President Goheen speaks on the steps of Nassau Hall during a May 1968 protest that drew students, faculty, and staff, as well as the national media.
Princeton University Archives
How spring 1968 changed Princeton — and us — forever

“... And unlike the advertisers of automobiles, whose pictures offer the promise of pretty girls who are never delivered when one buys the car, the Princeton admission office has a record of having its deliveries match up to its promises.”

That was how the last semester of the “Old Princeton” began, with President Goheen welcoming the freshman Class of 1971, joking that we had “more head room, quicker pick-up combined with more stability on the curves.” Admissions had delivered 814 men — close-cropped, buttoned-down, tweedy copies of each other. We looked much like every previous class since F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, Princeton’s spiritual publicist, wrote This Side of Paradise. 

“This is paradise,” thought this son of working-class, Republican, first-generation Italian parents who had barely scraped through high school. For the precious privilege of Princeton, I was ready to endure a monastic life, wait tables in Commons, and run cross country on failing feet. 

We were told we would meet as a class only twice — that day and at the end of our senior year. By our second meeting, Princeton would be more like the university of today than it was on that sunny September day half a century ago. Between those two meetings was the spring of 1968, when 221 years of tradition would yield to a world of martyred leaders, burning cities, distant battlefields, and changing values. It was a season that “was the hinge between the old Princeton and the new Princeton,” remembers Marc Lackritz ’68, who had been president of the Undergraduate Assembly. 

Spring semester began quietly enough. Arthritis forced me off the track team and into a modest reporting role on the Prince, which on Jan. 24 published its annual “joke issue.” Filled with fake news, the paper proclaimed, “Goheen Plans to Maintain University on Verge of Tomorrow.” “We stand on the threshold of tomorrow, but we’ll have to wait until today is over,” was the made-up quote attributed to the president. It was supposed to be funny. It wound up being prophetic. 

A few days later, on Jan. 30, the Tet Offensive would escalate the fighting in Vietnam. The Johnson administration soon dropped draft deferments for graduate school and announced record American casualties. Suddenly, those of us who had assumed we’d wait out the war in grad school realized we were instead headed for the meat grinder. 

 “In the fall of 1967, the anti-war movement wasn’t really serious,” James Tarlau ’70 recalls. A Whig-Clio poll indicated that the majority of undergrads supported the war; as many as 200 wanted to “nuke” North Vietnam. The threat of the draft, though, changed student attitudes dramatically. 

 “Being drafted was the paramount thing people were worried about,” remembers Edward Weidlein ’68. “One of my friends went to rabbinical school. Another got married. Another went to Canada. Another was a conscientious objector.” Weidlein stayed on in the Princeton admission office after graduation, hoping for a refuge there. “Goheen wrote a letter [to the draft board] saying I was a crucial part of the administration,” Weidlein says with a chuckle. The board didn’t buy it. He joined the Army Reserve. 

Peter Raymond ’68 decided to join the Navy; he recollects a senior year in a “disassociated daze.” “I didn’t think I was coming back,” he says. “I really expected to die.” Yet he couldn’t imagine not going. His father, a member of the Class of 1940, had lost classmates in World War II. “I was a good loyal son,” Raymond says. “I saw the world as he did. ... I grew up completely believing in the institutions of this country.” But by spring, he says, everything was suspect: “You couldn’t trust anything you were hearing.”

As president of Whig-Clio, George Lynn ’68 already had made national news by inviting both civil-rights icon Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace to speak at Princeton. Every night after dinner at Cottage Club, Lynn and his friends would go upstairs “and watch the war on TV.” Like several of his classmates, he joined the Navy’s Officer Candidate School — if you were about to be drafted, he figured, OCS was the lesser of two evils. Other students dove into politics. After peace candidate Eugene McCarthy lost to President Johnson by a mere 230 votes in the New Hampshire primary, 200 undergraduates signed up to work on the McCarthy campaign, PAW reported. 

“I came to Princeton with Brooks Brothers clothes, preppy with short hair parted on the right,” remembers Peter Kaminsky ’69. By the spring of 1968, that had changed, and Kaminsky was a leader in the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) group, appearing at anti-war demonstrations with “Even Princeton” banners. 

There was “a sense that a new world was possible,” recalls Tarlau, another SDS leader. On March 31, when President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, a cheer went up across campus. Some students built bonfires. Hopes for the war’s end soared. But the celebration was short-lived. Four days later, the Rev. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis.

Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train passes through Princeton Junction on Reunions weekend. President Goheen speaks on the steps of Nassau Hall during a May 1968 protest that drew students, faculty, and staff, as well as the national media.
Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

I remember exactly where I was ... just outside of 1937 Hall,” says Robert Collins ’71 of the moment he heard news of King’s murder. Collins was one of only 14 African American students in his class. After the assassination, some members of the year-old Association of Black Collegians (ABC) advocated more militant action, but others pushed back, calling members to stick with King’s program of nonviolence. “This country doesn’t do well with black anger,” Collins says. “We don’t allow black folks to be angry.” But people were angry, and in the aftermath of King’s death, some 110 cities burned, including Trenton, just down the road. 

“The assassination rang enormous bells in the cathedral of our souls,” says Alfred Price ’69, another African American student. Price, who was assistant news director at WPRB then, remembers “ripping and reading” the frantic UPI dispatches over the radio to shocked listeners. The news was devastating to black students who, he says, felt like “God had abandoned us ... we sat in stunned silence staring at one another.”

A temporarily tone-deaf Goheen announced that education was the “best tribute we can pay this great man,” and that the University would continue its normal classes with a “moment of silent meditation” at noon the day King was buried. The “business as usual” decision enraged black students. Some 30 ABC members paid a visit to Goheen’s home. “We have come to inform you that you are closing the University,” Price remembers the group telling the president. Meeting on his front porch, Goheen listened — and he changed his mind, confessing later he had no idea how important it was to the students. “White people would never recognize racism unless black people pointed it out to them,” Price concludes. 

It was a crucial day for Goheen and for Princeton. Classes were canceled. Black students determined the memorial events, including a service that drew 2,000 people to the Chapel. In one of the most powerful moments, “every black guy on campus stood in a circle in front of Nassau Hall and silently joined hands” around Princeton administrator Carl A. Fields, the highest-ranking black official in the Ivy League, who had delivered the memorial address. Just after the events, Princeton announced it was tripling the number of “American Negroes” it was admitting to 76 in the Class of 1972.

“President Goheen had two presidencies,” says English professor emeritus John Fleming *63, whose career at Princeton spanned four decades. The first “was stuffy and uptight and conservative in an unexamined way,” Fleming says. And then came 1968: Goheen “turned around completely. He did as much as anybody on the racial front.” 

That spring brought other changes, too. Restrictions on women in the dorms — the dreaded “parietals” — were eased, though students had already taken the matter into their own hands. Undergrads got an alternative to the club system with the opening of Princeton’s first residential college, Wilson College. And the University was preparing to make what would be perhaps its biggest change of all: coeducation. 

On April 23, Columbia University imploded as student protesters began occupying buildings, including Low Library, the main administration building. I played wholesale hooky to cover the events for the Prince. My sheltered Catholic upbringing in upstate New York had not prepared me for Columbia, and I watched slack-jawed as officers clubbed students, dragged them down the steps, and stuffed them into police wagons. Two days after the dust settled at Columbia, Princeton had its own demonstration, with students marching to Nassau Hall to present a list of demands about how the University should be run. 

As the semester drew to a close and the campus prepared for Reunions, there was one more terrible, unthinkable, world-changing surprise: Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in California. 

Students and alumni crowded the Princeton Junction station to await the funeral train transporting Kennedy’s body to Washington — “with people along the tracks as far as the eye could see,” Weidlein remembers. Richard Rein ’69, who had covered the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, was on the train and remembers what he witnessed from inside: “All along the way, crowds stood in silence along the tracks. I have memories of old people waving hankies, of others holding American flags, of a huge throng of Boy Scouts, probably representing scores of troops, standing in formation in a field alongside the tracks, all saluting as the train lurched by.”

It was a “pivotal” spring, says Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse, with “everything up for grabs.” Kennedy, he says, was the last person who could have held together the old Democratic coalition; his death would enable the “rise of a new conservatism” just when colleges like Princeton would become more liberal, he says.

Others view the spring’s events from a less academic — and more personal — perspective. At the time, “I felt ashamed of my generation,” says Raymond, who remembers recoiling from “the arrogance and self-righteousness” of the Nassau Hall demonstration speakers. But later, he came to feel that his world-view at Princeton had been limited. “One of the things about being privileged and white [is] you don’t have to imagine what’s happening to people who are not,” Raymond observes. 

There was one more reality of spring 1968 for which I was not prepared: final papers and exams. I had squandered much of the semester covering Columbia. So I negotiated with my professors to substitute a thesis-length report on those events. I wrote it, maniacally banging away on my battered Smith-Corona for days. 

Then I forgot about it — for half a century. Turning its yellowing, typo-riddled pages today is like meeting an old friend at Reunions. I called it “A Columbia Education,” and I must have learned something because I concluded, “If there is a lesson to be learned from Columbia, it is not that sick universities must be violently cured. It is — it must be — that sick universities must be prevented.” 

They weren’t on the curriculum, but in 1968 we learned painful, powerful lessons. Probably for many of us — and definitely for Princeton — we became healthier because of them. And that’s worth remembering. 


Photo: Jacqueline Conderacci
Greg Conderacci ’71 is the author of Getting UP! Supercharging Your Energy.