The value of tolerance to college protests


This column is a suggestion to both college student protesters and higher education officials to find a better approach to the pro-Palestinian student protests.

Those protests and university reaction are so different from the 1970 student demonstrations on the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus in protest to the Vietnam War and the deaths of four Kent State University students shot by Ohio’s National Guard who were called up to deal with a campus anti-war protest.

At Missouri, thousands of students gathered on MU’s Francis Quadrangle in 1970 to protest the deaths. The emotions on both sides were just as deep as today. And, yes, there were a few isolated acts of violence in Missouri including reports of a couple of fire bombs thrown against a campus ROTC building, although I do not recall serious damage — unlike the major damage caused by a similar attack at a higher education ROTC facility in St. Louis.

The MU protesters called for the university to recognize the Kent State student deaths by canceling classes and also take a stand against the Vietnam War.

One night, MU’s chancellor, John Schwada, invited some of the protesters to the patio of his campus home beside the quad to explain his decision not to cancel classes. As I remember, he sought to calm the situation. He did not criticize the protesters’ views. Rather he talked about how class cancellations would disrupt the educational process for students.

I’ve since learned that the MU student association vice president, Chip Casteel, had discussed with the chancellor how to de-escalate the tensions after Chip encountered armed military pointing weapons behind the main door of the administration building where Schwada’s office was located.

The purpose was to block protesters storming the building. It was that serious. It makes me wonder how the protests in other universities this year might have been different if the student protesters were peaceful and they had a university leader like Schwada to engage in conversations with students and reporters rather than an armed law enforcement response.

However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that some of Schwada’s staff took a different approach. One of Schwada’s top officials sought to confiscate video of that patio discussion taken by a TV journalism student.

In addition, I was warned the university would expel me from the university if my audio of Schwada’s comments was broadcast. Those reactions were absurd.

There was no privacy invasion. Schwada had invited protesters in the quad to his patio. My TV colleague’s camera was obvious as was the microphone I held up in front of Schwada to record his conversation.

In fact, I remember Schwada actually made room for me to get my microphone closer. The chancellor knew I was a reporter because of my regular news coverage of him. Although my radio stories were broadcast, I was not expelled. I’ve always wondered if Schwada blocked that effort to toss me out of MU. Or, maybe, the idea just died on its own.

Beyond Schwada, CBS correspondent Harry Reasoner helped demonstrate to students the value of a civilized conversation when facing deep political or ideological divides. Reasoner was in Columbia to accept the Journalism School’s Honor Medal. But he was drawn to the massive crowd of protesters.

As a reporter who covered conflicting views, I found his presentation insightful. Essentially, he made it a teaching moment for the student protesters.

The lessons I learned from those 1970 demonstrations should be something that both students and college administrators consider. For administrators, campus protests by students can be an opportunity for teaching opportunities, as was demonstrated by Reasoner and Schwada.

There is another component of the 1970 Columbia protest that other universities should consider. It’s to make amends for harsh actions against students after the protests have ended.

One such action involved Bill Wikersham. As the founding director of the university’s Peace Study Institute, he was described as a faculty leader of the 1970 protests. Although he stressed peace, he was arrested and suspended from MU’s faculty for participating in the campus protests.

Yet, he subsequently was reinstated as an adjunct professor of peace studies.

A physical example of restoring peace is a peace symbol made of rock stones that student protesters had put together. It remains to this day on the MU campus, not far from the center of the protests.