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Politics of Ultimatum

Brass Tacks

By Jay Cantor

IN PAINE HALL Thursday afternoon Dean Glimp addressed about two hundred and fifty students. Most of the students were sitting down, some milled about the back of the hall or stood in the aisles. It seemed as if most of the news photographers in Boston were there scattered about the front of the room. There were four reporters from the CRIMSON standing by the podium, with a student who covers University affairs for The Boston Globe. A television cameraman shone a blinding light into the eyes of the students so he could more easily film the meeting. News was certainly going to be made. There was going to be a confrontation of forces, the Dean versus the students. And a confrontation is always good reading.

Dean Glimp looked extremely anxious standing in front of the crowd of students and reporters. He was stating that students would not be allowed at a Faculty meeting. It was a rule of the Faculty that their meetings were closed. Someone asked if an exception to the rule might not be made in this case. The dean said, "it was traditional that Faculty meetings were closed." Someone asked if the dean wasn't embarrassed "at the vacuousness of the arguments he had to offer for closed Faculty meetings." Dean Glimp seemed to flinch at this, as if struck. He smiled very wanly, nervously.

It seemed as if there were a number of things Dean Glimp could have said to the students that he didn't say. He could have said that he would ask the Faculty to come in and vote, even unofficially, on whether they would allow the students to stay. He could have asked the students to leave, with the assurance that he, himself, would ask the Faculty meeting to vote on whether students might be admitted for this debate. If he feared that the students constituted a claque or a pressure group, he could have said he would ask the Faculty to vote on whether a few representatives of interested students might be allowed to attend this particular meeting. He could have said that he would ask the Faculty if the minutes of this particular meeting might be made public.

Dean Glimp did not say any of these things. Throughout the students' debate on whether to stay or leave the dean did not once speak to them. His sole statement was that closed Faculty meetings were traditional. It was a rule. Why did Dean Glimp say no more than this? Possibly because he, and the other members of the administration, felt that they hab been offered an ultimatum by the students. One imagines that the administration saw the very physical presence of the students in Paine Hall as un ultimatum directed at them. For the "power" of students in a confrontation is their ability to interpose their bodies, their ability simply to occupy a building, to obstruct, to refuse to move. In the months since Columbia this has been seen by college administrations as no small threat. It can tear a campus apart, close it down, change it in such horrible ways that it is never a very good place again. In fact none of the students were even thinking in terms of a Columbia style occupation, but it is not unlikely that in the mind of many administrators the spectre of Columbia haunted Paine Hall.

TO DEAN GLIMP then, and to the administration, Paine Hall was being "occupied." This "occupation" was a tactic or strategy on the part of a group opposed to them, SDS. They replied to this tactic, this ultimatum, with an ultimatum of their own--the threat of punishment.

In part, of course, the members of the administration were right. A few of the people in Paine Hall were offering an ultimatum. They believe that a university like the society around it is entirely an organization of conflicting power groups. It is foolish, they say, to attempt to reason with the opposition power bloc. That would be "vainly to attempt to appeal to 'the conscience' of the ruling class." Instead one simply pits the power of one's own bloc against the power of theirs. If your power is greater you will win "concessions" to your "demands."

But like most of the students in Paine Hall, I do not yet agree with that analysis. Many of us believed, still believe, that a university is a relatively free place, a place where the interchange of ideas is still possible, where no more force is needed to change a man's mind than the force of reason. And it is to these students that the rigidity of the administration was particularly galling, for they did not expect it. It is to these students that the repetition of "it's a rule...it's traditional" was seen as a shocking alternative to national dialogue. To see the physical presence of these students as an ultimatum was an awful misunderstanding on the part of the administration. And it was these students who, in response to the administration's blank wall ultimatum, sat in at Paine Hall.

The members of the administration, then, haunted perhaps by the spectre of Columbia, saw the presence of the students in Paine Hall as an intractable ultimatum. And perhaps out of fear they responded with an ultimatum of their own. Most of us afraid ourselves, responded with yet another ultimatum. There was not an ounce of free will in Paine Hall that day. There was only the stink of fear, and the rigidity that fear brings.

* * * *

THE PEOPLE a man speaks with feel his attitude towards them, as he feels theirs, feel it as clearly as if it were spoken forth. They decide unconsciously if they need to defend themselves against him, verbally or physically. Is he a threat? Do they need to armor themselves in principles, in ultimatums? Can they trust him? How far can they trust him?

But in truth each man is a free being if only he wants to be. To have said "turn the other cheek" is only to have said that you will let no man's action towards you determine your action towards him. You need only to refuse to let his action determine your response. You need only to refuse to respond to his blow with an attack of your own. You need only to refuse to answer ultimatum with ultimatum. At one point in Paine Hall Dean Glimp acted as a free man. He said, "The fourth alternative is to remove you by force. And none of us is prepared even to consider this." The dean simply refused to do the dance of Columbia one more step. And the students responded, for at that point any talk of "occupying Paine Hall," of 'liberating" it, became (as it had been for most of us all along) out of the question.

This Monday everyone involved at Paine Hall is at least a little scared. Some of the students are banding together in a bloc, trying to come up with a "a joint statement." They are huddling together defiantly against the outer dark. They are trying to devise a "strategy" to pit against the "strategy" the deans will use "to split them." I do not know what the Deans or the Faculty are thinking. They are angry no doubt that important principles have been violated. And perhaps they are still troubled by the nightmare of what happened in May in Morningside Heights.

It does not have to be this way. One act of good faith could transform this situation like the stroke of a sword. One decent act on the order of "the fourth alternative is to remove you by force. And none of us is prepared even to consider this"--one decent act would move all but the most hardened ideologue to reconsider his attitudes. But in the same way, further acts of distrust and rigidity, no matter what principles they embody will only serve to move the most open minded of students into the camp of the ideologues.

It is now up to the administration and the faculty. If they wish they can insure that the ultimatums go on. They can insure that the students will lock themselves into angry twisted postures of defiance and hatred. The people of this university will be solidified into pressure groups, into islands of animosity and distrust, and each group will be securely fortified by walls of its own principles. We shall face each other then across unbridgeable barricades of distrust, resentment, and fear. The misplaced analysis of the university as groups of competing power blocs--an analysis that under the best circumstances need be only partially true, of this university--can be made true, entirely true, horribly true. Distrust and fear will come to transfigure every interchange between student and faculty. All that is needed is an administration that is too rigid, and too severe, or a student response that is too doctrinaire, too inflexible.

It does not have to be this way. An administration that will accept at least part of the responsibility for what happened Tuesday, that will act humanely toward its dissenters, that in the future will talk to them with arguments rather than with ultimatums, will find students who are willing to forego their own self-rightcousness, their own ultimatums.

WHY IS IT that only at demonstrations do groups of students speak with members of the administration? Why is it that only after confrontations are open meetings on large issues ever held? It need not be this way. Paine Hall began in resentment and anger. It could so easily end in tragedy. But it could also mark the beginning of a time when people will talk to each other more openly, more honestly, not as tokens in an ideological struggle, but as human beings equal to themselves in worth. It could mark the beginnings of a free and humanistic politics and an end to the politics of confrontation and ultimatum. For the politics of ultimatum, no matter which side plays them, are emotionally and intellectually as nourishing as spittle. No matter which side is taking reprisals, and no matter what exalted iron-clad principles motivate those reprisals, it is still a politics of fear. And the only offspring of fear is bitterness and hatred.

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