What happened (and didn’t happen) in the spring of ’69

“Look out, ’cause here she comes.”

— Paul McCartney, “Helter Skelter,” 1968

Are you tired of watching the various 50th anniversary rehashes of the 1960s in the media? Some of them have historical weight, but much is what we in the biz call “lazy journalism.” Then imagine those of us who lived through those days, and have pretty much long since decided how we felt about them. One good performance of Richard Holler’s “Abraham, Martin and John” will most days leave a sufficient pall over the room to relegate the topic to the cupboard with the strike leaflets, tie-dye T-shirts, and ticket stubs from Woodstock. Even an anniversary excuse to retune and repackage the unconquerable triumph of Sgt. Pepper or the sprawling ubiquity of The Beatles (you know, the double “White Album”) seems a little desperate if the cost of listening to an inspired George Harrison guitar overdub on McCartney’s “Helter Skelter” is flashbacks to Charles Manson, the Tet Offensive, and George Corley Wallace.

Ten years ago, I made a decision revisited often since, when faced with the same ’60s mania we see now. I knew those years would always be a subject of fascination, I knew that they would come back again ad nauseum; and the coincidence of my having “been there, done that” was not sufficient for me to devote huge chunks of copy to the baby boomers’ Götterdämmerung every time the calendar said so. My solution to this at the time was to select those landmark changes that were of peculiar importance to Princetonians, realize that an astonishing bulk of them occurred during 14 months of pressure and tumult between April 1969 and June 1970, and to do a three-column series on these events, how they fit together, and how those who conceived them had a monumental effect on education at Princeton (and by extension the American college community at large) that continues even as you read this. I still regard this as a wise decision, and so you have seen very little regarding the period here as my classmates and I have progressively relived our 50-year recall of various activities large and small from our older wiser days (“I’m younger than that now,” as our muse Bob Dylan would put it).

The entrance of New South on March 11, 1969, following the Princeton Association of Black Collegians’ takeover
The Daily Princetonian/University Archives, Princeton University Library

Today we validate the rule by providing the exception. The trigger is a thought-provoking if slightly puzzling feature in one of our sister independent alumni magazines, the venerable Harvard Magazine (which in 1969 was the Harvard Alumni Bulletin). Its March/April issue includes a series of personal recollections of the catastrophic takeover on April 9, 1969, of University Hall by the Students for a Democratic Society and associated groups over a laundry list of local complaints large and small, which are now beside the point. The first-person pieces are wonderful, some by well-knowns such as Frank Rich, Chris Wallace, and Mark Halperin, many by others more obscure. But the entire nine pages and cover seem designed to show that the event meant many different things to many people and resonates in many ways now. (The only explicit conclusion relates to the coming of age of the mantra “Question Authority.”) Whereas the rest of the known universe sees it for one thing only: After 18 hours of unarmed occupation, president Nathan Pusey — who had earned his reputation by standing up to Sen. Joe McCarthy 15 years earlier — called the local and state police into Harvard Yard, and they proceeded to beat the crap out of anybody they could find in the building, including the press (Wallace was reporting inside for WHRB) and who knows who else. They arrested 200 people and hauled them off to East Cambridge; 48 people were treated for injuries, including five policemen, and in 25 minutes the legitimacy of the administration was decimated. There was an immediate eight-day general strike, and multiple splinter groups of students, faculty, alumni, and the community were at each other’s throats for years. Pusey remained in office for two more years only because of the archaic seven-member structure of the Harvard Corporation, one of whom was him. It was one of the many things SDS wanted to change.

The strike at Harvard happened to coincide with the Princeton trustees’ decision to admit women in the fall of 1969, the opening bell of my 14-month period of transformation. They also, not incidentally, approved the perpetual election of four recent graduates to their board on a class-by-class basis. To say the two situations provide a contrast is akin to pointing out the Earth and Mars have differing atmospheres.

How did this happen? Why the dichotomy? The world I remember then has little to do with the events and concerns noted at Harvard in 1969 (or recalled in 2019), and there should be a reason. It’s tempting to simply credit President Bob Goheen ’40 *48, who had been a brilliant Princeton scholarship student, true, but also the chair of the Interclub Council, junior professor, and assistant soccer coach, with wisdom and leadership; but when you think for a second, that’s insufficient. Princeton governance then essentially assured that both the trustees and faculty had huge autonomy in controlling blocs of power, and they used them. He had to keep complex dialogue continually going with both, while reconsidering his own views in light of world events — he flipped on both Vietnam and coeducation between 1965 and 1969, for example.

In this, he was far from alone. The first great wave of live TV news in the mid-’60s brought global pressures to bear on local issues, not always for the best. In terms of colleges, it had carried images of student obnoxiousness from Berkeley to the wider world, and the 1964 takeover of Sproul Hall there was like the opening bell of a 15-round heavyweight championship fight. After the televised Summer of Rage, it spread to Wisconsin and included police use of tear gas, with injuries on both sides, in October 1967.

Two weeks later the Princeton SDS found a winning issue. The group staged its first sit-in on the steps of the Institute for Defense Analyses on Prospect Avenue, 31 students were arrested with admirable restraint from Princeton police and fined $50 apiece. They were not punished by the University because the action was “not on college property,” a hair-split if ever there was one. In a year, the University would be completely separated from IDA as SDS demanded, but the think tank’s lease ran until 1975, which continued to provide needless ongoing friction that the radicals could go to whenever things got dull.  

But the new Princeton Association of Black Collegians (ABC) was not involved. It had already met its first crisis and triumphed in the public mind, by virtue of a passive-resistance demonstration against George Wallace at Dillon Gym the prior May, from which the ABC politely excluded SDS, who wanted disruptive confrontation.

Then 1968 provided the horrible images of the NYPD forcibly ending the student protests at Columbia — destroying Grayson Kirk’s presidential tenure — and the nightmare of the Chicago Democratic convention, the Walker Commission’s infamous “police riot” against assembled demonstrators of all stripes. So going into 1969, implications of police intervention, especially on campuses, were ominously clear.

The ABC, feeling the need to protest lack of movement on Princeton’s corporate divestment from South Africa, also clearly considered that in its stealth takeover of the New South building on March 11, 1969. They immediately negotiated over the phone, then in person with Dean of Students Neil Rudenstine ’56, then left the building peacefully after 11 hours of making their point; the place was cleaner than when they entered. Five participants were assessed minor penalties; no one else was identified, supposedly because Rudenstine had not asked their names. No police were involved. The lesson was obviously lost on Pusey one month later.

Then, on April 18, black students took over Straight Hall at Cornell. After attacks by jocks, they brought in guns for defense. President James Perkins — who at one point had been chair of the board of the United Negro College Fund — carefully negotiated them out after three days with no police intervention, but they appeared wearing bandoleers and waving rifles, and the image alone cost him his job.

Three days later, Princeton’s SDS, in something of a me-too effort, blocked access for three hours at IDA again, now unaffiliated with the University. Local police and administrators observed patiently and did nothing. One IDA employee, frustrated at the picket line, slugged the first young person he saw. It turned out to be Rudenstine.

Meanwhile, not only had coeducation begun, but the new Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) was functioning amid the complete overhaul of University governance resulting from the Kelley Report, with solid support from both the trustees and faculty. The program in Afro-American Studies was about to open shop.

Why did Princeton escape from counterculture disaster a la Columbia, Harvard, and Cornell? The things I can see, in rough order of importance:

  • Goheen had a plan to modernize Princeton, hired able people to enact it, and spent immeasurable hours enlisting trustee and faculty support for it.
  • The faculty acted as a whole, they gave up significant power to the greater community, and they backed sometimes difficult academic and procedural change.
  • The trustees authorized groundbreaking research on coeducation and governance, created full voting roles for alumni under 25, and gave plenty of money to back up their votes (Spelman Hall and the Princeton Inn College, for example).
  • People kept talking, and encouraged others to keep talking. And talking. Even at the IDA confrontations, onsite IDA officials, police, college administrators, and the SDS kept up a sometimes testy exchange of views.
  • Through its measured actions, the new ABC, initially advised by Assistant Dean of the College Carl Fields, gained respect and had a remarkably broad impact on the entire community. Brent Henry ’69, one of the New South demonstrators, was elected to the Princeton board of trustees two months later.
  • Although SDS tried to horn in on the ABC’s turf now and again, the two generally pursued separate and fairly well-defined goals, and behaved rationally regarding methods.
  • The Princeton police forces were well-trained and expertly supervised.
  • Never underestimate the effectiveness of good luck. Campus stability could have gone wrong in a hundred ways and, with the notable exception of the Hickle Heckel in 1970, just didn’t.
  • On the front lines, Rudenstine, later dean of the College and provost, was willing to take one (or two, or more) for the team. His reward was to shepherd Bob Dylan through the Commencement of 1970. He also was blessed with the opportunity in 1991 to become president of Harvard, charged with reuniting the various pieces Nathan Pusey helped blow apart in 1969. History: Sometimes you can’t make up stuff this strange.