually asked to withdraw from the University, 20 were given "suspended suspensions," 99 were placed on warning. Many of those who participated in the strike, such as G. Garrett Epps '72, would say years later that the event remained "the most important experience of our lives."

But what was the long-term effect on Harvard of a crisis which changed the lives of an entire generation of students? Administrators are quick to say that the University today is a very different place than it was in 1969. "The crisis is never far from the minds of administrators and faculty today," says Epps, adding, "For better or worse, it's part of our professional mindset."

The management of Harvard as an institution has changed dramatically, Epps says; the number of vice-presidents has multiplied from one to five to "bring in more manpower to look at issues," he says, and the administration is "held accountable in new ways in how they deal with widely felt needs for change."

The Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities, created in the aftermath of the student strike, was Harvard's first attempt to lay out a written policy for responding to various forms of protest; Epps calls it a "treaty negotiated through rounds of meetings with faculty and students."

That dialogue itself seems to be the greatest change in University policy since 1969; though some students today argue that they still have insufficient input into major University decisions, the administration is at least required to consult faculty and some student leaders.

The Faculty now elects a Faculty Council to voice their concerns, and student-faculty committees, however effective, have multiplied enormously from the days when many students said they felt powerless in the face of Harvard's "governing board of a few rich people," according to Jay Epstein '69.

But perhaps the greatest change at Harvard in a decade and a half has been the style of its executive leader, President Bok was chosen as Pusey's successor in 1971 largely because administrators felt he might show a new responsiveness to student concerns and might be what Dunlop calls a more flexible "crisis manager," "Even when Bok rejects student demands, he gives the impression that he has thought them through," says Maier, adding, "By 1969, Pusey had lost that capacity."

Some students today exasperated by the University's continued involvement in countries that do business in South Africa, say they doubt Bok's actual commitment to negotiation--but his manner of dealing with student protest is still a far cry from Pusey's stance. "Rather than most as issue head-on, Bok has the knack of avoiding direct confrontation through postponement," wrote one student in 1972. "He doesn't say 'no' directly," commented another. "He says 'let's set up a committee."

Despite these changes, could the turbulence of 1969 happen again on campus, should a new galvanizing issue arise? Some, like Peretz, say the chances of a reprise are slim: "Students today are interested in action about issues, like nuclear proliferation or Central America," he says, "but they're not interested in using the University as a vehicle for their protests."

Others are not so sure, "I would not be so glib as to think it couldn't happen again," says Epps. 'That was our problem in 1969--we were too smug, not adequately prepared. We thought we were different from Columbia and Berkeley."NATHAN M. PUSEY '28