Letter: Lessons in Listening
To the Editor:
I’m tempted to tell today’s purist college students what it was like to be a student in the 1960s and ’70s. Administrators, deaf to “demands,” didn’t listen to students until the president’s office had been “occupied” by protesters; the term “civil disobedience” became a rallying reminder of Henry David Thoreau’s essay about the night he spent in the Concord jail to indirectly protest the Mexican-American war.
I’m tempted to tell students what I saw with my own eyes in Ithaca, 1968-69: Leaders of Cornell’s Black United Students armed themselves with rifles after occupying Willard Straight Hall, refusing to vacate until their demands were met. They wanted a three-day campuswide Teach-In on Racism (two new words back then). They were angry about the Cornell administration’s bureaucratic blather about a burning-cross left on a black student’s porch.
I’m tempted to tell students about Kent State University, 1970, when I saw with my own eyes another college president refuse to talk with anti-war protesters, a blunder which led to the burning of the ROTC building and the occupation of the campus by Ohio National Guard members who shot into the protesters, killing four and wounding nine.
Those were the big lessons-in-listening taught to college presidents in the 1960s and ’70s. I witnessed both of them firsthand. They boiled down to this: When a leader refuses to listen seriously to the grievances of those who have been driven to civil disobedience, the leader throws gasoline (and sometimes bullets) on a fire.
By the 1980s, one president had learned that listening lesson. At Yale, when students built South African shanties in the Woodbridge Hall plaza to protest Yale’s investment in companies that supported apartheid, Yale’s president and his board of trustees took the protest seriously: They divested. This, too, I saw firsthand.
The educational model had been reversed: Kids taught adults, on campuses and on the nightly news.
Fast forward 30 years: Enter Dartmouth’s interim-president and its dean in 2013.
They listened. They learned. They acted.
No, I won’t talk about “back in my day.” Who’d listen?
Paul D. Keane