Campus ablaze: a university of activists or an activist university?

This year, Brown made national headlines for its student activism: Students called for University divestment from coal companies, staged protests leading to the cancelation of a scheduled lecture by former New York Police Commission Ray Kelly and advocated reform of the University’s sexual assault polices.

These protests are only the most recent in a long history of student activism at Brown.

But professors and alums have claimed activism on campus has decreased over the years, The Herald reported in 2011, raising the question of whether student activism is ingrained in Brown’s culture or whether College Hill has simply happened to attract generations of students with a passion for social justice. Brown’s history of protest remains fairly indistinct in the years before the 1960s and ’70s — particularly turbulent decades that witnessed the 1968 walkout over University support for black students, the creation of the Open Curriculum, the resignation of two University presidents within 10 years and the Vietnam War strike.

These events and the administration’s subsequent responses marked the beginning of Brown’s reputation for activism.

Activist roots

The activism characteristic of the 1960s and ’70s began when 65 black students from Brown and Pembroke College publicly left campus for five days, demanding the University increase the proportion of black students admitted to 11 percent.

Ken Miller ’70 P’02 remembered seeing the students in front of Faunce Arch with their suitcases, boarding buses which took them to local churches. “They didn’t sort of slip away. They made a very public show,” he said.

Miller said the University viewed the few black students on campus at the time as providing an “aura of legitimacy.”  But simply by leaving campus, the students were able to deny the University that credibility.

“It was just such a brilliant tactic,” Miller said.  “It wasn’t violent, it didn’t threaten anybody, and it embarrassed the hell out of the University.”

The protestors urged the University to create new programs such as the Rites and Reason Theatre and the Transitional Summer Program, which currently exists as the Third World Transition Program.

After Brown agreed to these terms and bolstered the number of black students on campus, Harvard followed suit with a similar initiative to increase the number of students of color on its campus, said Kenneth McDaniel ’69 P’13 in a video on the Brown Alumni Association website.

At the same time black students called for a change in admission policy, Ira Magaziner ’69 and Elliot Maxwell ’68 were calling for changes in the curriculum.

An idea first fostered by a Group Independent Study Project in the fall of 1966 soon transformed into an initiative for reform. By March of the following year, Magaziner and Maxwell released a report that outlined a student-centered education featuring courses that emphasized critical thinking over rote learning and more independent forms of study, such as the option to create an independent concentration.

The students behind the initiative drew support through canvassing alums and hosting reform rallies that drummed up enthusiasm from students.

“If you are looking for ‘student power’ at Brown, you are looking for Ira,” Brown Alumni Monthly reported at the time. “The students’ attitude toward him stops just short of idolatry.”

Hearings on curricular reform began in 1968, and after a modified version of the report gained the approval of the Curriculum Committee, the faculty voted to adopt the new educational system — which now included a pass/fail grading program — in May 1969, soon after which then-President Ray Heffner resigned.

In an introduction to a 2011 reprint of the final report they orginally submitted 40 years prior, Magaziner and Maxwell attributed their success in part to the revolutionary spirit of the times.

“The debate over the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement — all were contesting the prevailing views in our country. In a small way, the curricular reform movement was challenging the dominant model of higher education that had its roots in the general education movement of the 1940s and 1950s,” they wrote. “The uncertainty about the future made it an opportune time to campaign for change.”

 

Protesting Vietnam

Donald Hornig succeeded Heffner in 1970, the same year a campus strike against the Vietnam War began. Members of the strike sent a resolution advocating peace to both the Rhode Island congressional delegation and President Nixon, organized a rally urging the University to object to military action in Cambodia and hosted teach-ins and workshops, according to the Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

Despite the anti-war fervor,  interactions between students and administrators remained relatively relaxed, unlike those at some of Brown’s peer institutions. At Columbia and Harvard, students took over university buildings, and the police were brought in to reprimand and remove them. Meanwhile, “Yale students never protested as aggressively as other schools,” the Yale Daily News reported in 2001.

“The spirit of our class was one of questioning and wishing to have discussions in a peaceful, smart way,” said Jeff Bergart ’70, who participated in some strike activities. “That, to me, is the best measure of protests. … The majority doesn’t overpower the minority, and there’s an opportunity for discussion.”

The strike contributed to the educational experiences of members of the Brown community, said Rev. Richard Dannenfelser, who was the associate chaplain in 1970 and a member of the strike steering committee. The strike was meant to “invite people into a conversation” and “to get people to reflect and think,” he said.

Though Brown stayed open through the war, it gave students the option of working for the anti-war movement, attending classes or doing both. Out of respect to the effort, final exams were also made optional, a choice that spoke to the solidarity felt by the faculty for the students’ cause.

“It was heated, not only in terms of the administration, but in the context of the whole community,” Bergart said.

The protests also had a strong emotional component, with the ongoing draft and the Kent State University student shooting causing Vietnam to resonate heavily with the student body and encouraging protest, said Edward Ahearn, professor emeritus of French studies and comparative literature, who was a faculty member at the time. More modern wars, such as the Iraq War, have not provided that same sense of immediacy for many undergraduates, he added.

Faculty members were more likely to join in campus protests at the time, Ahearn said. During the Vietnam War, there was significant “faculty anger” about incidents such as the Kent State University student shooting that contributed to a vocal “political activist community,” Ahearn added.

Today, faculty involvement around protests and politics is more subdued, something Ahearn attributes in part to University attempts to quiet campus unrest by implementing stricter rules and regulations about how and when faculty members can raise issue at faculty meetings.

Fighting finances

Student attention turned back to Brown policy when Hornig, in an attempt to better the University’s financial position, proposed cutting financial aid by $60,000 and reducing the faculty by 15 percent. This proposal was extremely unpopular among the student body, and in March 1975, students formed a coalition intended to pressure the University to reject Hornig’s budget.

Electing to strike in April of that year, students argued Brown was not fulfilling the commitments it made in response to the 1968 walkout. In particular, they said, cuts to financial aid would disproportionately harm minority students.

Nonetheless, Hornig’s budget received approval from the Advisory and Executive Committee. Forty black, Latino, and Asian-American students occupied University Hall 10 days later, but none of their demands were met by the administration.

After the student protests, Hornig resigned.

 

A new age

Though an era synonymous with sweeping change and on-campus activism drew to a close with the end of the 1970s, protests that reflected national issues continued on Brown’s campus.

Amid the ongoing Cold War in 1981, 13 students stood up and recited Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” during a lecture by William J. Casey, then-director of the CIA. The act was an expression of disapproval for the University accepting funds from the John M. Olin Foundation, a conservative organization, to fund talks on national security at the University, the New York Times reported at the time.

“I endorse this as the classiest and most educated protest I can imagine,” said Miller, who was a faculty member at the time.

But after the incident, there was debate about whether the act had infringed on Casey’s right to free speech, though he could continue his lecture after the protesters quieted.

“If we meant to infringe fully upon anyone’s rights, we could have read ‘Paradise Lost,’” one of the protestors told the New York Times.

The University Council on Student Affairs, which is now the Peer Community Standards Board, found 13 students guilty of “minimal” infringement of the rights of others and imposed no penalty, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

Only three years later in 1984, protests against the CIA occurred again, when 60 students interrupted a meeting conducted by CIA recruiters to make a citizen’s arrest. This time, the University Council on Student Affairs found 57 of the students guilty of disruptive behavior, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

That same year, concerns over national nuclear policy also manifested in on-campus activism. In 1984, students endorsed a referendum calling on the University to stock “suicide pills” in the event of a nuclear attack. The resolution, rejected by the administration, was meant to foster a conversation about the potential dangers of nuclear war.

As the decade continued and the tension born of the Cold War began to diffuse, apartheid drew focus from student activists on campus.

In 1986, the Brown Free Southern Africa Coalition built a shanty on the Main Green with the permission of the University and dismantled it a week later. Protests escalated the following year, when members of Students Against Apartheid disrupted a Corporation meeting demanding total divestment in South Africa. In response, 20 of the protesters — including former President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy Carter — were placed on probation. The University was divested from South Africa by the end of the decade.

Arresting activists  

Students faced even greater disciplinary action after a protest against the University’s need-aware admission policy involving hundreds of students taking over University Hall April 21, 1992.

After a more peaceful sit-in and protests outside University Hall, students poured into the building, and administrators were evacuated. Students were alerted the building would close at 5 p.m., at which time everyone inside would be considered trespassing and therefore liable to be arrested.

Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive linguistic and psychological sciences who was dean of College at the time, was left to handle the protest in the absence of both the president and the provost, who were out of town.

Blumstein said the students’ decision to take over University Hall was a surprise, noting that some of the staff in the building grew frightened when students began knocking on their doors. When she entered the Corporation room to receive student demands, she found some of the protesters dancing on the tables, she said.

Administrators elected not to let police on campus, but at 10 p.m., 253 students were escorted in pairs out of the building, onto buses off campus, and down to the police station, Blumstein said. The students were charged with disturbing public assembly general, disorderly conduct, two counts of willful trespassing and prevention from carrying on employment, The Herald reported in 1992.

“The whole issue of civil disobedience is you are willing to ‘pay a price’ of some kind for your actions,” Blumstein said. Students complied with the stipulations of the agreement — including their arrest — peacefully, she added, saying their parents seemed more upset by the arrest.

Protests died down following the arrests, but the students’ demands came to fruition a decade later, when as the University went need-blind in 2003.

Modern protest  

Many of the events that occurred over the past academic year have mirrored movements of the past.

The most publicized protest during this past year, responding to a scheduled lecture by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, was driven by the idea that the University would be endorsing racial injustice due to Kelly’s stop-and-frisk policy, just as students rallied against the University inviting a speaker from the CIA 32 years earlier, and Henry Kissinger in 1969.

After students stood up to interrupt Kelly’s scheduled lecture — ultimately leading to the talk’s cancelation — President Christina Paxson sent a campus-wide email criticizing the actions, writing that it was “a sad day for the Brown community.”

“Our University is — above all else — about the free exchange of ideas,” Paxson added.

Justice Gaines ’16, a participant in the protest, said administrators “did a horrible job of responding at first,” pointing to Paxson’s email in particular.

“My biggest issue with the University was the way they talked about the protests,” Gains said. Kelly’s scheduled lecture “didn’t promote the free exchange of ideas. It actually cut off free speech and made the conversation less productive,” adding “people were worried more about the power dynamics of the lecture than what it means to have Ray Kelly on campus.”

Other students took issue with the protest itself. In a poll The Herald conducted following the protest, 73 percent of undergraduates indicated they disapproved of protests causing the lecture to be shut down. 78 percent of respondents did not approve of stop-and-frisk.

The day after the lecture, Paxson held a forum to discuss what happened. She later created the Committee on the Events of October 29th, which was charged with reviewing what happened and identifying issues that contributed to the clash.

Divestment, which emerged as a valid mode and object of protest during the Apartheid debate, has been the primary goal of the current Brown Divest Coal movement.

The adminstration has “been very respectful and have given a lot of attention to us,” said Camila Bustos ’16, a member of Brown Divest Coal. “They allowed us to meet with the Corporation.”

“Apart from that, I’m very disappointed with the way the administration has disregarded the moral and economic imperative to divest,” Bustos said. “As leaders we should be setting the example, but now we’re just going to be tagging along,” Bustos said, adding that Stanford recently divested.

“What happened at Stanford was really similar to what’s been happening here, except that I think their administration actually listened and took them seriously,” Bustos said.

Protests over the University’s sexual assault policy erupted this semester when Lena Sclove ’15.5 announced that the University will allow her rapist to return during the same year as she will.

Students have now formed a task force in preparation for the policy review of the Code of Conduct that the University will hold next year, The Herald reported in March. The University will form a committee this fall to make recommendations for policy changes.

Alex Drechsler ’15, who is working to put an undergraduate on the Corporation as a result of these transparency issues, said his experience with the administration has been very positive. “We have met with President Paxson on two different occasions,” he said. “We’ve really tried to go through the official channels and really try to work with the establishment.”

But Drechsler said coming from student government made working with the administration easier. “The administration very much does view the student government as the voice of the students regardless of whether or not students themselves view student government as the voice of students,” he said.

 

A modern protest culture?

The student body isn’t shy about calling out the University on controversial issues, Bustos said. She said she thinks Brown students are apt to take up issues they are passionate about and approach protests practically.

“We have a protest culture, in a way, but with reason,” Bustos said. “I don’t think it’s ever because it’s fun or because we want to be hip. I think it’s because it’s the right thing to do.”

Gaines said he thinks Brown has a reputation for protest, particularly after this year. But he said the protest culture has died down in recent years.

“Students are much less inclined to make a huge move against the University,” he said, adding most protests are now conducted in tandem with the University.

“It’s a safer protest. It’s much less radical,” he said. “That’s why the Ray Kelly protest was such a surprise.”

“Students have always done these things in a fairly responsible way,” Bergart said. But he was “disappointed in the behavior of the students” at the Ray Kelly protests.

Still, “it’s not my responsibility to tell Brown what it should be,” Bergart said, adding Brown has always been flexible enough to change with the interests of the student body.

“The administration isn’t afraid to let the student body move the University in a certain direction,” he said. “It’s a pretty great tip of the hat to Brown that we’ve gone through a whole bunch of presidents, but that whole spirit of change from below has always been there.”

“Part of it may be the nature of who Brown takes, part of it is the nature of how Brown molds us. And it’s a very synergistic relationship,” Bergart said. “As Brown molds us, we mold Brown.”