Students protest in April 1995, demanding faculty and courses in Latino and Asian American studies.
The Daily Princetonian, 1995

Only through disturbance comes growth. — President Robert Goheen ’40 *48, September 1965

Student unrest is not so much a tradition at Princeton as part of our fabric, back to and including the American Revolution. Presidents and teachers try to instruct students to think for themselves, and frequently they do. The results over the centuries have been innumerable explosions, defacements, hazing indignities, class battles, pranks, and general incidents of rudeness. But scattered throughout are organized protests against perceived campus, national, or global injustices, measured and serious in intent. This often reflects students’ interest in somehow serving their world, in the spirit of the informal University motto now engraved on front campus. Here is a selection of those protests over the last 260 years.

Sept. 25, 1765 — Months after Parliament passed the infamous Stamp Act, the graduating class attends Commencement solely in American-made homespun clothing as a protest against the stifling of the economy. The rude gesture is praised by newspapers throughout the colonies. 

February 1800 — Half the student body makes noises during daily (cold) Chapel services to protest the length of the prayers. Three seniors are arbitrarily suspended, instigating a full-blown riot including pistols and cannonballs. Only a threat to close the college ends the disobedience.

March 1807 — The suspension of three students for unruly drinking in town results in a petition from 80% of the students protesting the harshness of the punishment. The authorities turn their fury on all the petition-signers; 125 students are suspended, 70 never return. Of the 41 seniors on March 31, only 19 graduate. 

January 1817 — The students, feeling their readings are too long and their complaints ignored, nail up the doors to Nassau Hall and run riot through the building, including copious bell ringing. President Ashbel Green 1783 arbitrarily dismisses 14, leading to a full-blown riot and the arrest of seven; he insists they be tried, but their cases are dismissed for insufficient evidence. Parents are outraged.

1856 — The decades-long mediocrity of the college refectory, punctuated by flying food and pathetic letters home to mom, culminates in possibly the most widespread activism in campus history. When the dining hall temporarily closes following the 1855 Nassau Hall fire, nobody says anything; they simply find other places to eat. The college is entirely out of the food business for more than 20 years, and the ascendance of the eating clubs is assured. 

Dec. 3, 1859 — Students, primarily from the South, parade on Nassau Street in opposition to abolitionists and their supporters, such as John Brown, then move to Nassau Hall. 

April 1861 — After the Civil War begins at Fort Sumter, most of the Southern students march to the train station where they take their farewell, escorted by their Northern friends, with tears on both sides.

1863 — A Northern secessionist sympathizer is dragged from his bed and doused under the college pump. Three perpetrators are suspended and given a heroes’ escort to the train station.

1868 and 1876 — Small groups of Southern students complain to President James McCosh, threatening to withdraw unless he removes Black students from chapel services and a graduate seminar he is teaching. He ignores them.

February 1917 — With the Commons dining halls now a reality, 100 sophomores, led by Richard Cleveland 1919, son of ex-President and University trustee Grover Cleveland, refuse to bicker, petitioning the University to build a student center in Madison Hall for upperclassmen. It doesn’t. 

April 12, 1935 — Six hundred students skip classes to gather for a peace assembly in conjunction with a national day of peace, and are addressed by pacifist Norman Thomas 1905, who had gathered 884,000 votes in the 1932 presidential election.

March 1936 — In reaction to World War I veterans petitioning for back pay, two Terrace students launch the Veterans of Future Wars, demanding $1,000 bonuses for those who would be caught up in the next global conflagration, since they are at least alive to spend it. Six hundred college chapters appear instantly across the country, and the Princeton national office (i.e. Terrace Club) is castigated by a wide range of politicians. In the end, the vast majority of the involved students served in World War II. 

January 1950 — Six hundred and ten sophomores and 230 upperclassmen sign pledges to not join clubs following bicker unless 100% of the bickering sophs are offered by at least one club. Taking this seriously, the clubs struggle for the next 17 years to find a slot for everyone, with a noted failure in 1958, the infamous “dirty bicker.”

March 11, 1960 — The day prior to a Chapel address by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., dozens of students picket at the Woolworth’s on Nassau Street in sympathy with civil rights demonstrators at Woolworth’s in the South. They make it clear they have no issue with the local operator; when they run out of posterboard, they buy more from Woolworth’s. 

Oct. 1, 1963 — Three thousand five hundred protesters form at Dillon Gym to hear Bayard Rustin of the NAACP, then march to Alexander Hall singing “We Shall Overcome” to protest the speech there of segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who had been invited by Whig-Clio.

Nov. 27, 1965 — Seventy Princeton students, organized by the newly-formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), travel to the anti-war March on Washington, where they march behind a 10-foot banner reading “Even Princeton.” The banner reappears at various marches throughout the remainder of the war.

May 11, 1966 —President Lyndon Johnson speaks at the dedication of Robertson Hall (then the Wilson School building), setting off the first anti-Vietnam protest demonstration in Princeton, with a smaller counterdemonstration alongside. 

May 11, 1967 — Segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama speaks in Dillon Gym at the invitation of Whig-Clio. The Association of Black Collegians (ABC) leads an information campaign outside beforehand, the NAACP sends pickets, and when the speech is underway 300-400 students stand up and leave silently. The national press is confused about where all the Black Princetonians came from. 

Oct. 23, 1967 — SDS blocks the entrance to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a government think tank in Von Neumann Hall on Prospect Avenue. After warnings from President Robert Goheen ’40 *48 (who sits on the IDA board) and the mayor, 31 demonstrators are arrested and jailed, then fined $50. There is no additional University discipline.

November 1967 — Over 200 members of the Class of 1970 pledge to not bicker if the University guarantees a “viable social alternative” to the eating clubs. It provides two, Wilson College and Stevenson Hall, and they don’t. 

April 6, 1968 — Following the assassination of Rev. Dr. King, a large portion of the campus assembles spontaneously in the Chapel, which is jammed. President Goheen suspends classes for a day, used by the ABC to conduct seminars on racial issues and solutions.

May 2, 1968 — President Goheen speaks to a rally of more than 1,000 students in front of Nassau Hall, organized by SDS and demonstrating for student operational power, draft counseling, cutting ties with IDA, South African divestment, and similar issues. The informal agreements afterward lead to the formation of the Kelley Committee, which completely overhauls University governance and creates the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), continuing as the University’s major deliberative body today.

March 11, 1969 — At dawn, the ABC occupies New South, blocking entrances from inside, to protest the University’s non-stance on apartheid in South Africa. They negotiate in person with Dean of Students Neil Rudenstine ’56, then after 11 hours leave the building, fully cleaned. Five demonstrators are given minor penalties. 

April 21, 1969 — The SDS blocks access for three hours at IDA, which now has no affiliation of any sort with the University except its lease. Borough police and administrators observe and do nothing. A frustrated IDA employee slugs the first student he sees, who instead turns out to be Rudenstine.

Oct. 15, 1969 — During a national one-day moratorium against the Vietnam War, 3,000 people pack Dillon Gym for a teach-in, followed by a service in the Chapel memorializing all the dead from the war.

Nov. 13, 1969 — A Vietnam Assembly is held in Jadwin Gym; over 3,000 show up. The attendees vote 10 to 1 to withdraw all Americans by the end of 1970, and 2 to 1 to immediately cease support of the Thieu-Ky regime. 

Nov. 15, 1969 — While many Princetonians go to the March on Washington against the war, the band remains in Princeton for the Yale football game. Both bands combine on the field at halftime to form a peace sign and play the Navy Hymn (“O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea”) with the banner “Make peace, not politics.”

March 5, 1970 — Giving the keynote speech at a University ecology conference before 2,000 people in Jadwin, Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel is loudly disrupted by 75 students, led by SDS, unaccountably made up as Native Americans. Thirteen are brought up on charges, 12 disciplined with suspension or probation, none expelled. Hundreds of students sign an apology letter to Hickel.

April 30, 1970 — The United States suddenly widens the war by invading Cambodia. Reminiscent of King’s assassination, most students head for the Chapel, where amid ugly feelings and despondence they hear professor Stanley Kelley urge everyone to think clearly and act productively.

May 4, 1970 — A community meeting is called on the model of the November Vietnam Assembly; over 4,000 people are at Jadwin. Debate is held for hours on three propositions — business as usual (181 votes), shutting down the University (1,522) or “striking the war” through community effort while continuing university functions (2,066). The winning proposal from the new CPUC is presented by Stan Kelley. Afterward, news races through the crowd that four students have been killed by the National Guard at Kent State.

May 1970 — Hundreds of students, supported by the faculty and administration, engage in anti-war activities, including the Movement for a New Congress to enable governmental change and UNDO, organized to end the draft. Princeton becomes the national headquarters for both.

May 7, 1970 — Following Cambodia and Kent State, SDS now has about 250 adherents, and returns to IDA to set up a siege with blankets and sleeping bags. They prevent access for 100 hours, following which a court order and police presence moves them to the E-Quad next door. They leave upon urging from Rudenstine, then reassemble at Nassau Hall. Sleeping is allowed but tents are prohibited, differentiating between a “vigil” and a “quasi-permanent encampment”; the latter is forbidden. 

June 6, 1970 — The large majority of the senior class does not participate in the P-rade, seeing it as a symbol of “business as usual.” Bad feelings with other alums persist for years.

June 8, 1970 — Having cancelled its Class Day, the senior class holds a teach-in at the Strike Tent in McCosh Courtyard. The featured speaker is anti-war Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. Some seniors stay away, some bring their families.

June 9, 1970 — At Commencement, most seniors eschew cap and gown, donating the fees to anti-war causes; many wear white arm bands instead. Some students, including members of the ABC, stand silently throughout in protest of apartheid. Upon conclusion, the seniors per custom exit through the FitzRandolph Gate, which by petition of the class is then left open permanently as a symbol of the University’s openness to the wider community.

March 12, 1971 — The new Third World Coalition occupies the reference room of Firestone Library for three hours after closing, to protest the University’s version of plans to admit disadvantaged students. Members of ABC and Rudenstine convince them to leave; 40 students are found guilty of disruption but not punished.

Dec. 4, 1973 — A debate between Nobelist (for physics) William Shockley and Roy Innis, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, on the topic of Shockley’s recent proto-racist interest in the relation of heredity and intelligence, is cancelled at Harvard. Whig-Clio issues an invitation to stage it at Princeton. Innis backs out at the 11th hour, but renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu steps in for what becomes an anticlimactic pair of parallel speeches. With virtually no disruption, the confrontation takes place in McCosh 10 while 400 demonstrators chant and burn Shockley in effigy outside. Non-student demonstrators at one point rush the proctors’ barricade but are repulsed; local police are not called and no discipline results.  

April 14, 1978 — Two hundred and ten students sit-in throughout Nassau Hall for 24 hours, demonstrating for divestiture of stocks of companies doing business in South Africa; 300 more demonstrate outside. Those inside are given a disciplinary warning, the least possible penalty.

March 16, 1980 — Seventy-three students and a young alumni trustee stage an 11-hour overnight study-in, including research and letter-writing, at Firestone Library to support the Sullivan principles for South African divestment. They also receive disciplinary warnings.

May 22, 1985 — An anti-apartheid rally headlined by Rev. Jesse Jackson is attended by 2,500 people, still a high-water mark since Vietnam. Eighty-eight are arrested for blockading Nassau Hall. They also are found guilty and receive a warning. 

May 1, 1986 — With 70 demonstrators outside West College in support, six members of the Women’s Center stage a sit-in in the dean of students’ office for seven hours over issues related to the purpose of the center. Plans for a full study of the center are agreed upon a week later.

April 23, 1987 — Three hundred marchers conduct the first Take Back the Night march against sexual harassment on campus, sponsored by the Women’s Center, then proceed down Prospect Avenue where they are harassed in front of some clubs. Three students are criminally charged by police, one fined. A second march is defiantly held six days later, and over 1,000 attend, including faculty, administrators, and townspeople. It has continued many years since.

Oct. 24, 1988 — Students for Social Responsibility protests on-campus recruiting by the CIA because it excludes people who are gay, and petitions it be banned from campus. Ninety demonstrators end up debating counter-protesters following the rally. The University then agrees to make recruiters sign a non-sexual-orientation discrimination pledge. The CIA is banned as a result for a year, until it signs the new contract. 

Feb. 3, 1989 — Thirty members of Students Against Apartheid (SAA) form a vocal minority at an address by a South African diplomat at SPIA. He describes apartheid as “peaceful evolution, not revolution” to a chorus of objection, but is allowed to complete his address.

Feb. 15, 1989 — Fifty protestors stage a 17-hour sit-in in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall, protesting the treatment of minority students and administrative communication with everyone. As part of the agreement ending the sit-in, new president Harold Shapiro *64 agrees to weekly office hours, a staple of prior presidents.

April 11, 1989 — With a permit, the SAA erects a shanty on Firestone Plaza in sympathy with Black people in the townships of South Africa. Two weeks later it is wrecked by unknown vandals, then in turn rebuilt and retrashed again repetitively until it is removed over the summer.

Oct. 11, 1989 — Princeton’s well-advertised first Gay Jeans Day, sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance (LGBA), stumbles over the messaging of gay people who wear them vs. non-gay allies who may or may not wear them vs. still-closeted people who don’t know what to do. 

May 10, 1991 — President George H.W. Bush dedicates the new social sciences buildings on campus, speaking on essentially the same spot as Lyndon Johnson 25 years before. Two hundred and fifty protesters picket the ceremony, protesting the first Gulf War, Bush’s veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act, presidential treatment of HIV/AIDS victims, and whether he should be given an honorary degree.

April 20, 1995 — Seventeen students conduct a 36-hour sit-in at president Shapiro’s office to demand added faculty and courses in Latino and Latin American studies. He refuses to negotiate while the occupation continues. An agreement is reached, calling for $6 million for added faculty hiring.

April 26, 2005 — After a notably moribund period for student activism (even including 9/11), editor Asheesh Siddique ’07 of the Princeton Progressive Review stands on the steps of Frist Campus Center and begins to filibuster against a proposal by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ’74 to eliminate the Senate filibuster of judicial nominees. Unaccountably, the demonstration grows for 384 hours, covered by national news media and visited by congressmen and professors who take turns reading from the Constitution, course papers, and children’s books. The explicitly nonpartisan demonstration ends with a national press conference on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Nov. 21, 2013 — Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) puts on a 24-hour performance demonstration in front of Firestone and Frist, depicting a prisoner in solitary confinement in a 7x9-foot cell. The silent theater piece plus information booth continues each year in protest of the solitary incarceration practice. 

Nov. 18, 2015 — Members of the Black Justice League occupy President Christopher Eisgruber ’83’s office, demanding a list of inclusion-related changes, among them removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from prominent locations, increased services from the Fields Center, depiction of minority groups in campus art, and racial sensitivity training for the faculty. A five-hour meeting with the president, dean of the college, and vice president for campus life in the office ends the 33-hour sit-in, with agreements to review virtually all the issues in question, and amnesty for the demonstrators. Wilson’s name is not removed from the Wilson School and Wilson College until 2020, but changes in the Fields Center and campus iconography begin immediately, along with faculty initiatives. 

May 8, 2019 — Seventy demonstrators assemble in front of Nassau Hall to rally and protest the University Title IX Office’s handling of sexual misconduct compliance. After nine days, administrators accept their petition inside the atrium. An extensive review, including the students, of the University’s complaint procedures leads to significant changes the next fall. 

April 25, 2024 — A large group of students sympathetic to the Palestinians in the Gaza War, Princeton Israeli Apartheid Divest, begins a sit-in in McCosh Courtyard. Officials prevent demonstrators from camping or sleeping overnight, but it continues for three weeks, including speakers’ rallies and teach-ins, meals and religious services while serving as a focus for counter-protestors. After an attempt to occupy Clio Hall at which 13 demonstrators are arrested, the sit-in moves to Cannon Green and the administration begins talks with the protesters, who primarily demand divestment from investments supporting the Israeli war cause. A hunger strike ends with no resolutions, but with agreement by officials to consider investment questions and Palestinian studies issues, with possible means to forgive disciplinary penalties. The group then supports disruptions at the subsequent Reunions, including disturbances at President Eisgruber’s alumni meeting and the P-rade, plus vandalism at the SPIA fountain and Robertson Hall. At Commencement, 70 graduates demonstrate silently.