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A Special Supplement: The Old School at The New School

Granted that a portion of the high-school population has been trapped in drug-taking and other self-destructive activities (hardly, by the way, evident at the New School), still the most disturbing thing about the so-called high-school invasion was the fear and disorientation felt by many members of the faculty and administration. To them, the Graduate School was now in imminent danger of being destroyed and so they began to perceive the strike as hostile to the university.

On Monday evening, May 11, William Kunstler, who had been teaching a course in the adult education division of the New School, was invited by the strike committee to address the students in the lobby of the Graduate Center. The administration suggested that he speak in the public auditorium in the 12th Street building. But the strikers insisted on the Center. They won their point. This foreshadowed the emerging territorial conflict. An audience of at least a thousand crowded into the area to hear an enthusiastic and, in some respects, demagogic address.

Kunstler has learned SDS-Yippie rhetoric, but one doubts he understands the language of the students. In a curiously dated declamation, he urged them to close the schools throughout the country until a solid sign of good faith was forthcoming from Washington. But he did not indicate what such a sign might be. He cautioned them against “defeatist analyses” that downgraded the student movement because of the incapacity of students to form an alliance with passive or hostile workers. He also braced them against the possibility of violence and warned them that they might have to shed their blood in order to prove their authenticity. Some of this sounded more like exhortation than reasoned sympathy. Kunstler had apparently failed to grasp that the national movement was no longer against the university, and that students throughout the country were bent upon keeping the schools open.

Moreover, students are now aware of the futility of isolated armed struggle, and understand that they must seek alliances with other groups if they are to have a significant social impact. Symbolic wounds alone no longer fascinate them. It was, at the very least, bad taste for an older man to seem to encourage desperate action on the part of younger people. Kunstler gave a hot speech, just at the time when the national mood of the students was growing cooler, more determined, and more tactical. Nonetheless, he received an enthusiastic ovation, not because his remarks were analytically useful but because of his skilled use of the conventional phraseology. Still, although grateful for his obvious sympathy, many students we talked to did not seem impressed.

Conservative members of the faculty and administration, however, were impressed; convinced that the strike was out of hand, they were reconsidering their initial commitment. A few, of course, were interested in fulfilling their own prophecies. Later that week faculty talk of a “clean,” “sanitary,” “pre-emptive” bust began to be heard.

On Tuesday night, a rally with labor representatives took place in the auditorium of the New School proper, on Twelfth Street. This was the first fruit of the Work Stoppage Committee’s efforts and was heartening to both the delegates and the students. The students discovered that there were workers who disagreed sharply with the international Meany-Lovestone line (CIO or CIA?), who were frustrated with the business-as-usual mentality of the national labor leadership, and were eager for rank-and-file connections with student activists. One could sense the abstraction “student” and the abstraction “worker” dissolving into a common consciousness, if only for a brief moment.

In view of the assault by construction workers on students in the Wall Street area and at Pace College a few days before; this mutual exchange was, for many students, an unexpected and moving experience. The know-nothing violence of the construction workers, and the well-publicized threat of continued assault on dissenting students, together with the murders at Kent State and, later, at Jackson State, toughened their mood. Many of the labor delegates who had spoken at the Tuesday night meeting were older people whose public intelligence and sympathy were in striking contrast to the behavior of too many of the students’ mentors at the university. And the personal style of the younger workers was curiously close to that of the students.

On Wednesday afternoon a competent rock quartet played for about an hour before a sizable audience, including high-school students. The music, which was loud, echoed around the building and seemed to the conservative faculty and administration a final assault upon the dignity of the university. They immediately protested the “carnival” or “Woodstock” atmosphere. The latter was a gross exaggeration implying drugs, promiscuity, nudity, a perpetual saturnalia. And it was easy for them to draw the fearful conclusion that high-school students and others were now committing private outrages in nooks and crannies throughout the Center.

But what had really happened that week was that the school had been demystified. It was, for an endless moment, no longer the preserve of the faculty, no longer a quasi-theological hierarchy; anarchy seemed to have broken loose. The conventional idea of the academy was essential to the psychic survival of the faculty at large. The school, it turned out, was not just their arena for routine and scholarly business; it was the central symbol of their lives. Students suddenly loomed as strangers. Familiar surroundings disintegrated. The electronic noise of rock, neither understood nor anticipated, amplified their feelings of disorientation. For most of the faculty part of the time and part of the faculty most of the time, the New School had dissolved into a nightmare. The response was a furious demand for order.

The antiwar work of the students did not suffer in spite of the “chaos.” One generation’s chaos is, after all, another’s cultural style. Still, the strikers, sensing the faculty response, agreed to appropriate action. Perhaps there was a law of social cognition operative here. In any hierarchy, the lower tends to perceive the higher more accurately than the higher does the lower. Early Thursday morning, the cool and competent high-school representatives decided that no more mass meetings should be held at the New School. High-school activities were to be confined to committee work. The graduate students informally agreed to lower the pitch of their activities. Signs had already begun to appear all over the building cautioning against vandalism, insisting on order. The work was not an “ego trip,” but serious business. Breaches would be considered the acts of provocateurs.

It should be emphasized that the problem remained one of comportment. At no time did violence against persons or property become an issue. Nonetheless, just before dawn on Thursday a harried administration issued a statement terminating all strike activities at the end of the semester, prohibiting persons who were not students at the New School from entering the building, and demanding that normal school functions be fully resumed at once. Guards were stationed the following morning in order to check identification and an effort was made to lock the doors.

The strike committee felt that the president of the New School had acted unilaterally, since the students had agreed to curtail non-student mass meetings (no further congregation ofhigh-school students occurred in spite of the rumors of a mass march to the Graduate Center), and they were unaware of any agreement to halt the strike at a fixed date. Moreover, the demand for resumption of normal activities was defined as an effort to deprive the strikers of adequate facilities in the building. They felt that the faculty and administration were reneging on the sense of their initial supporting resolution. On the other hand, the educational authorities responded with a number of abstractly reasonable proposals which failed to meet the students’ sense of urgency and to accommodate the range of activities they were determined to pursue. At the same time, paradoxically, the administration was beginning to press for a temporary closing of the school in order to clean the building and reassert control. The strikers insisted on keeping the school open, and thereafter that became a critical issue.

Reacting to the growing tension, a group of students occupied the registration office late Thursday afternoon, and stated that they would not leave unless the administration’s termination date for the strike and opposition to the presence of community groups, including non-New School students, in the building was rescinded. They also demanded negotiations on explicit facilities, in what they considered to be the sense of the initial resolution. That evening, a majority of the faculty voted to support the administration in any legal proceeding it found necessary to institute in order “to save the university.” The threat of a bust hung heavy in the air; even friendly faculty were rebuffed in their efforts to persuade students to leave the registration office and renegotiate with the administration in the spirit of the initial week. Trust had, however, been broken, and from May 14 on the students were in effect occupying the building in order to defend two principles: their right to strike against the war and their right to use the university as a base in so doing.

The occupation did not, however, become technically illegal until the night of May 17th. In an emergency meeting of the faculty late that Sunday morning the president announced his intention to seek an injunction against the strikers, and received a majority vote of confidence. The hardcore faculty had convinced the moderates that the high-school-Woodstock episode justified their traditional wisdom. Everett ordered the school closed at 10 P.M.; although the doors were left open, persons in occupancy, unless otherwise authorized, were now technically liable to charges of trespass.

On Tuesday morning the sheriff delivered a temporary restraining order (along with a lecture about his moderate but engagĂŠ son at Princeton), the first step in the injunction, and the following day the case was brought to civil court. But the building had not been forcibly cleared, and a farcical round of negotiation and renegotiation followed, including, ultimately, the trustees. Strike activity was sustained in the building, meetings continued, but the struggle had clearly assumed a territorial form. Both the administration and the striking students seemed to want a settlement. The latter demanded a guarantee of carefully delineated facilities sufficient for the strike to maintain its force and range of community work throughout the summer; the former unequivocally insisted that normal university routine was the overriding priority.

The students invoked moral and ideological arguments, the administration proclaimed the fear of being sued for violation of the school’s charter. One professor emeritus argued that the students could well be victimized, since they had misjudged the counterrevolutionary mood of the country and were exposing themselves, and the school, by indiscreet revolutionary sloganeering. Somewhat more crudely, the administration made a similar point. On the morning that the injunction was announced, the president informed the faculty that New York University had been invaded by chain-swinging motorcycle bands from the East Village who had beaten many students severely and had caused two-million-dollars-worth of damage to one of the buildings.

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