Home

Vietnam: The Living Memory

Newsworthy

Back Page

Archives

 

A Climate of Change

The Vietnam era encompassed not only the conflict in Southeast Asia and the huge national debate it provoked, but also the emergence of tremendous social and cultural forces: the civil rights and women's rights movements, a deepening commitment to solving the problem of poverty, disillusionment with government and distrust of the Establishment. Among those leading the charge on these issues was a new kind of American college students.

As the following reflections from Tufts graduates reveal, the university was a microcosm of the complex events going on well beyond the Hill. In such a climate of change, choices were inevitable. Each student confronted decisions: the choice to speak up or be quiet, to join in or drop out. And like the outside world, Tufts often reflected a nation divided, with students clearly split into opposing camps: protesters on one side and supporters of the war on the other.

Yet implicit in the unrest was a desire for genuine reform. Tufts historian Russell Miller calls these the "Years of Trial and Tribulation" in Light on the Hill, but they were also years that had a profound influence on how Tufts conducted its business. Parietals (in particular, the much-detested curfews for Jackson women), how semesters were structured (The January Thing, or winter term), coed dining and housing, the relevance of coursework (The College Within offering students a chance to design their own majors)-all these were signs of students' push to rethink and redefine their education.

Their actions were both moderate and extreme: sit-ins in Ballou Hall, picketing, and student rallies in Cohen Auditorium followed by strikes.

As Provost and Vice President Sol Gittleman, then a professor of German and chair of the Committee on Student Life, remembers it, no one anticipated student demands.

"This was a period of great energy and empowerment," he said. "And it was radically new. In the late 1960s, Tufts was a traditional liberal arts college that wasn't prepared for any of the change. I remember when a group of students marched in one day and said, 'We are now making coed living a fact of life.' And they did! Whatever problems existed in society the university was held accountable. They looked for a surrogate enemy and they found it. Against that, the university was helpless."

Student activism at Tufts varied in its effectiveness, but events were often characterized by an intense sense of purpose. Opposition to the war, for example, grew stronger as American involvement escalated and the draft became more hotly contested. Protests also mounted over minority enrollment, reflecting growing national attention to civil rights issues. Students effectively shut down conventional university programs on more than one occasion. Classes were cancelled and symposia held in the spring of 1969 to discuss the controversial issue of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corp (NROTC). After the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, activists "attacked with growing ferocity the ROTC program, on-campus military recruiting and the purported failure of the university to admit more Blacks and to increase their financial aid," writes Miller. That spring, after four Kent State students were killed by National Guardsmen, the university saw its first unofficial graduation-the students held their own ceremony to which the administration was distinctly not invited-while the university held its formal traditional gathering the next day.

In spring 1972, more than 1,000 students, enraged by renewed bombing, voted for a two-day strike. Antiwar actions continued as buses carried Tufts students to New York for a "March to Bring All the GIs Home," and as Curtis Hall was transformed into a Strike Center, from which flowed information on all antiwar activities in the state, picketing of the Medford military recruitment office and civil disobedience at the gates of Raytheon. It was at Tufts that representatives from 24 area colleges and universities formed a New England Colleges Emergency Conference that condemned the escalation of the war.

And Tufts students filled buses to marches in New York and joined throngs of compatriots marching on Boston Common, and participated in sit-ins with faculty at the JFK Federal Building where they were arrested.

"You had an idealist generation willing to run against the grain," said retired biology professor and activist Saul Slapikoff. "But you also happened to have a group of undergraduates who had good organizing skills. They were young people with commitment who were bright and capable-they were ready to make a commitment and they had skills. That is no small thing."

The antiwar movement comprised a relatively small minority, as with many social movements, and student interest waxed and waned. According to Phil Primack, A70, former editor of The Tufts Observer, and now a freelance writer based in Medford, "Vietnam was without doubt a hot issue at Tufts as on every campus, but it was a relatively small group of people who were opposed."

But small or not, such groups had enormous impact. To Primack, the most important benchmark of the era at Tufts was not Vietnam, but protests that took place at a construction site for a Jackson dorm. Members of Afro-American societies from campuses across Boston, joined by some Tufts students and faculty, occupied the site in November 1969 to protest the construction company's failure to meet minority hiring standards, standards the students felt the university had pledged to meet.

"What is probably most fascinating to me about the Tufts experience is how the war was playing out at home on an issue that had nothing directly to do with Vietnam, but was a measure of that time," said Primack. "The protest over the dorm made Tufts a vanguard on the issue of the role of an employer-in this case a university-regarding what would be become known as affirmative action. Tufts became the first major campus battleground over that issue."

A growing sense of injustice also left indelible marks. Marty Blatt, A72, would become one of the more outspoken antiwar students on campus, but he began at Tufts as a freshman who was "particularly upset" by Phil Ochs' "Love Me I'm a Liberal." Now chief of cultural resources and historian for Boston National Historic Parks, Blatt says the songs "forced him to think and question." From his perspective, the collective antiwar effort was a "defining moment. There were many people whose lives were changed by that experience to this day-certainly in terms of their values and/or career choices. There's no question that the antiwar movement was transformative-there was no single episode more important in my development than participating in the 1969 March Against Death in Washington, DC. It crystallized my emotions and rational thoughts around issues of war and peace, and the overall meaning of life. I remember feeling: Is there anything more important than trying to prevent young men from being drafted and sent to fight in some senseless conflict?"

For Judith Mears, J68, today a lawyer with a national HMO, change was about fighting for convictions. Mears, who marked becoming The Tufts Weekly's first woman editor in chief by printing her first edition on pink paper, said the existence of parietals depended on Jackson women's passive acceptance of them. "You can't have parietal rules without implicit consent," she said. "So for a long time, women were still 'protected' by the disciplinary council because they allowed themselves to be. It was only when we decided we didn't need those 'protections' that we moved forward."

Students were especially vocal about changing the governance of the university to include student input. They were often incensed by President Burton Hallowell's refusal to ban military recruiting on campus on the grounds that it was contrary to his idea of an "open university."

An economist from Wesleyan University, and in his own words, "leaning a little left of center," Hallowell, however, did what he could to walk that fine line between quick fixes and real, permanent improvements.

Answering directly to the trustees, but sincerely interested in young people and their passion for reform and relevance (he stated openly that he was personally opposed to the war), Hallowell sought solutions that encouraged flexibility and teamwork, such as changing the composition of various committees to include students, and encouraging faculty to hold seminars related to the war when student attention was clearly not directed at routine classwork.

"Universities are really built to deal with problems in a rational, civil way. They are lost when it comes to a world of emotionalism and irrationalism," reflected Hallowell recently at his home on Cape Cod. "I knew authority would be challenged from the start, that is why I issued a statement in the spring of 1968 about what I thought a university was, about the responsibility of students, faculty and trustees, and the conditions under which these responsibilities could be carried out in a world of chaos and disruption. That statement had to happen. . . . Besides, presidents don't have the power to decree. They are only put in strategic positions for exercising persuasion."

Now 84, Hallowell recalls that, despite his efforts, sometimes his persuasive skills fell short. "I did not have as much of a problem as an extremely right-wing conservative might have had," he said. "But you were either having a high or a low. You were subject day in and day out to great frustration and enormous uncertainty."

Still, he cites real changes at Tufts. "I always believed there should be reforms at universities, and we made some. We radically changed parietals and improved the rights of women and minorities. Our trustees voted for an open meeting with the whole community at least once a year. They also voted for nonvoting participants drawn from among faculty, students and alumni to attend meetings of the standing committees of the board. We set up clear guidelines for dealing with disruptive behavior. We felt we had to do everything we could," he said, "to adjust to a new kind of world."

We hope the following essays are a reflection on that world and an opportunity to transform those experiences into enduring lessons.

   

 

© 2001 Trustees of Tufts University, all rights reserved.