«RM75»«FC»COL207.PRB - Campus Protests: Then and Now
The recent demonstrations on the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri reminded me of the protests more than four decades ago that I covered at MU.
The demonstrations back then were against the Vietnam War.
At MU and across the country, campus demonstrations grew to unprecedented sizes after Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on anti-war protesters at Kent State University in 1970.
Four were killed and several injured.
The Kent State protest was sparked by expansion of the war to a bombing campaign in Cambodia. But the student fatalities made it a more personal issue for college students.
It brought out demonstrators in numbers unequaled since on the MU campus.
In the succeeding decades, I've been disappointed at the lack of a similar passion among subsequent generations of students to change society.
Vietnam, the civil rights movement and women's liberation were driving issues for which thousands of students protested, picketed and marched -- on both sides of some issues.
But today, I sense that many students are focused more on avoiding cutting classes so as to earn good grades in order to get good jobs.
So, it warmed my heart a bit to see students cutting classes to protest racism. As a public policy journalist, I'm inspired when students care enough about a societal issue to get involved -- regardless position.
But there are some differences.
The 1970 protests were so huge that Francis Quadrangle, the main quadrangle of MU, was packed with students demanding that MU cancel classes for one day in memory of those who died at Kent State.
Far fewer students participated in this fall's racism demonstration -- just a few hundred until the final day.
The protests of the 1970s focused on issues. The latest MU protest, at times, came across as an attempt at a coup to oust a university leader.
Relationships with the news media also were different.
This year, the protesters physically blocked access by reporters. On a YouTube video, I saw angry hostility displayed by the protesters to reporters that would have been unimaginable in 1970.
Back then, demonstrators eagerly sought out our coverage. After all, the students were trying to get public attention to their issues.
Another significant difference between those two eras involves the university administration.
In 1970, they refused to cancel classes. Instead, some top administrators were hostile in their comments about the demonstrations.
But in 2015, the university administration eventually became allies of the campus protesters who quickly achieved their key demand for the resignation of the university president.
Beyond that, the administration appointed an official to deal with race relations. Campus police called for students and faculty to report to them "hateful and/or hurtful speech."
There is, however, another side in reaction by the administration that contrasts with what I saw in 1970.
It happened late one night as thousands of students continued their occupation of Francis Quadrangle.
The chancellor, John Schwada, emerged from his house on the quad to talk with some of the demonstrators.
I remember Schawda as pretty conservative. He'd been an officer in World War II who retained a military-like bearing.
It was a potentially explosive situation to which Schwada exposed himself. Thousands were still out on the quad. There was no security for the chancellor. But only about a dozen students noticed Schwada outside his house.
His conversation with them that night was neither combative nor argumentative. Although he disagreed with the students, he showed respect for their views in a dialogue that sounded like a classroom seminar.
I think, that night, Political Science Prof. John Schwada just wanted to be a teacher again.
How different the outcome of recent days might have been if University President Tim Wolfe had emerged to talk with the protesters when they blocked his homecoming motorcade.
He might have been able to remain as university president had he acted more like a seminar teacher with the sympathetic tone that I heard from Wolfe when he announced his resignation.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]