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Princeton in the Nation’s Service”

(this is the Princeton slogan, which was coined by Woodrow Wilson in his address at the sesquicentennial anniversary of the university on October 21, 1896)

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 university community to come together to express their collective feelings and beliefs. It had been used in November to register support for the Moratorium, since at that time most students and faculty were already gravely disturbed at the failure to end the war, although at any rate the faculty still insisted on the preservation of institutional neutrality. The Princeton community was clearly very anxious in November, but not yet desperate.

The Assembly on May 4 was attended by about 4,000 people who spent four hours discussing two sets of resolutions, one brought forward by the Strike Committee, and another more detailed set worked out by the Council of the Princeton University Community. The Council is a fledgling institution which began to function this year, and is composed of elected representatives of all the constituent parts of the university—administration, faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, professional staff, and alumni. It is meant to act as an influential advisory body on all aspects of policy, and this was the first real test of its political clout. The Assembly voted 2,000 to 1,500 for the Council’s recommendations in preference to those of the Strike Committee.

The differences between the two sets of resolutions involved tactics rather than basic objectives, but they were of fundamental importance since the Strike Committee wanted to use the resources of the university for antiwar purposes—which is probably illegal—and immediately to sever relations with the Department of Defense—which would have the most devastating personal and financial consequences. The vote therefore left open the possibility of a deep division within the university. Such a division was not at all unwelcome to a few of the militant radicals, but the danger was averted by a strong call for unity by the elected president of the Undergraduate Assembly—the first black president in Princeton’s history—who pointed out that “division is all that Nixon wants,” and by the prompt setting up of a coordinating committee of the University Council and the Strike Committee.

The first act of the Assembly was to vote, with only about 200 dissentients out of 4,000, to condemn the Cambodian invasion. This political stand was later approved by the faculty, by a huge majority after a long debate, thus reversing the strong stand against institutional commitment to political positions which had been taken by the faculty as recently as November 1969, at the time of the Moratorium. That the faculty was fully aware of the gravity of this step is shown by the preamble to the resolution: “The previous conduct and recent escalation of the United States war in Indochina is so dangerous to the nation and to the pursuit of learning in universities that we, the faculty of Princeton University, feel impelled, on this occasion, to abandon our usual reluctance to express ourselves on political issues.” It is also shown by the way the faculty backed off from all further institutional commitments to opposition to the draft and other political and moral positions.

Secondly, the Assembly called for a noncoercive “strike”—no one could think of a more appropriate word—involving a modification of normal end-of-term procedures “to enable those individuals who believe that they must suspend their normal activities to do so without prejudice to their academic standing, at the same time permitting those individuals who wish to continue their normal activities to do so.” A very significant aspect of this resolution, the practical details of which were subsequently approved by the faculty, is its noncoercive nature, which set a precedent for all future actions. As a result, examinations have proceded as usual for those who want them, and modifications of full academic requirements have mainly taken the form of pass/fail rather than grades and of postponement rather than waiver. In fact, a large majority of students appear to have given up attempts to continue their normal academic curriculum this term, and perhaps as many as half of them are fully engaged in various forms of political activity. This is a truly staggering proportion for a normally fairly quiescent student body.

Thirdly, the Assembly recommended a reorganization of the academic calendar in the fall term of 1970, so as to provide a two-week-recess immediately prior to the November elections. This scheme had been worked out on Friday by a group of students and junior faculty who were anxious that the strike should direct itself to concrete political action rather than dissolve in futile protests and destructive internal squabbles. According to the plan, which was rapidly endorsed by the president and the student newspaper and later by the faculty, school would start one week early, the Thanksgiving recess would be eliminated, and the Christmas holidays would be postponed by three days. Thus those who want to do so will be able to work actively for candidates of their choice. The arrangements are thus scrupulously noncoercive in character and are designed to maintain the full educational functions of the university. If a substantial number of other colleges follow suit, this move could unleash a flood of students for political campaigning in the decisive weeks before the November elections.

The Strike Committee wanted to commit university resources directly to antidraft activity, while both the University Council and the Strike Committee were determined to overhaul the university’s relations with the military. The Strike Committee demanded an immediate severing of all ties with ROTC, the immediate termination of the lease to the Institute for Defense Analyses (a small military think-tank which was installed at the height of the cold war on university property adjacent to the campus), and the immediate severing of all financial relations with the Department of Defense.

Some of the more militant activists of SDS found an outlet for their energies in a physical, though non-violent, blockade of the IDA building, a move which at first enjoyed a good deal of sympathy from the moderate students and from some of the faculty. As the siege went on, however, opinion swung against it, as both tactically inept and irrelevant to the major issues of stopping the war and cutting down federal funds for military activities. The unity of the university was quickly re-established by a declaration by President Goheen, acting independently of the blockade, that he was opening prompt negotiations in order to terminate the lease as soon as possible, a decision strongly approved by the faculty.

The faculty also voted to terminate all connections with ROTC as soon as possible, with a proviso that the plight of students dependent on ROTC grants should be respected. Once again there was careful concern for individual rights. The most difficult and complex problem in Princeton’s relations with the military is that of scientific research financed by the Department of Defense. The research careers of many dozens of faculty, graduate students, and staff are dependent on these grants, most of which are for research with only the remotest connection with military technology. Nearly $4 million worth of grants are now in process, and the university has no resources of its own to fill this giant hole.

It should be explained that by an accident of history and by the way the politics of Washington work, a high proportion of all purely scientific research with no direct application to warfare is sponsored by the Department of Defense. It should also be stressed that for over ten years now Princeton has refused to accept funds for classified research, so that the proportion of directly war-related research on campus is minimal. But so obscure are the facts and so enormous the effects on the university of a refusal of funds from the Department of Defense and other military agencies that the faculty and the Council decided to set up a special committee to examine all aspects of the problem, and to report back by November 1, 1970.

In order to provide machinery for the flow of money to antiwar activities, while at the same time carefully preserving the institutional neutrality of the university, the faculty approved the setting up of a Princeton Community Fund, to which all members of the university who wished to do so were invited to contribute at least one day’s pay. The Fund is thus a purely private source of money, which is used to pay the university for all the facilities—telephones, typewriters, mimeograph machines, paper, etc.—which are used by the various antiwar organizations housed on campus. The sole contribution of the university is the provision of free space.

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