John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

February 15, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Good Things Will Come from Campus Unrest: They Have Before

In May of 1992, my former and still cherished University of South Carolina colleague, Stuart Hunter and I, co-hosted along with James Griffith, the chief student affairs officer, an International Conference on the First-Year Experience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. There, we were approached by an educator whose request to me now seems almost prophetic in light of what has been happening on a number of American campuses since January 20.

Her name was Elsie Watt and she introduced herself as a doctoral student in US social history at Queens University, Ontario, one of Canada’s most elite universities. She explained to us that she was looking for a dissertation topic that could grow out of the history of US campus social protest movements in the late 1960’s/early 70’s. She had just learned by attending a session Stuart and I had done that the University of South Carolina’s highly regarded and widely emulated first-year seminar course, University 101, had been born out of the convergence of the civil rights/voting rights/students’ rights and anti-war movements—in the US in general and at the University of South Carolina in particular. She went on to seek our formal permission to visit the University to conduct research for a dissertation that would trace the historical origins of the course University 101 to ascertain its connections and impetus to the social protest movements. So she spent the better part of two years with us in South Carolina in the University archives, in my papers, and in interviewing scores of University officials who had been involved in any way with responding to the social protest movement which by that time was 20 years distant in time. She did complete her dissertation on this topic and its findings have long served as a reminder to me of the positive outcomes that did come about from the period of campus turmoil, a significant part of which revolved around antipathy for two US Presidents in succession: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Yes, you are assuming correctly: a number of us senior (reference to age not rank) higher educators have been experiencing Deja vu since January 20—and as Yogi Berra so famously said: “Déjà vu all over again!”

I am exhibit A of a higher educator whose life was profoundly altered by the social protest movement. Because of the Vietnam War, I was drafted and sent to South Carolina on active duty. It was the Air Force that gave me a direct order to become an adjunct faculty member in my off-duty time. I lost my first higher education faculty job because of my involvement in social protest activities (with the ACLU); that, in turn, led to my faculty position, thank goodness, at the University of South Carolina, three months after a tumultuous student riot had shaken the campus. One outgrowth of the riot was the President’s action to ask the faculty to create what became the University 101 course, to teach the students, in his words, “to love the University.” It was his thesis that we could teach this and that if we were successful they would not want to or need to riot again. And they haven’t since the course was created in 1972. I acknowledge that this is correlation and not causation. The social protest movement then further impacted me because I became the first faculty director of this initiative to prevent student riots, a position I held for 25 years.

I think it is important for all of us in higher education as we face the uncertainty of how we are going to deal with challenges of unrest on our campuses and the likely political pressure on many of us to stifle our opposition to government actions, to remember that the last time our country faced significant student protest, there were many positive outcomes! I admit it: I am looking for some upside to the changes we are going through.

So what were some of those outcomes of the social protest movement the last time we really had one:

  1. The students were a definite contributing factor to ending the war in Vietnam. That for me is the most important outcome of all.
  2. Student opposition to the expansion of the Vietnam buildup started by President Kennedy and greatly ramped up by President Johnson, contributed significantly to his decision not to seek reelection in 1968. Could students possibly bring down a President again?
  3. Student opposition to the war and the related draft for conscription, contributed to the Congressional action to end the draft.
  4. Student objections to the presence of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, programs on campuses led to a profound rethinking of this opportunity on college campuses.
  5. Student demands for greater participation in institutional shared governance where heard and met. We now all have students serving on important committees and some of us work in institutions where there is even a student member on the institutional governing board.
  6. Student demands for the ending of gender-based separate social and conduct regulations were met demanding the end of separate and definitely not equal privileges that had created inequities of practices like curfews for women but not men.
  7. Student demands for increased opportunities for participation in intercollegiate athletics were met.
  8. Student demands for greater sensitivity to the needs of formerly de jure discriminated against students of color contributed to a myriad of new forms of academic support and efforts at greater inclusion.
  9. Student demands for greater freedoms of assembly and free speech effected profound change in campus cultures.
  10. Student activism was one of the many contributing factors to the growth of the Student Affairs profession as campus leaders recognized they needed far more educators “living over the store” with the students. It’s a foolish campus CEO who doesn’t listen to her/his Student Affairs colleagues sense of the student pulse on campus today.
  11. Student activism also profoundly impacted the extent of faculty-student interaction outside the classroom including and often especially within our most esteemed research universities.

I am not going to undertake here a thorough, let alone scholarly, treatise of my thesis. This is not the forum for that kind of discourse. And I have only gotten started on my above list.

As I listen to and read about my fellow higher education leaders struggling to find the most appropriate responses to both their and our students concerns about the state of American political actions and discourse, I take heart by remembering that we rose to the occasion once before in the 1960’s and 70’s and I believe that we will again. I just hope it doesn’t take a war to generate a new anti-war movement. I am too old to be drafted this time, but not too old to serve in other ways the best interests of our democracy.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


− two = 7