Power to the Students

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Nostalgia for an era of protests—even petty ones.

By Dennis Drabelle

Today most Americans seem comfortable with detaining suspects indefinitely and invading a foreign country to change its regime, and that’s got me wondering. How would such maneuvers have fared in the apocalyptic, seminal Sixties, when political agitation was a way of life? The cases are different, of course. Back then the country had not been attacked by terrorists, and foreigners came here to visit and study, not to kill. But in fact Richard Nixon did invade Cambodia, and the retaliation was severe—widespread demonstrations on college campuses, which escalated into a near-total paralysis of American higher education following the Kent State massacre. And when Attorney General John Mitchell tried to introduce the concept of preventive detention into American jurisprudence, civil libertarians were all over him.

In the Sixties, we didn’t let authority figures get away with much, not even when they thought they were doing us a favor. Not at Penn, anyway, as witness the contents of a manila folder I’ve saved for more than 30 years. It is labeled SAC, letters that stood for Penn Law School’s Student Academic Committee, to which I once belonged. Folded, frayed, and doodled upon, the pages inside that folder conjure up a period of collective fury when even well-intended concessions by an administration could stir up dissent. 

Philadelphia and Penn were spared the full brunt of the Sixties upheavals, at least while I was around, studying for a master’s degree in the School of Arts of Sciences from 1965 to 1966 and at the Law School from 1966 to 1969. There was plenty of tension—home alone one night in the summer of ’67, I hunkered down in the basement of the house I shared with four other law students while looters worked the streets overhead—but no full-scale riots, no academic shutdowns, no takeovers of campus buildings.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on, in the face of what felt like overwhelming pressure to stop it. In the spring of 1968, students and other activists had pulled off a herculean feat: dissuading Lyndon Johnson, whose hunger for power was remarkable even among American presidents, from running for a second full term. But the euphoria following his count-me-out announcement was short-lived. Within weeks, two of the most eloquent antiwar leaders, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were silenced by assassins. In Chicago, antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention met with a bloody overreaction by a police force gone berserk. Johnson’s would-be successor, Hubert Humphrey, ran an erratic campaign and narrowly lost the November election to Richard Nixon. On the campaign trail, Nixon had boasted of a secret plan to end the war, harking back to the precedent set by his mentor Eisenhower when he brought the boys home from Korea in 1953. But not for nothing was Nixon called Tricky Dick. Many of us suspected what turned out to be the case: his secret plan was Say Whatever It Takes To Get Elected, Then Do As You Damn Well Please.

Amid all this national turmoil, in the fall of ’68, Penn Law’s dean and faculty offered to involve students in running the school. I doubt that the gesture overflowed spontaneously from the goodness of their hearts. A year and a half earlier, my first-year section had staged a mini-revolt against our property professor for repeatedly missing class and teaching a medieval version of the subject when he showed up. Another prof, who had worked in the solicitor general’s office in Washington before joining the Penn faculty, was asked in class to explain why he had advanced an anti-free speech position in a pornography case before the Supreme Court; his answer—that he was merely representing his client, the United States—provoked hoots. Courses in constitutional, criminal, and civil-rights law drew large enrollments and set off heated debates. As the authors of a faculty memo put it, “Our students have not been and will not be immune from the questioning and self-questioning spirit that marks their generation.”

It was understood that student representatives would play an advisory role only—we could raise issues and offer suggestions, but the faculty would continue to make the decisions. Still, creating the Student Academic Committee as a safety valve looked like a suave move. An election was called, a friend nominated me, and I became one of the committee’s four third-year members. There were three more from the second-year class and six from first year, for a total of 13.

Our first order of business was ourselves. How would the faculty’s notion of student involvement work in practice? We thrashed out a draft charter and disseminated it for comment. The details are unimportant, except that we probably made a tactical error by explicitly confirming our lack of decision-making power. Annoyed, some of our fellow students formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Student-Faculty Relations and drew up their own vision of how the Law School should function. They would have junked the existing system and replaced it with a Law School Council consisting of the faculty and six members from each of the three student years. All Council members would be equal. The law school, in short, would be a joint venture run by teachers and students.

At first, we of the SAC held fast. We’d been elected to do a job, and it was time to submit our work-product to the faculty. But the Ad Hoc Committee kept pressing, and we finally agreed to test the rival charters in a referendum. The SAC draft won, 114-99. That, we thought, was that.

But in the spring of ’69, on the day when SAC was scheduled to attend its first faculty meeting, the Ad Hoc group flew into action. Their rallying point was a discrepancy between what SAC had proposed and what the faculty had tentatively agreed to: SAC envisaged students sitting on every faculty committee, while the faculty wanted student membership on committees to be merely “the norm.” Cunningly, the Ad Hoc people interpreted a referendum they had lost as having improved their bargaining position: since the vote had been close, the least the faculty should do was adopt the SAC framework in toto.

Emerging from a just-ended class, I was buttonholed by a group of SAC members and Ad Hoc activists. The latter were urging a radical step: instead of taking part in the faculty meeting as scheduled, the SAC contingent would show up, object to the watered-down provision on committee membership, and leave. My fellow SAC members had split 50-50, so the decision—go along or rebel—was up to me.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? The SAC had been chosen in a democratic process, our handiwork had been ratified in a second vote, and the difference between our proposed charter and the faculty’s preferred version was hardly a big deal. But as I was about to declare myself, something came over me. I had the power to stir up trouble, and it seemed a shame not to use it. I went with the zeitgeist, man. I voted to walk out.

My punishment was swift in coming. Naturally, none of the “conservative” SAC members could be expected to serve as spokespersons now, and every one of my fellow “radical” members had a class to attend or some other excuse for why he or she couldn’t make the presentation. The job was mine by default—I was a contingent of one. Having voted in favor of kicking professorial butt, I would have to do the kicking.

I went into that faculty meeting feeling handicapped. I couldn’t very well explain to an array of ultra-cerebral law profs that I was acting on seize-the-moment gut instinct, and the official rationale I was stuck with—the discrepancy as to committee membership—seemed a flimsy excuse for a boycott. I stammered out my explanation while being grilled by the incredulous dean, Jefferson Barnes Fordham. At last, there was nothing more to be said. Carrying out my mandate, I executed the walk-out, hoping it didn’t look too much like an escape.

The rest was anticlimax. On April 24, 1969, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported the faculty’s unanimous adoption of the SAC charter “in all significant respects.” That committee dispute had ended in a compromise: SAC was authorized to “appoint one student to each standing faculty committee, with the exception of the Committee on Academic Freedom” (which ruled on teachers’ claims of interference with how they taught and what they wrote). By then we were nearing final exam time, and the school got through the rest of the semester without incident.

I’m not happy about having disappointed the fatherly Jefferson Fordham, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t make the same decision if I faced it again. My fellow students and I could hardly hold the Penn Law faculty responsible for the perpetuation of the Vietnam War and other multiple injustices—in fact, I have no doubt that a majority of professors abhorred the war and were strongly in favor of civil rights, racial equality, women’s rights, etc. But in our own pyschodramatic way, I think we were trying to impress upon them how hollow their faith in orderly procedures rang to our generation, which had followed the steps of petitioning, assembling, and voting against the war in the expectation that government would be responsive, only to have it ignore us. (Nixon later bragged that he would never change his mind because of antiwar protests, which meant that the right to petition was a dead letter as long as he was in office.)

It wasn’t much, what we did—boycotting a faculty meeting over a minor difference in a lesser provision of an intramural charter. Hell, maybe it was petty. But it does indicate the intensity with which students and others reacted to political shortcomings, real or imagined, in the Sixties. This was an era when you couldn’t give students a place at the faculty table without generating some backlash for all the decades when they’d been strictly relegated to the classrooms. A crazy time, perhaps. But looking back at the SAC brouhaha now, when questionable invasions and civil-rights cutbacks have muscled their way back into the national agenda and most of the populace looks the other way, I can’t help feeling nostalgia for that hypersensitive Sixties’ take-no-guff-from-anybody mentality.

Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.

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