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Building a New Fair Harvard in Four Years

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Reading your Harvard class' 25th anniversary report is like fast-forwarding through a movie: a quarter-century of marriages and divorces, births and deaths, successes and failures zip by in a book you can thumb through in an afternoon.

But as jam-packed as my class' last 25 years seem to have been, they were not as dizzying as the four years we spent in Cambridge. Harvard boiled over and changed forever between registration week in 1967 and commencement day in 1971. To be there then was to be in fast-forward almost every moment. I don't remember ever going to sleep.

The Harvard at which we initially arrived is all but forgotten now, with its de facto segregation by gender, class and (to the extent there was minority representation) race. As a graduate of a middle-class public high school, I was assigned demographically similar roommates in the Yard; the wealthier prep school boys also kept to themselves, on their way to the final clubs the rest of us never entered.

All young Harvard men, rich and poor and (mostly) in between, were expected to regard women as The Other. 'Cliffies were sequestered far from the Square and, under "parietals" (is this word still in the language?), could visit our rooms only a few inconvenient hours per week.

This Harvard, where Radcliffe teas (with actual tea) were taken seriously as a subliminal erotic ritual and where no one thought twice about putting on ties and jackets for lunch or class, started to implode by the spring of our first year. By then it was 1968, which brought in rapid succession the Gene McCarthy campaign, the Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy '48 assassinations and, finally, during summer vacation, the Democratic convention in Chicago at which many college kids who looked like us (and in a few cases actually were us) fell under the brutality of Richard Daley's storm troopers.

The Vietnam War, which more and more at Harvard protested with rising rage, now found its correlative in political violence at home. How long could Harvard remain immune to the national cataclysm?

Only a few months, it turned out.

In sophomore year, you could feel the tension grow, as if Cambridge were at the eye of a storm about to break. When the explosion arrived in April 1969, it took the form of cops marching into the Yard to clear University Hall of the protesters who occupied it.

I observed the battle as a Crimson journalist--journalism provided a safe haven for some of us unwilling to choose among the rigid ideologies of Harvard's myriad anti-war factions.

As helmeted police officers, seemingly emulating their Chicago prototypes, beat screaming students with their billy clubs repeatedly just for the pleasure of it in the flat silver light of daybreak, an illusion was smashed. Harvard would no longer be an ivy-covered sanctuary in an America that was coming apart.

Nathan M. Pusey '28, the Harvard president who called in the cops, was caught by surprise by the breadth and intensity of the ensuing revolt. He did not calculate that the war, not to mention the drug culture it exacerbated, had shattered much of the rigid social segmentation of Harvard tradition.

When the police clubbed protesters, they were not targeting solely an isolated radical fringe that could be excised from the rest of the student body like a cancer. Anti-war rage was a powerful leveler, cutting across all Harvard class lines. As one eyewitness wrote, the University Hall occupants included "some people from the Loeb, a couple of guys from the Fly Club, at least one from the Lampoon and one in a tuxedo who just came from a party and was drunk."

So wide was the reach of The Bust, as it immediately was known, that it brought the normally fractious Harvard community into rare unity. A Soldiers' Field rally of 11,000 students and faculty produced a strike. Classes turned into floating picnics; strike T-shirts and arm bands entered the realm of high fashion; and nightly political meetings of Politburo duration became the after-dinner activity of choice. For some, there might be dancing 'til dawn, with drugs and sex in abundance. Harvard now had far more pressing things to do than police its students' bodies.

For many of us, it was a time of wild mood swings in which the dream-like unreality of a Harvard in near chaos was periodically trumped by the anxious reality of a draft lottery, if not a draft notice. The fey Brattle Street bohemian culture that greeted us in 1967--cool was defined as seeing "Casablanca" repeatedly during reading period--was superseded by the apocalyptic visions of "2001" and "Let It Bleed."

Anything could happen. Tenured faculty in love beads distributed Maoist literature in the Square; a white-haired gentleman known only as "Mr. A. Nony Mous" took countless cryptic full-page ads in The Crimson to promote a cause he called "All Students for a Goodness Society," a sectlike group of protesters from Columbia Teachers College stage a nude-in in a House laundry room.

The non-stop circus, with its even more bizarre array of characters and sideshows, continued until we graduated, accelerating in madness with the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State. By June 1971, we were exhausted by the sheer intensity of our rage, and so was Pusey, whose premature retirement began at our commencement.

What was this revolution's legacy? At the time, with that arrogance and romanticism of all Harvard classes, we actually thought we were uniquely positioned to end the war. We weren't and we didn't. Like Bill Clinton, we mainly succeeded in avoiding the war ourselves: my cursory reading of our 25th reunion book turns up no Vietnam veterans, let alone Vietnam casualties. But for Harvard, if not the war machine, immediate change was inexorable.

In our undergraduate era it was easy to go through four years without ever hearing a course lecture delivered by a woman, let alone by a black. Open homosexuality was unheard of, and the unchecked sexual harassment of students by some notorious members of the faculty was accepted as an immutable tradition of campus life. This Harvard was about to be swept away.

Before it was--and despite all the tear-gas-scented disruptions that signaled the trauma of transition--some of us got an education. If we were lucky, we had teachers--Monroe Engel, Justin Kaplan, Gail Porter and Peter Stansky in my case--who shaped our sensibilities forever. But the Vietnam war also exposed the fallibility of America's institutions, and to witness close-up the crack-up of Harvard, the alma mater of the American establishment that created the quagmire, was a harrowing education in itself.

Much as the Depression bequeathed to our parents a reflexive economic insecurity, so too the late 1960s left many of us with a permanent sense of how violently our country's social fabric could unravel under stress. Though with time the healing would come, it has never quite wiped away the memory of our classmates' blood on the steps of University Hall.

Frank Rich '71 was the editorial chair of The Crimson in 1970. He is currently a columnist for the New York Times.

The Vietnam War, which more and more at Harvard protested with rising rage, now found its correlative in political violence at home. How long could Harvard remain immune to the national cataclysm?

Only a few months, it turned out.

In sophomore year, you could feel the tension grow, as if Cambridge were at the eye of a storm about to break. When the explosion arrived in April 1969, it took the form of cops marching into the Yard to clear University Hall of the protesters who occupied it.

I observed the battle as a Crimson journalist--journalism provided a safe haven for some of us unwilling to choose among the rigid ideologies of Harvard's myriad anti-war factions.

As helmeted police officers, seemingly emulating their Chicago prototypes, beat screaming students with their billy clubs repeatedly just for the pleasure of it in the flat silver light of daybreak, an illusion was smashed. Harvard would no longer be an ivy-covered sanctuary in an America that was coming apart.

Nathan M. Pusey '28, the Harvard president who called in the cops, was caught by surprise by the breadth and intensity of the ensuing revolt. He did not calculate that the war, not to mention the drug culture it exacerbated, had shattered much of the rigid social segmentation of Harvard tradition.

When the police clubbed protesters, they were not targeting solely an isolated radical fringe that could be excised from the rest of the student body like a cancer. Anti-war rage was a powerful leveler, cutting across all Harvard class lines. As one eyewitness wrote, the University Hall occupants included "some people from the Loeb, a couple of guys from the Fly Club, at least one from the Lampoon and one in a tuxedo who just came from a party and was drunk."

So wide was the reach of The Bust, as it immediately was known, that it brought the normally fractious Harvard community into rare unity. A Soldiers' Field rally of 11,000 students and faculty produced a strike. Classes turned into floating picnics; strike T-shirts and arm bands entered the realm of high fashion; and nightly political meetings of Politburo duration became the after-dinner activity of choice. For some, there might be dancing 'til dawn, with drugs and sex in abundance. Harvard now had far more pressing things to do than police its students' bodies.

For many of us, it was a time of wild mood swings in which the dream-like unreality of a Harvard in near chaos was periodically trumped by the anxious reality of a draft lottery, if not a draft notice. The fey Brattle Street bohemian culture that greeted us in 1967--cool was defined as seeing "Casablanca" repeatedly during reading period--was superseded by the apocalyptic visions of "2001" and "Let It Bleed."

Anything could happen. Tenured faculty in love beads distributed Maoist literature in the Square; a white-haired gentleman known only as "Mr. A. Nony Mous" took countless cryptic full-page ads in The Crimson to promote a cause he called "All Students for a Goodness Society," a sectlike group of protesters from Columbia Teachers College stage a nude-in in a House laundry room.

The non-stop circus, with its even more bizarre array of characters and sideshows, continued until we graduated, accelerating in madness with the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State. By June 1971, we were exhausted by the sheer intensity of our rage, and so was Pusey, whose premature retirement began at our commencement.

What was this revolution's legacy? At the time, with that arrogance and romanticism of all Harvard classes, we actually thought we were uniquely positioned to end the war. We weren't and we didn't. Like Bill Clinton, we mainly succeeded in avoiding the war ourselves: my cursory reading of our 25th reunion book turns up no Vietnam veterans, let alone Vietnam casualties. But for Harvard, if not the war machine, immediate change was inexorable.

In our undergraduate era it was easy to go through four years without ever hearing a course lecture delivered by a woman, let alone by a black. Open homosexuality was unheard of, and the unchecked sexual harassment of students by some notorious members of the faculty was accepted as an immutable tradition of campus life. This Harvard was about to be swept away.

Before it was--and despite all the tear-gas-scented disruptions that signaled the trauma of transition--some of us got an education. If we were lucky, we had teachers--Monroe Engel, Justin Kaplan, Gail Porter and Peter Stansky in my case--who shaped our sensibilities forever. But the Vietnam war also exposed the fallibility of America's institutions, and to witness close-up the crack-up of Harvard, the alma mater of the American establishment that created the quagmire, was a harrowing education in itself.

Much as the Depression bequeathed to our parents a reflexive economic insecurity, so too the late 1960s left many of us with a permanent sense of how violently our country's social fabric could unravel under stress. Though with time the healing would come, it has never quite wiped away the memory of our classmates' blood on the steps of University Hall.

Frank Rich '71 was the editorial chair of The Crimson in 1970. He is currently a columnist for the New York Times.

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