CHAPTER VI: STUDENT POWER AND THE RECONCEPTION OF COMMUNITY

 

We didn’t feel quite as though we were a community with the administration.  There was a “we versus them” feel to that.

                                    -- Chip Hauss, class of 1969[1]

            By the fall of 1967, student frustrations with social rules had been mounting for five years.  Although there had been a lot of discussion there had been few major changes.  A number of factors -- including the lack of any substantial reduction in social rules, as well as the tensions raised by Vietnam and the disappointment of hopes for a Beloved Community -- combined to cause radical students to critique the ideal of community.  But these students still desired meaningful interaction with others on the basis of participatory democracy.  They sought this through forming smaller student communities.

            After the Student Congress, the 4-4-2 Committee parceled out most of the proposals to standing faculty committees for consideration.  It wrote and implemented a new student government constitution which somewhat strengthened the powers of the student legislature, now named Student Senate.  An important part of this constitution -- that students serve on major faculty committees -- was rejected by the General Faculty.  Many faculty members still felt that it was their responsibility to make important decisions for the College.  They thought that students would not be as invested in this process since students spent only four years at Oberlin while faculty members often spent decades.  This sense of responsibility stemmed from the in loco parentis notion of relationships within the College.  One small victory for students was the achievement of more control over social rules enforcement; Student Senate was given the power to appoint an all-student Judicial Board, which replaced Men’s and Women’s Boards.  The Student Senate was also given the power to pass legislation subject only to review within thirty days by the General Faculty.[2]

            The idea of student power dominated elections for the 1967-68 Senate.  SLATE remained the most radical party and put forth the most militant student power rhetoric.  Liberals for Community Action, a more moderate party, also advocated student control but with less forceful rhetoric, and Students for Responsible Action, a freshman party, championed referendums as the key to student power.  In an article in the radical student publication the Independent Oberlin Other, one student argued, “[W]e cannot expect to be given these powers, we must take them.”  This article listed students many frustrations and ended with a rallying cry of “STUDENT POWER.”[3]

            The liberalization of women’s hours was the new Senate’s main achievement by 1967.  Controversy focused on a proposal by Student Senate called section autonomy, which essentially provided for unlimited visiting hours subject only to control by individual dorm sections.  This proposal represented a very militant form of student power that denied the right of the administration and faculty to regulate students’ social lives.  Instead of being concerned with making decisions as a broader Oberlin community, the focus was on decision making by smaller, exclusively student communities.[4]

            Section autonomy stemmed from a number of trends in the social rules debate.  First, it came from the quandary of Saturday Night Calling Hours and its defeat.  The SNCH program had been considered by many students a minimal reform, a first step toward a more tolerable situation.  It was far less than students wanted, but it was what they believed they could get approved.  Students had long contended that enforcement of social rules would only be possible when the rules conformed to moral standards of students instead of attempting to impose the morals of the administration and faculty.  SNCH was still much more restrictive than the morality of most students.  For this reason, enforcement failed; student monitors were reluctant to turn in violators because they did not really believe the rules were fair.  Because enforcement failed, the SNCH program was cancelled by the faculty.  Students had tried to compromise and end up undermining their entire agenda.  There were no calling hours for several years afterward.[5]

            Students quickly began to tire of making proposals that were less than they believed necessary only to have the faculty turn down these proposals or require even further compromise.  Section autonomy represented an end to this attitude, and Student Senate put forward what students really wanted -- to set their own rules.  Appeals for changes in social rules up to this point had been based on appeals to the ideal of community.  During the late sixties, students redefined their notion of community.  Section autonomy was still based on the idea of participatory democracy, but it was focused only on students -- indeed subgroups of students -- not the larger Oberlin community. 

            Senators still attempted to work with the faculty to find a solution to which both could agree.  This time, however, they were unwilling to accept proposals from the faculty that they knew were realistically unenforceable.  Senate stated, “It is crucial that students feel they have a stake in the rule structure, that it conforms livably to their values and life patterns.  It is important that they feel the rules are their own, not imposed from outside.”[6] 

            Unfortunately, proposals minimally acceptable to Senate appeared to be far more than what the faculty would approve.  This led to conflict between students and faculty over hours and within the student population over tactics.  The conflicts were essentially over the appropriate definition of community.  The faculty notion of the Oberlin community as a family based on in loco parentis made them reluctant to relinquish control over students’ moral and social development.  At the same time student notions of community -- both of the entire Oberlin community and the student community -- were based on participatory democracy, which made them unwilling to accept rules they did not help to create.  Conflicts among students over tactics reflected differences between radicals who had essentially given up on the Oberlin community ideal and liberals who had not.  The most radical students were unwilling to accept any hours restriction on section autonomy because limitations would be a concession to the idea that the faculty had the right to regulate students’ social lives.[7] 

            This attitude represented a rejection of the ideal of Oberlin as a unified community.  Activist students argued that is was misguided to view the ideal of community as a reason to discuss social rules with the faculty:

Academically, Oberlin certainly is a “community” in some senses, for decisions involving academic policy jointly affect faculty and students, and most importantly, affects their interaction.  But such is not the case with social rules.  What a student does privately in his own room is not the concern of everyone in Oberlin.  Secondly, social regulations restricting student behavior obviously have no effect on the private behavior of faculty members.  Social rules are the sole concern of the students, for they are the only ones who must live with them.[8]

Radicals attempted to reformulate the idea of community decision making to include only the persons affected by a given decision. 

            As in the military recruitment issue, the value of community was not completely discarded but it was strained.  Community no longer reinforced student power but instead conflicted with it.  Student power was limited by the rhetoric of community now being employed by the administration and faculty in order to attempt to convince students to accept their positions.  Radical students, however, had come to reject the idea that there can be any true community dialogue based on the unequal power that students, faculty, and administrators brought to the debate.  Students were not convinced by community discussion to accept compromises, but were forced to accept them rather than no reform at all.  This ultimately led to further conflicts as occurred with SNCH.[9]

            Student activists emphasized the student community even while they disparaged the existence of an overarching Oberlin College community.  The original idea of community as participatory democracy was intact but on a reduced scale.  Radicals wanted “to allow students, as a community, to exercise final authority in legislating and enforcing their own rules.”[10]  Some students argued that student community and student power were inseparable goals.  “It is solidarity, not well-greased channels, that will bring the major reforms students desire.”[11]  Student community was of vital importance, but the ideal of a larger community of Oberlin had given way to a more separatist view of community.

            After each faculty rejection of increasingly compromised student proposals, there were angry reactions from students and increasing frustration.  One especially militant pamphlet stated,

We will no longer let prudes and perverts stifle our lives.  We hereby declare ourselves to be independent of those fools who think that love and living can be legislated.  We will fuck when we want to fuck, we will live where we want to live.  We hereby declare all College regulations pertaining to our sexual and habitating lives null.  If we are caught, we will not obey, if we are punished, we will not ascent to the punishments.  President Carr and his small minded cronies regulate us no longer.[12]

This kind of rhetoric was a far cry from the silent, coats-and-ties demonstration outside of Finney in the spring of 1963.  The integrity of the Oberlin community was clearly no longer of primary concern.

            The faculty displayed a blatant disregard of student desires and needs on several occasions.  Despite the evidence of widespread student support for a number of changes in social rules, including section autonomy, the faculty was generally hostile to major alterations of the regulations.  In May 1967, several hundred students staged a rally and all night vigil in favor of liberalized rules for off-campus housing.  Despite this tremendous showing of student support, the faculty rejected the proposal.[13]

            In March 1968, the faculty defeated a proposal for open dorms fourteen hours a day.  The proposal already represented several levels of compromise on the part of students and came on the heals of a student poll showing 80 percent support for the plan.  Students were outraged and frustrated.  Senate led a co-ed study-in in Burton Hall, which broke social rules and registered student discontent.  Nearly three hundred students participated in this demonstration at which Senate declared twenty-four hour section autonomy.  Only the threat of suspension for further such actions brought students back to the bargaining table.[14]  A tentative compromise on hours was finally reached at the end of the school year in 1968.

            Students tended to focus their frustration more on President Carr than on the faculty, despite the fact that the faculty was standing directly in the way of change on social rules.  There were several factors that contributed to this attitude.  It was difficult to attribute one viewpoint to the faculty since it was composed of a variety of different people, whereas Carr was easy to point to as a central authority figure.  Many students and faculty members had close relationships, but Carr was remote and inaccessible to students.  Carr’s relationship with students had never been good, so as student discontent increased he was targeted, fairly or unfairly, by activists as a symbol of the problems with the College.

            Radical students linked the anti-democratic nature of the College to the desire of business interests to control their source of future labor.  Although students should not give up on creating change, radicals argued, they should be realistic because “the problem of education is integrally related to the problem of society as a whole.”[15]  However, it was primarily the faculty, not Carr or the trustees (although when given the chance they were even less responsive), who stood in the way of social change at Oberlin.  Yet this argument strongly reflected the national student movement, which was coming to criticize the university as part of the American power structure.

            The Vietnam War unquestionably influenced the tone of student protest over social rules.  Many of the same students were involved in both types of activism (and the civil rights movement in earlier years).  Tactics and attitudes translated across issues so the urgency of Vietnam added fuel to the social rules fight.  The criticism of the power structure of society and the realization that that structure reinforced the unequal power structure of the College linked the two movements.

            By the late sixties, student power had become far more important than community to Oberlin activists.  A tense compromise on open dorms was reached, which would allow open dorms from 1 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 11:30 p.m. everyday with the addition of 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.[16]  This policy undercut the ideals of section autonomy; it could not really be a lasting solution.  Students were no longer willing to accept less than their demands.

* * *

            The fragmenting of the community ideal also occurred for African American students who began trying to form their own communities in order to fight the isolation many of them experienced within the larger Oberlin community.  Since 1963, the Special Education Opportunities Program had been working to increase minority enrollment at Oberlin by providing additional support for those who had not had as many opportunities before arriving on campus.  Their work was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was used to provide African American students with scholarships, tutoring, and summer programs.[17]  After 1965, interest in the civil rights movement among white radicals began to be overtaken by other issues, particularly the Vietnam War, partly because the role of white students in the movement was decreasing.  Increased African American enrollment meant that it was possible for Oberlin to have a movement of black students.  In the fall of 1967, the Oberlin College Alliance for Black Culture (OCABC) was formed.  OCABC was interested in forming a community of African-American students and attaining student power for black students.

            OCABC was formed in large part to respond to the “growing feeling of alienation among Black students from the Oberlin College community, because of the pervasive attitude which assumes the universality of middle class values.”[18]  This organization subscribed to the ideology of black power and sought to empower black students through promoting African American culture and the interests of African American students within the College.

            Specifically, these students were interested in increasing the relevance of the curriculum to black students through a Black Studies program that would offer courses in African and African-American history and culture in addition to related topics in the social sciences.  Yvonne Hughes recalled,

I shall never forget my desire to utilize the independent studies to learn more about myself and my culture.  I approached a young professor, Mr. Richard Brown, and asked if I could “independently” study African and African-American History.  He said not until I took a year of American History courses.  I said no -- I’ll just do it on my own because I had already studied (his so-called) American History for over twelve years of my life.[19]

OCABC hoped that every Oberlin student would be required to take a course in “Afro-American Life and Culture,” in addition to requirements in science, social science, language, literature, art, philosophy, religion, writing, and physical education.  These students also wanted the College to take a more aggressive stance in recruiting and hiring African-American faculty members.  OCABC generally worked with faculty through available channels to achieve its goals.[20]

            In February 1968, OCABC sponsored a Black Culture Symposium entitled “In the Light of Blackness.”  The symposium brought in Herbert Hill, Laurence Neal, and Herbert Showells to talk about black literature.  The symposium also included black art, soul music, dance, and speakers on education in the ghettos.  The goal of the week was to provide an opportunity for black students to celebrate their culture and for white students to learn about something that was sorely neglected by Oberlin’s standard curriculum.[21]  OCABC emphasized that “dialogue between the two communities is crucial . . . there is no point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact with the thoughts and feelings of another.”[22]

            As another way of promoting black culture, an Afro-American House was created through the efforts of students, faculty, and administrators, which provided living space, dining, and programming.  The original idea was to provide a space for black students to form their own community since they often felt isolated from the wider Oberlin community.  Many African-American students acutely felt by the need for black unity.  However, many whites at Oberlin, who had long held integration as the ideal, opposed a house in which African-American students would separate themselves from the rest of the Oberlin population.  Albert J. McQueen, professor of sociology and anthropology, was deeply involved in this movement.  He remembered,

The struggle for African-American house was very much more controversial [than the Black Studies program].  In fact, Professor Simpson was dead set against establishing such a house for black students, for to him it meant separatism and disunity, not integration and unity . . . When the faculty finally approved the establishment of such a house it was with the condition that it be interracial, open to whites . . . Not satisfied, the strong black students kept up the struggle for their own house.[23]

The faculty decided that the house would be equally divided between whites and blacks.  Many people hoped that this would promote communication and understanding between white and black students.[24]

            Another major program of OCABC was “to funnel some of our talent into the local Black Ghetto.”[25]  Realizing the importance of giving something back to impoverished communities, black students worked to provided programs for children and teenagers in Oberlin to help them succeed.

            OCABC described the Oberlin College community as a white community that black students could not be a part of without giving up an essential part of their identity.  They wished to create a strong black community that would be able to effectively advocate for changes on campus and provide a sense of belonging to African American students.  They did not want to isolate themselves completely from the white community, but they wanted to empower black students in their interactions with the larger Oberlin community. 

            To this end they promoted student power for black students.  In the 1967-68 school year, three black students -- Yvonne Hughes, Mike Lythcott, and Bob Watts -- were elected to Student Senate.  The Senate created a Black Affairs Committee to “serve as a pressure group for black students.”  African American students’ demands to the faculty were firmly worded.  To a large extent, OCABC succeeded in implementing its program.  Although the African American House was not exactly as they had hoped, the General Faculty did approve the Black Studies program in December 1968.[26]  Black students, with significant representation on Student Senate, were able to influence the College in important ways.

            OCABC promoted a more meaningful community for black students and a more significant role for African Americans in the power structure of the College.  Many schools underwent significant turmoil over these issues, but Oberlin, although certainly not perfect, was relatively responsive to the concerns and demands of black students.

            In the late sixties, student power and black power led to the formation of smaller communities within the Oberlin community.  The ideal of community became fractured into subgroups and the hope for the larger community was rejected.  In both cases the larger community ideal was seen as benefiting those who had power over those who did not:  the faculty and administration over the students, whites over blacks.  In each case, those who had less power came to see the previous desire to form an Oberlin community as naive and idealistic.  Community was still seen as important, but it was a different type of community.


 



[1]Charles Hauss, interview.

[2]“Constitution, Senate Elections Mark Year,” Oberlin Review, 20 Sept. 1966, 19.

[3]“Student Power,” Independent Oberlin Other, 6 May 1967, 5.

[4]“Student Social Rules,” Oberlin Review, 19 Sept. 1967, 17.

[5]M. Rinaldi, “Section Autonomy and the Rhetoric of Community,” The Independent Oberlin Other, 10 December 1966, 5.

[6]Social Rules, 11 December 1967, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 2, OCA, 1.

[7]Rinaldi, “Section Autonomy,” 1-5.

[8]Ibid., 4.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ed Swartz, “The Case for Liberalized Rules,” in Social Rules, 11 December 1967, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 2, OCA, 9.

[11]Thomas Witheridge, “The Student Power Game,” The Cocktail Hour, 3 December 1967, 7.

[12]A student statement on social rules, May 1967, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 4, OCA.

[13]“Where to Live?” Oberlin Review, 19 September 1967, 18.

[14]“Negotiations, Protests End in Approval of Autonomy,” Oberlin Review, 10 September 1968, 18.

[15]Bob Parker, “A Discourse on Rational Education,” The Cocktail Hour, 15 November 1967, 1, 5-7.

[16] “Social Rules,” Oberlin Review, 10 Sept. 1968, 18.

[17]Delia Pitts, “Faculty Approves Black Program,” Oberlin Review, 6 Dec. 1968, 1.

[18]Beck Parham and Butch Wilson, “Oberlin College Alliance for Black Power,” Oberlin Review, 5 Dec. 1967, 2.

[19]Yvonne Hughes, letter to author, 22 April 2002.

[20]“Oberlin Professors!!” from OCABC to faculty, 1967-68, Committee Files, Dean of Students Records, Box 4, OCA.

[21]“Black Students: Culture Week, Courses Promoted by Campus Block,” Oberlin Review, 10 Sept. 1968, 17.

[22]Parham,  2.

[23]  Albert McQueen, interview..

[24]  Bob Watts, “Afro-American House is Here,” Oberlin Review, 16 April 1968, 2.

[25]  Parham, 2.

[26]  Delia Pitts, “Faculty Approves Black Program,” Oberlin Review, 6 December 1968, 1.