Who Catered the Last Sit-In?

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Twenty years ago this month — on the morning of March 2, 1978, to be precise — a crowd of some 1,200 students gathered in front of College Hall to protest proposed budget cuts, a $375 tuition-hike (from $4,450), and an overall lack of input into University affairs. An unplanned, three-and-a-half day sit-in ensued, ending only after administrators and student negotiators reached a 31-point agreement that salvaged some programs and gave students more of a voice in decision-making. 
   At the heart of the controversy was the fact that a number of sports — including ice hockey, gymnastics, badminton, and golf — faced elimination, as did the professional theatre programs at the Annenberg Center. By the end, all sports but ice hockey were reinstated, and the administration had committed to helping Annenberg find the funds it needed to continue operating. 
   Martin Meyerson, Hon’70, who was president of the University at the time, contrasts it with the anti-Vietnam War sit-in of April 1972. The 1978 sit-in “was fascinating,” he says, “because it was a sit-in from the right.” The leaders were all from established student organizations. 
   One of those leaders, Daniel Alpert, C’80 — now an investment banker in Manhattan — looks back with a mixture of sheepishness and nostalgia. While he wouldn’t characterize the sit-in as “from the right,” he agrees that, “Certainly these were not people whose lives were in jeopardy because of the [Vietnam] War. I think the tenor of the whole thing was, ‘We’ve got to have a voice in the decision-making process.’ That’s a little different from, ‘Hell, no! We won’t go!’” 
   That morning, various student leaders, including Alpert (then a member of the Student Activities Council), stood on the steps to make speeches over a public-address system. Meyerson was on a working vacation in the Caribbean at the time, so the late Dr. Eliot Stellar, the provost, tried to soothe the crowd. Students booed and several hurled snowballs in his direction. 
   After a few more speakers, recalls Alpert, some students suddenly stormed the stairs. “They kind of blew past me and the other people and walked into College Hall, and started chanting some slogan.” The crowd followed. Alpert says he told classmates jammed inside the building to sit down instead of standing and pushing each other. “All anybody had to hear was the word ‘sit’ and it became a sit-in.” 
   Out of the chaos some leaders emerged and formed a negotiating committee, which demanded that Stellar call Meyerson back from the Caribbean. As soon as students heard that the president was returning to campus, Alpert says, a panoply of grievances was added to the list of concerns. “Suddenly, we ended up with people protesting the quality of mattresses in the dorms.” Administrators huddled for hours in a small conference room with 16 students, and the proceedings were broadcast over radio stations WXPN and WQHS. 
   When Meyerson returned, he joined the negotiations, and during a break he told the crowd: “Even though many of you may be furious at me, it gives me a tremendous sense of exhilaration to see our students excited, stimulated, trying to get involved when they are not now involved.” He assured them that there would be more channels to do so in the future. 
   Towards the end of the protest, University Dining Services actually provided meals for students occupying the building — a gesture that prompted one observer to call it “the first catered sit-in.” 
   Robert Finke, W’71, PT’76, the former varsity ice-hockey coach who is now executive director of the Minneapolis Sports Medicine Center, is still slightly bitter about the demise of Penn’s hockey program, which had begun in 1967, during his freshman year. Finke says the sit-in at least focused attention on the administration’s decision-making process. “One day we were there,” he says of the hockey program, “and the next day they told us we were dropping it. We had students from all over the country and Canada [here to play hockey], and they were basically without any opportunity to talk about why the decision was being made.”
   Meyerson now says he doesn’t feel the sit-in had much of a lasting effect, though he acknowledges that “some of the things they discussed were very worthwhile.” In his view, “we were sort of seeing the tail end to that [Vietnam era] world … It was like, ‘Here we are about to graduate, and what did we do? Why weren’t we part of Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, and so on?’” 
   “It was a funny time period,” agrees Alpert. “I like to say that when we all showed up in the mid-seventies, people were indulging in illegal substances in the Quad, and when we left we were all wearing three-piece suits and half of us were about to vote for Ronald Reagan.” 

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