Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Student protests

Student protests are almost as old as the college itself. On February 19, 1773, the senior class addressed “The remonstrance of the Senior Class of Rhode Island College, to the respectable, the PRESIDENT and PROFESSOR of the Same,” the subject being that the members of the class feared that they were going to be deprived of a public Commencement because they were not accomplished orators. Commencement was held as usual. Not long after this, on December 31, 1773, the Corporation was addressed by a committee representing all the classes, protesting that the steward was not providing the food prescribed. In 1788 the problem was again Commencement, when the graduating class, learning that all the members of the Corporation in attendance were to be given seats on the stage and fearing that there would not be room for the graduates, sent a polite petition that they should be seated on the stage as other classes before them.

In 1835 twenty-one members of the graduating class refused to accept their diplomas. The principle at stake was the feeling of the students that the assignment of Commencement parts fostered competition and rivalry. In their sophomore year 27 of the class of 1835 had signed a resolution stating that “we will use our respectful endeavors to persuade the honorable Authorities of B. U. to omit in our case the giving out of parts founded on a consideration of schollarship (sic) – but that, should we thus fail to persuade the honorable authorities, we will respectfully refuse to accept those parts.” In January 1835 three members of the class sought the permission of President Wayland to petition the Faculty on the subject of distribution of parts. The petition was denied. The seniors, except for three, had themselves transferred to the “partial course,” and thus made known their intention of not accepting degrees at the Commencement exercises. Commencement went on, and the Providence Journal gave the 21 students no more publicity than a mention that they had “forfeited their degrees.” An unsigned letter to the editor attempted to put the students’ case before the public. Thirteen of the 21 later received their degrees at their own request, and in 1875 it was “deemed expedient by the Board of Fellows that after so long a time has elapsed the names of the members of the Class who were entitled to degrees ... be now placed in the list of graduates,” and have their names printed in the Triennial Catalogues.

In 1851 the literary societies petitioned that they be allowed to meet in the evening, under the impression that “Such petitions expressing the united sentiments of a whole community cannot be disregarded.” President Wayland chose to reject their petition and a similar one from Psi Upsilon. In the same year, students rebelled against the orders of the president and attended evening lectures given by Professor A. L. Koeppen, formerly of the University of Athens. President Wayland blamed the faculty for not keeping the students in during the evening. Three faculty members resigned, and during what Walter C. Bronson describes in his History of Brown University as the “so-called rebellion of 1851,” the students used “the abusive epithets towards the President and Faculty.” Student unrest abated during the presidency of the more reasonable Barnas Sears. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, students were more inclined toward “pranks,” and Bronson observed that “serious disorders more and more declined as undergraduate life became better organized and more dignified.”

A long period of peace between students and administrators followed, only to be severely disrupted by the general unrest of the 1960s. During the Vietnam War a student strike in May of 1970 followed upon the announcement on April 30 that Unites States troops had entered Cambodia, and on May 4 of the unfortunate death of four students shot by National Guardsmen during a demonstration at Kent State University. On the evening of May 4, after a speech by Senator Jacob Javits of New York, a mass meeting on the Green was held to vote on a strike in protest of the war, with 1,895 in favor and 884 against. The next day a rally of 1,500 students in Meehan Auditorium demanded that the University take a stand against the action in Cambodia. On the same day the Faculty, at a meeting in Sayles Hall which was broadcast to the students of the Green, sent a resolution to the Rhode Island congressmen and to President Nixon, urging an end to the war. During the strike that followed, teach-ins and workshops were held, as students worked at the mimeograph machines to bring their concerns to the community. The University remained open, and provided an optional arrangement which allowed the students to work in the anti-war movement or attend classes, or both. Taking final examinations was also optional.

On March 14, 1975, students gathered to protest the University’s proposed budget for 1975-76, charging that President Hornig’s “White Paper” on the budget would cut financial aid and student services and also that the reduction of faculty would affect minorities. The students formed an informal “Coalition,” the purpose of which was to pressure the Corporation to adopt an alternative budget. The students’ demand for access to all budgetary material was denied, and on April 13 the Coalition presented a list of final demands. The next day 2,956 students (78 per cent of the 73 per cent of the student body which voted) elected to strike. In the following days class attendance dropped and the students picketed University Hall. The Advisory and Executive Committee passed the budget with few changes, while assuring that no student would be forced to leave because of increased costs. A student referendum on April 22 indicated that the students, while dissatisfied with the outcome, did not support further protest. On Thursday, April 24, 1975, University Hall was occupied by forty black, Latin, and Asian-American students. The occupation lasted 38 and a half hours, while picket lines in two circles, one of black students and one of white supporters, marched around University Hall, improvising dance steps and clapping to the accompaniment of conga drums and tambourines. The students were voicing concern that Brown was not living up to commitments made after the black walkout in 1968. The occupation of the building by the students, already in communication with the administration, in anticipation of their own Thursday evening deadline was seen as a method of dramatizing the expected agreement.

On October 15, 1981, William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency came to Brown to deliver the second lecture in a series on national security issues sponsored by the John M. Olin Foundation. The first lecture by former CIA director Stansfield Turner had been picketed by students and faculty members. During Casey’s lecture a number of students disrupted the proceedings by standing up and reciting Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” Thirteen of the students, who became known as the “Jabberwocky 13,” were brought before the University Council on Student Affairs, which found them guilty of “minimal” infringement of the rights of others and imposed no penalty.

Brown students attracted worldwide media attention in 1984 as a result of a referendum included in the Undergraduate Council of Students election of October 11 and 12. The referendum, voted upon by 35 per cent of the student body and approved by a vote of 1,044 to 687, called for the University Health Service to stock “suicide pills” which would be made available in the event of a nuclear war. Jason Salzman ’86, who initiated the referendum, explained that his motive was to make people aware “that the policy of stockpiling nuclear weapons is suicidal.” The number of phone calls and letters to the University which the issue generated attested to the success of this startling method of confrontation.

In November 1984 an informational meeting conducted by CIA recruiters was interrupted when one of the audience blew a police whistle and sixty students rose to make a citizen’s arrest “for solicitation to aid in the violation of national and international law.” Students had prepared a list of names of the protesters and more names were added at the meeting. Of the 68 who signed, three were recent graduates. Of the 65 who were charged by the University Council on Student Affairs, 56 undergraduates and one medical student were found guilty of disruptive behavior. The other eight had signed the list, but were not in the room at the time of the disruption.

A peaceful confrontation in April of 1986 involved the building of a shanty on the College Green by the Brown Free Southern Africa Coalition “to present to the administration, the Brown Corporation, and the greater Brown community a tangible image of the kind of misery and degradation our investments in South Africa are helping to maintain.” The shanty, one of a number built on campuses of universities which had not fully divested in South Africa, was erected with permission of the University and dismantled on schedule a week later. Four students sought sanctuary in Manning Chapel and began a fast to protest the University’s policies on divestment. The University, concerned about the students’ health and its own liability, “disenrolled” the students, who then ended their fast. In 1987 a disruption of a Corporation meeting by Students Against Apartheid demanding total divestment in South Africa resulted in the placing of twenty students on probation.