Between April 30 and May 13, 1970, Princeton University turned deliberately and decisively over, and will never be quite the same again. Symbolic of the new Princeton is its having thrown open the main gates of the campus. The experience was in many ways similar to that of hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country, but the special forms it took, and the political initiatives that came out of it, are of more than parochial interest. There are some valuable lessons to be learned.
Princeton is a university which, before President Nixon invaded Cambodia, had not had a riot, sustained disruption, or act of personal violence, and which even today has been subjected to only two minor and universally condemned cases of attempted arson, and a peaceful blockade of a military research installation, which was terminated by a court order without violence. On the other hand, when the full nature of what had happened began to be appreciated in Washington, Senator Strom Thurmond publicly demanded that the Internal Revenue Service investigate Princeton’s tax-exempt status. The absence of physical violence at Princeton and the outbreak of rhetorical violence on Capitol Hill both require some explanation.
The best way to proceed is first to describe what happened, and then to speculate about causes and consequences. To clarify the chronology, we have to discuss five principal events: a meeting in the university chapel on Thursday, April 30; meetings to draw up resolutions held by the Council of the Princeton University Community and the Strike Committee on the following Sunday; the Princeton Assembly on Monday afternoon; a series of meetings by the faculty on subsequent days; and the setting up of three major and several lesser political organizations.
The story begins with the mass meeting in the university chapel immediately after President Nixon’s speech on Thursday. Outraged by what they had heard, the students swarmed out of the dormitories and within the hour 2,500 persons out of a total university community of under 6,000 were packed in and around the chapel. The meeting decided to call a “strike” to protest the escalation of the war, pending action of an Assembly of the whole university community called for Monday afternoon, and immediately afterward an ad hoc Strike Committee was set up. Originally this consisted entirely of undergraduates, only a small minority of whom were SDS, but in the next few days graduate students and faculty representatives were added.
The first clear proof that a dramatic shift of opinion had taken place and that the students now meant business was the last-minute decision by most of the eating clubs—traditionally the bastions of campus conservativism—to cancel arrangements for Saturday dances and other festivities on what was to have been the most important social occasion of the year, and to donate the money to antiwar organizations that were springing up everywhere.
The Assembly has no constitutional authority whatever, and is a device to avoid formal institutional commitment to political positions, while allowing members of the…
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