FIVE YEARS AGO today, Harvard students began three days of the most intense, widespread and exciting political activity the University has ever seen. Today's Crimson includes a supplement that discusses the issues involved in the Strike, but after five years that profoundly changed the temper of the times, it sometimes seems difficult to see those issues in perspective and to see what student radicalism was all about.
Even at the time, an unholy coalition of administrators, faculty members, and commentators in the mass media disguised and confused the real issues of the Strike by talking about its results only in terms of their so-called attack on academic freedom and university neutrality. The intervening years have obscured the issues even more.
The '69 Strike was built around a set of specific demands. Students wanted the Reserve Officers Training Corps off campus--they maintained that having ROTC at Harvard meant aiding an American Army engaged in unconscionable repression in Indochina. ROTC served as a symbol of University service to the American government--a far cry from the liberal ideal of free, politically neutral inquiry to which Harvard administrators gave lip-service. Students wanted a voice in running the University. They wanted to elect part of the Harvard Corporation, and help run the departments in which they studied, starting with Afro-American Studies, the newest department and one expected to deal with political issues. And students wanted the University to treat the people who lived near it as real people, who deserved a voice in deciding how the University would run their apartments or expand into their neighborhoods.
The Strike won some of its demands, and changed Harvard profoundly. ROTC left the University, President Pusey left the University, students won an equal say with Faculty in running the Afro Department, and the University set about building low-income housing for people it displaced. Perhaps even more important, the Strike forged a new student spirit--a questioning, radical spirit more conducive to real education than all the officially instituted programs in the world.
Like that spirit, many of the specific victories of 1969 have disappeared. The Faculty quietly took away student power in the Afro Department last year. The Committee the Faculty set up to bypass its inadequate disciplinary methods developed into the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities, a political disciplinary group with a catch-all constitution used primarily for suppressing student protest. The new flexibility of the president who succeeded Pusey proved to be less substantive than procedural. Students are allowed a voice, now, through student-faculty committees and even, as the University's non-reaction during the 1972 occupation of Mass Hall showed, through demonstrations. But after students have had their voice, the Corporation still does what it wants to. Last year President Bok even suggested that ROTC should come back--speaking as a private citizen, not a university president, he hastened to explain.
The 1969 strike was a good thing--it raised important demands, and it helped maintain the pressure that brought changes ranging from ROTC's abolition to coeducation at Harvard--and the spirit of 1969 was a good thing, a spirit that is still crucially important now, though it's in short supply. Student concern for democracy--and that means opposition to foreign and domestic policies like Richard Nixon's now just as it did then--is still a crucial part of any meaningful education. And students should still be concerned with building a democratic university, ruled by students and faculty and alumni and employees and not a tiny self-perpetuating group of administrators.
Universities should be democratically run for the same reasons people should choose their own governments and workers should own their factories--because people should rule themselves and the places they live and work. But in a university that is supposedly devoted to free inquiry irrespective of power or position, rule by a small group of powerful people is ridiculous as well as reactionary.
We still need 1969's students' refusal to become part of a system designed to keep control of people's lives--by promoting invidious racial and sexual distinctions, by making concessions on minor points, by all the marketing techniques made possible by modern technology, and ultimately, as in Indochina, by killing people who insist on resisting. That's why it's still important to understand the real issues of 1969. The lawlessness and violence liberals complained of came mostly from the administration and the police, but even if that hadn't been so, laying exclusive stress on it would obscure the real issue--the Strike's effort to provide an alternative to the unimaginative, compliant university offered by the rationalized, centralized bureaucracy that runs things now. We still need such an alternative, and that's why the Strike is still our history and our heritage.
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