In reviewing the circumstances of the shutdown of the country’s colleges and universities 50 years ago this month and today’s circumstances due to the coronavirus, some things are the same and some things are different. First, let’s take a look at the situation in May 1970. I lived these events. I was on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
April 29, 1970, was the beginning of what became known as the “Cambodian incursion” in the Vietnam War. American armed forces attacked the North Vietnamese supply chain on the territory of neutral Cambodia. Until that date, the communist North Vietnamese were ignoring and exploiting the neutrality of Cambodia, using the territory to funnel equipment and personnel with impunity from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. College campuses across the country erupted into protests, into riots. ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) buildings were bombed. These protests led to the May 4 deaths at Kent State University, inspiring the song “Ohio,” written by Neil Young of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming … Four dead in Ohio.”
The protests continued throughout the land. On May 8, there was an attempt by 100,000 to shut down the federal government by blocking roads into D.C., and there were the May 15 deaths at Jackson State College. Eventually, four million students boycotted classes at 450 colleges. The colleges all across America shut down.
The 1970 shutdown was forced by a minority of students to which weak administrators yielded. There are protests today but they are by people demanding a return to work.
Turning to the circumstances at Notre Dame, we first note that student unrest across Europe, the country, and at Notre Dame, in 1968 and 1969, led Father Theodore M. Hesburgh (1917–2015), the president of the university (1952–1987), to write a lengthy letter to the university community on February 17, 1969, in which he announced his “15-minute rule.” Protesters who violated the rights of others or disrupted school operations would have 15 minutes to stop or face suspension or expulsion. (See the 2019 biography of Hesburgh by Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh, pp. 133-134.) President Nixon, known for extolling “law and order,” praised Hesburgh’s stance. CBS News published an advertisement on April 21, 1969, in the New York Times, which distinguished “No nonsense at Notre Dame,” from other campuses. The ad (below, as captured on microfilm) alluded to the 1968 campus unrest with the alliterative phrases “Collision at Columbia” (student occupation of Columbia buildings), “Backfire at Berkeley” (the Free Speech Movement), “Opposition at Oxford” (an issue in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns because he was at Oxford 1968–69 protesting his own country on foreign territory), and “Strife at Sorbonne.”
And now, what was happening at Notre Dame when the Cambodian incursion became public? On May 1, 1970, Notre Dame students disrupted a meeting of the university trustees, forcing the meeting to end. On May 2, there were two attempts to light the ROTC building on fire. Notre Dame had, and has, prided itself for not only keeping ROTC on campus during the long Vietnam War, when university after university gave in and ended all ties with ROTC or moved it off campus, but also having all three military branches of ROTC. And Notre Dame kept service academies on its football schedule.
On May 4, Hesburgh spoke to an outdoor assembly of 1,000 students (a small percentage of an undergraduate student population of 6,000) and a larger university community population that included graduate students, faculty, and staff. He spoke against the incursion, and, as it happened, this was an hour after the Kent State shootings. He called Nixon a “moral midget.” As the Cambodian incursion had in a single day turned large numbers of students against the war, it had the same effect on Hesburgh. At the same time, he encouraged students to direct their anger to productive purposes. He drafted a petition to President Nixon seeking signatures from students and the public. According to an article posted by the Notre Dame archives at the time of Hesburgh’s 2015 death, “Protest in the 1960’s,” he obtained 23,000 signatures from townspeople alone. Father Hesburgh recalled, “It seemed that the predominant sentiment on campus switched over from violence to nonviolence in that one single week.” It was students who went door-to-door to solicit signatures.
As part of the “National Strike,” Notre Dame students boycotted classes beginning on May 4 and later extended the boycott to at least May 15. They extended the boycott by a vote held in an assembly hall with a capacity of 2,000: 250 to end the strike, 1,013 to suspend the decision three days from Thursday to Sunday, and 1,309 to continue the strike. So, 2,500 of the 6,000 undergraduates participated in this vote. (What voice did the majority of 3,500 undergrads have?) The students who wanted to strike wanted no academic consequences. They insisted on what they called “amnesty,” in the form of no repercussions on their grades if they failed to take tests or turn in their work during their boycott of classes.
On May 6, a Mass attended by 1,000 was celebrated on the main quad of the university. The next day, Ascension Thursday, Hesburgh celebrated Mass in the jam-packed university church (capacity: 2,000), and he eulogized the Kent State students.
Let’s pause here to be clear that the American people may never have learned that the boycotts were not voluntary and may not have been supported by the majority of students, either nationally or at Notre Dame. As Marilyn Quayle famously said at the 1992 Republican National Convention, “[N]ot everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution, or dodged the draft.” Rowdy students at Notre Dame went from classroom to classroom, barging in, and insisting that the faculty stop teaching and the students leave. One of my professors said it reminded him of why he had fled Nazi Germany 30 years earlier.
Three thousand university faculty and students marched in South Bend on May 6. On May 10, Hesburgh appeared with Yale’s Kingman Brewster and Michigan’s Robert Fleming to discuss the situation on a CBS special conducted by David Frost (1939–2013). Among other things, Hesburgh said in the David Frost interview that these May 1970 protests were not simply springtime exuberance; no, something big was at stake: war and peace, legality and illegality, morality and immorality.
During these events, Hesburgh reflected: “Our students have seen more rapid change in their lifetime than the world has seen since creation. They have seen a president shot [Kennedy 1963], men walk on the moon [summer 1969], nations literally destroyed by war, and it is amazing that their human circuits have not burned up.” (Ah, the current younger generation has seen 9/11, a generation of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 Great Recession, the opioid addiction crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic.) Brewster said,
The tragedy of the highly-motivated, impatient young activist is that he runs the serious risk of disqualifying himself from true usefulness by being too impatient to arm himself with the intellectual equipment required for the solution of the problem of war and poverty and indignity. You and I have seen too many among our students of high promise squander their talent for a lifetime of constructive work at a high level, for the cheaper and transient satisfaction of throwing themselves on some immediate barricade in the name of involvement…. We and our faculties have to reassert again and again that emotional oversimplification of the world’s problems is not the path to their solution.
(Both quotes in Ron Parent, a Notre Dame employee, “Student Activism: Why Here? Why Now?”)
In looking at Brewster’s words today, I am reminded of the message that the adults of the Fairfax County (Virginia) School Board, supervising 22 high schools, sent students when, in December 2019, it adopted a policy to excuse one absence yearly for students in Grades 7 to 12 to “to participate in civic engagement activities…. Civic engagement could include a wide variety of activities, including meetings with elected officials, volunteering for a campaign or participating in other activities within the community [that is, marches, demonstrations, protests, sit-ins, boycotts].”
While President Trump has been criticized for mentioning on April 17 the liberation of people in certain states during the pandemic, clearly, education officials want to “liberate” America.
Hesburgh and the Notre Dame administration ended classes, and students went home. I could not find the date of the last classes. Apparently, not all of the students went home because six sports teams continued to compete until their seasons ended (p. 8) , the student newspaper continued to be published until May 22, and graduation ceremonies, the 125th of the university, were held on time on June 7. Why did Notre Dame shut down? After all, as Hesburgh acknowledged, the students had become nonviolent. The Notre Dame campus was, to use current terminology, a “safe space.” (A word to today’s administrators and students: You can always create a ultrasafe space by cleansing a campus of its students.) Moreover, students can walk and chew gum at the same time. Students who wanted to continue their academic work could still canvass neighborhoods for signatures to what was called “the Hesburgh Declaration,” march, protest, demonstrate, attend the growing number of teach-ins, pray, and, as my residence hall did, fast.
How does 1970 compare to today? First, there is a difference between a shutdown in mid-March and in the first third of May. And yet, final papers and exams in the closing days of a school year are ordinarily a large percentage of one’s grades. Second, today the majority of students can research and communicate remotely online. That was not possible in 1970. Third, the 1970 shutdown did not affect jobs, career, or summer internships. When we left campuses and traveled home, everything looked familiar. It was only the colleges and universities that were closed. The May 1970 national student strike was not as broad as a European-style general strike. Today, everything is closed. Fourth, today’s shutdown is caused by an infectious disease and, at least at the beginning, the shutdown was widely supported by government officials at all levels and the general population. The 1970 shutdown was forced by a minority of students to which weak administrators yielded. There are protests today, but they are by people demanding a return to work.
Fifth, there is the issue of what to do about grades. When the classes ended at Notre Dame, there were no more tests, no final exams, no final papers, no more lab work, etc. How were their grades to be treated? As mentioned, the activists sought “amnesty,” that is, no consequences for their boycott. They were going to drop out of school and suffer no ill. According to a retrospective piece 20 years later by Robert Schmuhl, a graduating senior in 1970 who became a professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, faculty had the options: “Faculty members would determine final grades either by assigning the student’s current grade, giving a pass or fail mark, or assigning a W (for withdrawal) or an I (for incomplete).” Students given an “incomplete” had the option of completing their coursework during the summer. Think again about this: the majority of students were forced by the administrators to quit and to quit without any refunds.
With regard to the coronavirus situation today, there was an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on March 20 penned by a professor of English at Columbia, which had shuttered its campus due to the coronavirus, declaring that she would be giving all of her students an A for this semester without any additional work by them or by her. She refused to engage in online instruction. She urged all colleges to at least allow pass/fail. Why? Because “many [students] already suffer [before the virus] from chronic anxiety and depression,” “the reading and thinking they have done already [in the spring semester] has been significant,” and “our students are experiencing a flood of other practical and emotional demands on finite resources,” as she detailed:
Even before the first cases of covid-19 were diagnosed in the United States, many undergraduates were already reporting that they experienced food and housing insecurity. Not every student has a bed to go home to, let alone a good Internet connection and the privacy and quiet conducive to deep focus. A cascade of harsher effects are about to follow as the pandemic rolls through the nation: from wage and job loss for students and their family members to significant fallout as the health-care system moves to prioritize the surge in coronavirus cases over care for patients with other serious illnesses. At the same time, students and faculty with children are experiencing massive new demands in terms of child care now that schools and day cares are shut down. Other care responsibilities, especially for elderly and disabled loved ones, are likely to expand dramatically as well.
The Washington Post followed up with a broad look at the issue on April 7 by Susan Svrluga, “Colleges are ditching letter grades this spring, but not all students are on board with ‘ungrading.’ ”
A sixth issue: what to do about finances? I am unaware of any arrangements in 1970 to refund tuition, room, and board to students shut out of campus. Today there is a movement toward some form of recompense. Lawsuits have been filed in California.
Today, one can question the scope and duration of the school shutdown. But in 1970, being forced out of school was the fault of a mob of self-righteous, intolerant, demanding students and weak college administrators. Is it easier to be angry at a virus or at such people?