Monday, May 5, 2008

Seven Days In May

It was perhaps the most tumultuous week in the history of modern American higher education.

For the Class of '73, it was the first week in May of our freshman year back in 1970, now some 38 years ago.

It began a few days earlier on April 30 with the announcement by President Richard Nixon, during a nati0nwide TV address, that he was expanding the War in Vietnam to include an invasion (he called it an incursion) into neighboring Cambodia.

It was already clear after the continuing anti-war demonstrations and the national "moratorium" days held the previous fall, that America's colllege campuses would erupt in a new round of protests. But nobody expected what was about to occur.

It was Monday, May 4 when a multi-day protest effort at Kent State University in Ohio resulted in National Guard troops, (who had been brought to the campus by the administration for security), shooting and killing four students (a couple of whom were just passers-by or on-lookers) as well as wounding nine others.

Shock and anger quickly spread across college campuses all over the nation. I can remember finishing class and arriving at the campus radio station, WRVU, to learn about what happened through our UPI wire machine and the news feeds we got from ABC. It all seemed very surreal and more than a little frightening.

As you can see from reading the headlines above from THE HUSTLER and VERSUS, the Vanderbilt campus was thrown into some turmoil. Nearby Peabody College (where I was then attending classes) had its faculty vote to shut down the school in protest, joining hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country in a strike that some reports later said involved up to eight million students. I covered the Peabody closure for both WRVU and several local radio stations (it was first time I ever made any money as a radio stringer reporter). I think they paid me $25.

Vanderbilt did not close. There was a protest mounted at the spring Naval ROTC Review on Neely Lawn and someone later threw a bucket of blue paint on side of the Naval ROTC building, but that was about it.

Class of '73 member and WRVU Station Manager Steve Womack and I covered the Naval ROTC event. We remember there was a mime troupe there as a part of the protest. It was so inept that a vocal interpreter was needed to tell everyone what they were trying to emote.

Meanwhile, several large members of the Vanderbilt football team were present, seemingly acting as security. Unlike some weekends on the girdiron, this worked pretty well as the football players held the line between the protestors and the Naval ROTC folks, so they never got too close to each other.

But just days later, Vanderbilt was the focus of the entire nation as the national student protest crisis continued. On May 8, 1970 President Nixon asked Chancellor Alexander Heard to be his Special Adviser for the next two months to "keep (me) fully and currently informed on the thinking of the academic community and especially of the young," said the White House statement announcing the appointment. "I will look to Mr. Heard to help present to this administration the views and sentiments of the campuses around the country... I appreciate Mr. Heard's taking on this assignment which should be of great benefit to the country."

(Ironically, there was yet another campus shooting with two students killed just days later on May 14 at predominantly black Jackson State University, but that event never aroused the same nationwide attention as what happened at Kent State).

The other photo at the top of this posting was taken on the day of the Chancellor's appointment as he addressed the University Community with a speech in Neely Auditorium (or was it really Class of '73 member and Heard impersonator Jim Lober?).

If you look closely you can see all the TV news film cameras capturing the moment. (And yes, Steve Womack and I once again made a little pocket money by sending excerpts from the speech to the national radio networks. Actually, it was easy, the station had it own special tap on the Neely sound system and could easily record any event held there.)

However, all this was before the days of videotape and live broadcasting by microwave or satellite. Can you image all the 24/7 coverage and video satellite trucks on campus such a development would bring to Vanderbilt today?

So what are your memories of this most eventful time?

Did you attend or help organize any of the protests? Did you attend the Naval ROTC event on Neely Lawn? Did you go to the pro-Nixon rally sponsored on Rand Terrace by The Young Americans for Freedom? Or did you just keep going to class and studying, espcially with final exams not too far away? Just leave your thoughts and comments below.

Even with another unpopular overseas war raging, life seems to be much more tranquil these days on the Vanderbilt campus. It's probably got something to do with not having a military draft. And that's the subject for some more blog postings down the road as we remember our time on campus and count down to our 35th Class Reunion this fall the weekend of October 24-25. Be there.

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