How To Finesse A Student Occupation

What kind of mark does NYU deserve for its handling of its student occupation? Let’s give the university a “B-plus” or even an “A” for a performance marred only by a poor end game—immediately reinstating the suspended perpetrators of the sandbox revolution, thus letting them claim that they had won. (“We did it”, said the Take Back NYU web site. “You made our cry heard around the world and it worked!!”)
The University of Rochester deserves a “D-minus” for caving in last month to an SDS sit-in only nine hours after it started. The university did not yield to the occupiers’ major demand—divestment in Israel—but it promised economic and humanitarian aid, including scholarships for Gaza students. Universities and colleges would do well to plan ahead for more anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian occupations by the hard left. More than 20 student occupations have been mounted in Britain and sponsors want to inspire similar actions across the pond.
In preparing for such occupations, American administrations should take a look at a model response from the 1960s, possibly the only “A-plus” in the student occupatrion sweepstakes. It took place at the University of Chicago, drew little publicity at the time and is recalled by few today. The Chicago Maroon, the university newspaper, wrote recently that “awareness of this story is mostly limited to its eyewitnesses” and is “nearly absent from the collective memories passed down to each new generation of students.”
The central figure in the story is the late Edward Levi, president of the university, later to be the attorney general (under President Ford) who cleaned up the justice department after the Watergate mess. He faced a far more serious threat than NYU did last month. NYU had a handful of comic protesters, who explained that they wanted to “consense” (they meant form a consensus), screamed about brutality without being touched, and bitterly accused the employees who evicted them of drinking “corporate water.” Then there was the demand that NYU reconsider the lifting of its ban on selling Coca Cola. The administration disarmed protesters by offering food, even vegetarian options. It’s always hard to hate oppressors who care about the vegan menu. In contrast, the Chicago protesters were sophisticated and experienced. Some were members of Students for a Democratic Society and many went on to join the terrorist Weather Underground.
Levi had taken office at a tense time, only a few months after the upheaval at the 1968 Democratic national convention. On January 30th, more than 400 students took over the administration building, the third occupation of a campus building in four years. Vietnam and anger at “the system” were obvious issues. So was resentment that students played no role in university governance. But the excuse for the takeover was the sociology department’s decision not to rehire Marlene Dixon, an eccentric Marxist and radical feminist who had drawn attention by chanting “Work, study, get ahead, kill!” to students during Levi’s inaugural procession.
Despite heavy pressure to call in police, Levi refused to do so. No police meant no photos of abused students and therefore no dramatic storyline. “The whole thing builds to the police raid,” said classics professor James Redfield, decribing the ideal conditions for a successful student takeover. “That’s the big scene and when that doesn’t happen, they don’t quite know what to do.”
Levi refused to capitulate or negotiate. Students generally supported the administration. Faculty was split, and on the seventh day, Milton Friedman held a press conference vehemently opposing amnesty. Left alone for 16 days, the protesters grew weary and left the building. After the 1966 sit-in, a faculty body had recommended “appropriate disciplinary action, not excluding expulsion” if another takeover occurred. That’s what happened in 1969. Levi called 165 students in for hearings, suspended 81 and expelled 42. Students who convincingly expressed remorse got off the hook. In statements afterward, Levi talked about the integrity and civility of the university, its mission to pursue truth and the need to resist coercion. He said, “There are values to be maintained. We are not bought and sold and transformed by that kind of pressure.”
During the takeover, a bomb threat was called in and someone threw a typewriter during a confrontation among students. During an SDS-sponsored rally against the disciplinary committee, student kicked in the door of Levi’s house. But the tumult that burst forth on other campuses subsided at the University of Chicago. This success in Chicago in the 60s and NYU today should lead other colleges and universities to take note. The low key, no-police, no-negotiation strategy works.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

2 thoughts on “How To Finesse A Student Occupation

  1. Actually, after the repressive tactics of the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, the U of C went into a tailspin, financially and academically, with declines in student enrollment. The U of C only began to recover from this disaster in the late 1980s and 1990s.

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