Digging in an archive is sort of like entering a waking dream. There’s something about physically holding an object from another moment in time—something with meaning, with history, an object worth saving. It sets off the imagination. And when you come back from the past, you can feel the object resonate in the present. Throughout this piece, I invite you to look at these archival images I've selected as you read. As you read the narrative that I've brought together in my research, it can be just as powerful for you to view the images and documents yourself- to see the physicality of protest, to read the demands of those who fought for change, and put yourself in the year 1969.
Someone could spend a lifetime writing about the Archives at Queens College. As I look through the Campus Unrest collection, one object after another, I feel myself drift back fifty years, to the same place, but a different time. There were no email blasts, no text messages, and not a Tweet to be twittered. Only word of mouth, shoes to the pavement, land line telephones, typewriters, and photographs. What has been preserved and compiled remains, a slice in time, a gateway into the past.
The events documented in the collection unravel in a way that shows how polarized the college became when a large number of students resisted college policy and procedure. It is important to think about college campuses, and how they construct notions of power. In some ways, the administration of the institution becomes the arbiter of its own laws, codes, and rules that it creates. Administrative entities and their bylaws dictate how the institution operates. In 1969, Queens College students had an administrative entity with three branches of “student” governance: the Student Association, the Student Senate, and the Student Court. Though not a true legal entity, the college constitution has never lacked in legal jargon surrounding its self-conceived bureaucratic entities, often remaining vague (e.g.: “meet certain qualifications”) about specific offices and positions.
A “Student Court” sounds like it represents the student body; however, what happens when students and faculty organize en masse to show opposition to college policy and its constructed laws and authority? When the power of a few in delegated positions are questioned by an overwhelming number of individuals, united in opposition? When the student body asks who does the college really serve?
In 1969, the administrative authority at Queens College faced widespread resistance, which quickly escalated into hundreds of students performing peaceful protests and strike demonstrations which, on April 1st, resulted in the subsequent police arrests of thirty-eight students and one faculty member. They spent fifteen days on Rikers Island. Soon after, protest demonstrations included several thousand students and drew visitors and celebrities from across the country. These activists of the student body even held an entirely alternative graduation ceremony on June 3, 1969 deemed the “Counter-Commencement.”
The main focus of the 1969 student resistance was deeply rooted in how students viewed the influence of corporations on the college administration, the power structure of the college itself, and the military-industrial complex fueling the Vietnam War. Students opposed the recruitment by branches of the military, the ROTC, and companies such as General Electric and Honeywell that were instrumental in the war effort. Students rallied on March 11th in protest of G.E. recruiters on campus, and disrupted their recruitment activities in the College Placement Office.
The Dean of Students brought charges to the Faculty-Student Committee on Student Conduct, who brought the charges before the Student Court. When the three specific students faced charges, they demanded that their supporters (numbering in the hundreds) be present for the trial, the court was unable to provide accommodations and remained fearful of “near riot conditions.” Upon the court’s recommendation to the Dean on March 20th, the three students were suspended. Soon after, the Student Association President dropped the charges, but the Dean refused to do the same.
In the late sixties, industrial companies like General Electric and Honeywell along with the Reserve Officer Training Corps were recruiting students at QC (and colleges across the country) to serve in the Vietnam War. In opposition to this college policy, a growing number of students, often in association with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led active disruptions of this recruitment on campuses nationwide.
The administration, along with the “Student Court” decided to suspend three of the students. The reaction to this was led by further dissent through peaceful protest that disrupted the functioning of the college and its administration, via the Ad-Hoc Committee to End Political Suppression with their list of Four Demands (see image).
The last two of these four demands pertained directly to the situation of a single faculty member. In fall of 1968, due to English department disputes, English Professor Sheila Delany was not re-hired, but the administration did not have to disclose any reasoning, due to a Board of Education policy referred to as the Max-Kahn Memorandum. The ensuing student-focus surrounding Dr. Sheila Delany was in response to the Max-Kahn report of 1967 which established personnel procedures for college faculty throughout CUNY. This policy put forth that there need not be disclosure of the reasons why a faculty member is not reappointed.
With regard to Dr. Delany (a popular professor), apparently her personality and political ideas were not to the liking of the English Department, and the administration backed the department in her removal. This was during a time before there was a faculty union, and when policy restricted female faculty from wearing pants (not to mention from maternity leave). For an academic to study and approach Marxist theory was seen as blatantly radical; left-leaning ideology was met with fear and resistance. Dr. Delany, along with fifteen other faculty members compiled a list of seven proposals to democratize departmental procedures, requesting certain basic rights for faculty members through policy changes (see the accompanying Seven Proposals document).
So in solidarity with Dr. Delany and her small contingency of like-minded faculty (after the suspensions of the three SDS members), the swelling outcry of QC students in protest of corporate war recruitment added to its cause a reaction to the school’s policy of withholding disclosure about faculty reappointment. This small group of activist faculty members in like-minded political outlook, stood (and sat) in solidarity with the surging number of students fighting for change.
These cycles of ongoing student protest, political suppression from the college administration, and reactionary student drive opposed the power structure of the college. QC was a battleground for the ways in which authority was being challenged all over the country during this time. It seems to me that the core notion that tied together the student resistance at QC was a demand for representation: for a widening of democracy, and the restructuring of power. The Ad Hoc Committee to End Political Suppression was formed, and students numbering in the hundreds—eventually the thousands—came together in peaceful protest to sit in on campus buildings, to disrupt business as usual: to be seen, to be heard, and to insist their demands be met.
During the day, students occupied both outdoor campus spaces and the Academic II Building (now Kiely Hall) as well as the Social Sciences Building (now Powdermaker Hall). At night, a fraction of these demostrators would remain sitting-in. At 2:00am on April 1st, as approximately 200 protestors occupied the Social Studies building overnight, Deans Pierson and Hartle announced a fifteen-minute warning via bull-horn that police were being brought on campus. An estimated five hundred to nine hundred police officers were sent in. Thirty-nine individuals were arrested and sent to Rikers Island for fifteen days.
That afternoon, after the arrests, a rally was held drawing a reported four-thousand students. Protests continued, for weeks on end.
As with many political struggles, there are not always clearly defined end-points, and a movement’s failure or success may be up for debate or land somewhere on a spectrum. But what does stand as a powerful testament to the events of 1969 at QC is the planning, execution, and symbolic power of an alternative graduation ceremony that year. In an act of resistance to the administration, students organized their own “Counter-Commencement,” which attracted prominent activist speakers of the time. (see the event program to the right)
The civil resistance of 1969 at Queens College was not an isolated pocket of unrest. Campuses throughout CUNY were embroiled in powerful anti-war demonstrations and political protest that inspired challenges to the suppressive power structures of academic institutions across the nation. Columbia University was a concurrent hub of activism in this same year, and many of the movements in the U.S. took after precedent set by events in France in May of 1968.
As protests continued and the media coverage increased, the Queens College administration eventually met some of the Ad-Hoc Committee’s demands: the suspensions of the three students were dropped and those who had gone to Rikers were released. However, Dr. Sheila Delany was never reinstated nor were the details of her case revealed to the public. The Max-Kahn Memorandum of 1967 still stands as policy at Queens College, and throughout CUNY today. Despite now being unionized, CUNY adjunct professors are currently unable to strike and are arguably underpaid and exploited below a living wage. Student power continues to remain indirect and in the hands of the few; our antiquated bylaws and constitution remain convoluted in bureaucratic jargon, with direct power being obscured and alienated from the student body. Branches of the United States military can be seen recruiting on our campus, and our country has been at war for the past 17 years, with no end in sight.
The widespread demonstrations of 1969 forced entire campus communities to reflect on whether academic institutions were living up to their purpose. Are they truly institutions of learning and free thought? To what extent are academic institutions used as vehicles of corporate interest and human capital, under the guise of "opportunity" for the student body? Looking at the events of 50 years ago, how might we now look up from the archives with new perspective to better discern the current state of higher education in our country?
Part I of this piece focuses predominantly on the material within the Campus Unrest Collection archive at QC, focusing on the series of events culminating in the Spring of 1969. In future installments of this story, I will look at the larger movements connected to these events: the Civil Rights Movement at QC, and the history of SDS in the U.S. I hope to further explore conceptions of power in college administrations—notions of in loco parentis, the presence of corporate recruitment in spaces of learning, and how points of contention from 1969 continue to manifest in CUNY, and in academia at large today.
Digital exhibition curated by Salvatore Asaro. All the rights for the artifacts reproduced belong to their respective owners. Special thanks to the staff of the Special Collections and Archives of the Queens College Libraries, Annie Tummino the head of the Archives, and Daniel Brenner the College Archivist and QC GSLIS alumnus who compiled the Campus Unrest Collection. I am in utmost gratitude to Dr. Sheila Delany, who spoke to me for nearly an hour on the phone, sent me numerous email correspondences, provided me with documents from her personal collection saved from these events, and who was an inspiring faculty advocate for student power and institutional reform nearly fifty years ago.