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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A Year of PROTESTS DEMONSTRATIONS

By William R. Galeota

For a few months in the fall of 1966, Harvard seemed to be pretty much what I'd expected from the admissions materials: there were lectures from faculty luminaries like John King Fairbank and George Wald, long evenings in Lamont, coats and ties at meals in the Freshman Union, somewhat stilted sherry receptions, awkward mixers and even some lazy afternoons rowing on the Charles.

Not long before our Commencement, as I stood in the Lowell House belltower and watched tear gas canisters arch above Mt. Auburn Street during the Kent State/Cambodia riots, I could only think of those times as the antebellum Harvard.

By then, the University had been through the mobbing of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the Dow Chemical sit-in, the Paine Hall protest, the University Hall occupation, the Bust, the Strike and a score or more of other incidents.

The Faculty was in large measure as bitterly divided as the students, and it seemed hard to find respite from almost never-ending political strife. For the most part, we didn't even have the spur of finals as those requirements melted away in the aftermath of Kent State.

Basically, Harvard seemed only too glad to bid the Class of 1970 farewell, and perhaps with good reason.

It's hard to say whether those years at Harvard might have turned out differently. After our first year, few supported the Vietnam War, but for much of our time at Harvard the fury and frustration that came from the war wasn't directed toward the University, and the militant actions by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) didn't get mass support.

Some 2700 undergraduates signed a letter of apology to Defense Secretary McNamara in 1966 after he was surrounded by an SDS-led mob outside of Quincy House. Two years later, SDS was still somewhat on the periphery of Harvard politics.

The Crimson gave it a good deal of coverage mainly because SDS could, and of course ultimately did, throw the University into turmoil, but there were far more of our class involved in, for instance, the McCarthy and Kennedy Presidential campaigns than in any SDS action before the University Hall occupation.

Even when we were faced with four years of a Nixon presidency and no foreseeable end to the war, there remained a great deal of hope that Harvard would not repeat Columbia's experience of 1968.

In fact, even as I covered events inside the occupied University Hall in April 1969, it seemed as if the occupation, begun by a relatively small SDS faction, could well backfire.

Outside, there was a fair-sized group of students shouting opposition to the occupation. Inside, the perpetual political meetings droned on but it soon became clear that no one really had much of an idea about what to do next.

There was, for instance, a good deal of talk about going out into the neighborhoods of Cambridge to organize the workers, but since I'd spent more than a little time in the past years reporting on those neighborhoods, that struck me as about as realistic a tactic as trying to organize the Marine Corps against going to war.

What passed for leadership inside the building actually seemed to be waiting, and hoping, for Harvard to do something stupid. The administration applied the lessons it drew from Columbia and obliged.

As soon as it became clear that the police were coming, Crimson president Jim Fallows '70 and I dashed out of University Hall to get an extra edition of the paper ready, and so I can't recount any first-hand stories of dodging Somerville police who'd been waiting for years for their chance to bust some heads of long-haired anti-war creeps who were Harvard students to boot.

But we could see the casualties trickling back all day long.

The Bust had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of SDS. It seemed like everyone in Cambridge was shouting "strike, strike" until they were hoarse. It felt like the dawn of our own French Revolution.

There was a collective emotion, a sort of mass psyche, in a strange way not unlike the hysteria of less than a year before when Harvard beat Yale 29-28 in The Game.

The apocalyptic air of the days following the Bust is easy to recall, but hard to describe. Red fists and quotations from Mao, Che and more obscure revolutionaries blossomed everywhere--on banners, posters and T-shirts.

Faculty members stood on night guard in Widener Library to protect the collection. Roving bands harassed some classes that tried to meet. Political factions formed, mutated and reformed, each with their own twist on the six, seven or eight demands. The Faculty met and met again under crisis conditions.

Somehow, Harvard managed to muddle through this chaos.

An incredibly awkwardly-named group called the Committee for Radical Structural Reform that was run by teaching fellows such as Marc J. Roberts '65 used mass meetings at Harvard Stadium in essence to co-opt the mob and recast the demands of SDS into a form that Harvard could deal with.

Government Professor Stanley Hoffmann and other members of the so-called liberal caucus of the Faculty managed to win over enough of their brethren to remove ROTC from campus.

This was a major symbolic victory but hardly a major blow at the war machine since the Army's demands for junior officers were already plummeting and ones with Harvard degrees were probably pretty low on the list of desirable candidates. (Three close friends in Harvard Army ROTC spent their active duty stateside killing nothing but time--and the Army gave honorable releases to two of them after only six months).

The Strike, as such, essentially petered out after a final Faculty meeting acceded to the key parts of Afro's demands concerning the Afro-American Studies Department. Since part of those demands involved a student role in selecting faculty for the department, the Faculty had to swallow hard and in the end it did.

Though anyone on the outside could never be sure, in many ways Afro always seemed to be the most adept political group in that spring.

Afro was focused on its interests, and made sure everyone else was too, but it didn't commit itself to any other faction. When the Faculty met on the Afro demands, a number of Afro members sat in the Loeb lobby and one held a meat cleaver in his hand.

Whether this was calculated or spontaneous, it gave a chilling background to the Faculty's deliberations that worked to Afro's advantage.

Much of what happened in the next year after the Strike was blurry even at the time and is even more so now. The University's wounds had been patched up but continually festered.

There always seemed to be some sort of "militant action" or a rumor of one. Faculty members feared harassment or worse. Factions in SDS grew into the Weathermen, and street fighting began to be talked about as the next stage of militant action.

The invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four students at Kent State brought the street-fighters into action. Harvard Square stores were looted, the police riot squads poured into the Square, and the tear gas drifted as high as the Lowell House belltower.

As the political struggles contin- ued, some on the outside began to view TheCrimson essentially as Pravda written in English.

In fact, however, the paper was as divided asthe rest of the University, and the term "Crimsonfascist wing" began to be used, first in jest andthen at least half seriously.

Meetings on which the entire staff voted todecide editorial positions on major topics turnedinto screaming matches; the majority and minorityeditorial positions sometimes turned on whichfaction was better at getting to the meetingpeople who hadn't been seen at 14 Plympton St.since the day they were elected to the paper.

For their part, various alumni of the papercomplained about a pro-SDS slant in The Crimson'spages and tried to bring pressure on the currenteditors. Other former editors such as J. AnthonyLukas '55 and John Jay Iselin '56 agreed to go ona neutral fact-finding mission to see if there wasanything to the complaints.

Fortunately for those of us who hadn't had agood meal recently, they chose to find facts overlobster savannah at a private room at Locke Ober.As I recall, the gist of their report on ourreporting was that, like all journalists, wesometimes screwed up, but the paper wasn't beingrun by SDS. The complaining alumni went away, andsome financed the Harvard Independent instead.

Beyond these political storms, Harvard becamealmost unrecognizable as change raced through suchfundamental areas of college life as sex, drugsand rock 'n' roll.

When we entered in the College, more than a fewof our parents were shocked by the very idea of 20or so parietal hours a week when women could visitin Harvard rooms. Signouts and bell duties stillgoverned life at the 'Cliffe.

By 1970, the Houses were officially co-ed bysuite and unofficially co-ed throughout. Some ofthe frantic mixer scene seemed to abate as aresult, and men and women alike got a preview ofhow our future mates might look bleary-eyed over abreakfast table.

My daughter may well read this piece, and soI'd probably better make it clear that I wasbasically only an observer of the drug scene.

Marijuana was basically like alcohol for thoseunder 21--illegal, but omnipresent. It's hard tothink of a party in those years withoutremembering the smell in the air.

There were rumors, hoaxes really, about moreobscure highs--a report that an obscure brand ofIndian cigarettes produced a high emptied HarvardSquare stocks of that brand, and a few peopletried smoking banana peels after a similar reportabout Mellow Yellow highs from the peels.

Most who smoked dope did so only casually, butothers fell into the category of "if you rememberthe 1960s, you weren't there." The bad trips andwasted minds seen in those years are probably thebest argument against using drugs that we can giveto our offspring when we come to discussing thatawkward topic.

Rock was, of course, the leading art form, andone that took a quantum leap with the Sgt. Pepperalbum. Critics and bull sessions passionatelydissected that album, and succeeding ones by theBeatles, the Stones, The Doors, et al.

Rock blared from the House windows on those fewdays when Cambridge weather permitted, and majorrock concerts filled Harvard Stadium in thesummer.

On a summer weekend in 1969, traffic flowed ina constant stream west of Boston towards a muddydairy farm in New York. The next year, some turnedaway from the Cambodia/Kent State turmoil and backto simpler times by dancing in every square inchof the Rindge Tech auditorium aisles to the tunesof Sha Na Na.

All these changes led to a good deal of talkabout new eras and new consciousness dawning. Afew classmates drifted off to one commune oranother, and various gurus developed followings.

Despite this talk and the prevalent psychedelicdrapings, not too many Harvard-Radcliffe studentsseemed to go very far along such paths.

At some level, most of us probably realizedthat we'd gotten where we were through ahighly-developed Consciousness II, and thatConsciousness III wasn't really going to be ourcup of tea.

A Crimson editor is probably the worst personto judge how much conventional academic lifecontinued among the Class of 1970 during the seaof changes that swept through our years inCambridge.

Even in normal times, skating through academicsis a time-honored tradition at the paper, much asit is with those who dedicate themselves toanalogous activities such as acting at the Loeb,writing for the Advocate or drinking at theLampoon.

With that caveat, probably only the mostdedicated members of our class managed to havesomething like a normal Harvard academicexperience (however you might define that) in1969-70.

Pre-meds still slogged their way through Chem20, and senior theses somehow got written. But thetimes were such that many were doing only what hadto be done, and finding it difficult toconcentrate even on that.

Aside from the political turmoil, it was hardfor many to think about becoming a permanentmember of a community of scholars, since thatbegan to look like a sure road to unemployment.

We watched as some of our most respected tutorssweated through the job market and ultimately wereglad to get jobs at colleges that we barely knewexisted.

Medical and law school seemed like safer bets,and so those who thought about having some kind ofconventional career (and had low draft numbers ormedical deferments from the draft) headed downthose paths in large numbers.

Going to business school still seemed like adefiant political statement that many didn't wantto make. Those who did had in some ways the lastlaugh as we moved into our 30s and the Dow movedinto the thousands.

All in all, those years were strange times tobe at Harvard. In fact, since Commencement, atleast a few classmates have said they wish theycould return for another four years to experiencea more normal version of Harvard and get theeducation that they feel they missed.

In any event, for better or worse, that eragave us the kind of education we couldn't hope togain in more placid times.

William Galeota '70 was managing editor ofThe Crimson in 1969.Crimson File PhotoStudent protesters filled Harvard Yardfrequently during the 1969-70 school year.

In fact, however, the paper was as divided asthe rest of the University, and the term "Crimsonfascist wing" began to be used, first in jest andthen at least half seriously.

Meetings on which the entire staff voted todecide editorial positions on major topics turnedinto screaming matches; the majority and minorityeditorial positions sometimes turned on whichfaction was better at getting to the meetingpeople who hadn't been seen at 14 Plympton St.since the day they were elected to the paper.

For their part, various alumni of the papercomplained about a pro-SDS slant in The Crimson'spages and tried to bring pressure on the currenteditors. Other former editors such as J. AnthonyLukas '55 and John Jay Iselin '56 agreed to go ona neutral fact-finding mission to see if there wasanything to the complaints.

Fortunately for those of us who hadn't had agood meal recently, they chose to find facts overlobster savannah at a private room at Locke Ober.As I recall, the gist of their report on ourreporting was that, like all journalists, wesometimes screwed up, but the paper wasn't beingrun by SDS. The complaining alumni went away, andsome financed the Harvard Independent instead.

Beyond these political storms, Harvard becamealmost unrecognizable as change raced through suchfundamental areas of college life as sex, drugsand rock 'n' roll.

When we entered in the College, more than a fewof our parents were shocked by the very idea of 20or so parietal hours a week when women could visitin Harvard rooms. Signouts and bell duties stillgoverned life at the 'Cliffe.

By 1970, the Houses were officially co-ed bysuite and unofficially co-ed throughout. Some ofthe frantic mixer scene seemed to abate as aresult, and men and women alike got a preview ofhow our future mates might look bleary-eyed over abreakfast table.

My daughter may well read this piece, and soI'd probably better make it clear that I wasbasically only an observer of the drug scene.

Marijuana was basically like alcohol for thoseunder 21--illegal, but omnipresent. It's hard tothink of a party in those years withoutremembering the smell in the air.

There were rumors, hoaxes really, about moreobscure highs--a report that an obscure brand ofIndian cigarettes produced a high emptied HarvardSquare stocks of that brand, and a few peopletried smoking banana peels after a similar reportabout Mellow Yellow highs from the peels.

Most who smoked dope did so only casually, butothers fell into the category of "if you rememberthe 1960s, you weren't there." The bad trips andwasted minds seen in those years are probably thebest argument against using drugs that we can giveto our offspring when we come to discussing thatawkward topic.

Rock was, of course, the leading art form, andone that took a quantum leap with the Sgt. Pepperalbum. Critics and bull sessions passionatelydissected that album, and succeeding ones by theBeatles, the Stones, The Doors, et al.

Rock blared from the House windows on those fewdays when Cambridge weather permitted, and majorrock concerts filled Harvard Stadium in thesummer.

On a summer weekend in 1969, traffic flowed ina constant stream west of Boston towards a muddydairy farm in New York. The next year, some turnedaway from the Cambodia/Kent State turmoil and backto simpler times by dancing in every square inchof the Rindge Tech auditorium aisles to the tunesof Sha Na Na.

All these changes led to a good deal of talkabout new eras and new consciousness dawning. Afew classmates drifted off to one commune oranother, and various gurus developed followings.

Despite this talk and the prevalent psychedelicdrapings, not too many Harvard-Radcliffe studentsseemed to go very far along such paths.

At some level, most of us probably realizedthat we'd gotten where we were through ahighly-developed Consciousness II, and thatConsciousness III wasn't really going to be ourcup of tea.

A Crimson editor is probably the worst personto judge how much conventional academic lifecontinued among the Class of 1970 during the seaof changes that swept through our years inCambridge.

Even in normal times, skating through academicsis a time-honored tradition at the paper, much asit is with those who dedicate themselves toanalogous activities such as acting at the Loeb,writing for the Advocate or drinking at theLampoon.

With that caveat, probably only the mostdedicated members of our class managed to havesomething like a normal Harvard academicexperience (however you might define that) in1969-70.

Pre-meds still slogged their way through Chem20, and senior theses somehow got written. But thetimes were such that many were doing only what hadto be done, and finding it difficult toconcentrate even on that.

Aside from the political turmoil, it was hardfor many to think about becoming a permanentmember of a community of scholars, since thatbegan to look like a sure road to unemployment.

We watched as some of our most respected tutorssweated through the job market and ultimately wereglad to get jobs at colleges that we barely knewexisted.

Medical and law school seemed like safer bets,and so those who thought about having some kind ofconventional career (and had low draft numbers ormedical deferments from the draft) headed downthose paths in large numbers.

Going to business school still seemed like adefiant political statement that many didn't wantto make. Those who did had in some ways the lastlaugh as we moved into our 30s and the Dow movedinto the thousands.

All in all, those years were strange times tobe at Harvard. In fact, since Commencement, atleast a few classmates have said they wish theycould return for another four years to experiencea more normal version of Harvard and get theeducation that they feel they missed.

In any event, for better or worse, that eragave us the kind of education we couldn't hope togain in more placid times.

William Galeota '70 was managing editor ofThe Crimson in 1969.Crimson File PhotoStudent protesters filled Harvard Yardfrequently during the 1969-70 school year.

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