Historical echoes, part 6

Fri 10 Jul 2009 03:14 PM

This is the final part of William Leue's history of the UAlbany Philosophy Department. For context, see part I, part II, part III, part IV, and part V.

The final chapter includes the foreshadowed revolution, and the pseudonymous poetry becomes moreso.

This installment is from Phib v 1 (1972-1973), n 26, pp 106-111.


Three years ago this spring came "The Revolution." Our department, the whole university, almost all of the "institutions of higher education" in the country, and each of us individually and personally no matter how detached and insulted we had been up to that moment, suddenly found himself caught up in the great tidal wave of frustration, anger, and confusion which had been building just over the horizon and moving inexorably toward us for quite a long time.

Perceptive people had been warning us for quite a while, perhaps too often and too repeatedly, so that their views had become for many of us sort of long-winded and tiresome. And each of them tended to see only part of the trouble - the long, bad war in East Asia and its consequences at home, the problems of our cities and of our repressed minorities, the uncritical and inhuman ordering of priorities, even or especially in our educational institutions to ignore real human needs and produce irresponsible technicians and insulated professional specialists. These and many other warnings and protests pressed in upon us from many sources, but we carried on in much the same old way.

Indeed, some quite recent trends both in higher education as a whole and right here on our own campus were tending to aggrevate the situation - the growth and proliferation of giant "multiversities," the flood of students to be processed and the mechanized, impersonal ways we devised for handling them, the increasing stress on specialied and graduate programs with the resultant fragmentation of our institutions and the loss of the traditions and communal spirit of collegiate education. The alienation of large numbers of students and faculty sapped the vitality and even the sanity of our educational establishment.

There were some expressions of these discontents in the still functioning local underground press. The following poem appeared in Suppression for December 16, 1966.


On this ragged edge of Empire's

Stately knot of worldly care,

Hard by the truck route to the West,

Between two squalid gas stations

And across the street from a bar and grill,

Lie the narrow gates to Cloud-Cuckoo Land.

Where floating parallelograms proliferate,

And repetitious patterns reduplicate

Till n'th powered tedium transfigurates

And nothing nothings into wonder aggregate!

But here, oh here, the towers severe

Soar serenely into the sullen smog,

While flame-flecked fountains flow from concrete caves,

And plastic ivy falls like shawls.

Bells on high proclaim the banal hour

While space and time hold frozen form;

Sky and earth and light and air,

Disrempted from their casual blending,

Are measured out in strips and blocks.

Now the stony-pillared forests march

Down awesome and infinite regresses,

And endless lectures bounce off barrel vaults,

Mix and fade into mumbling recesses,

Like secular novinas offered in perpetuity.

Deep within these grooves of Academe,

In quiet cubicles, white and bare,

Hunched homunculi strain and labor

(Like monks of old in cloistered cells

Balancing angels on needles' points)

At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous

Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

At last, at last, from under their seal-ed doors

Comes the product - phantom mice!

Short of tooth and long of tale,

And all a standard, neutral grey;

They scurry by night to numbered shelves

And are forgotten.

The name "Edith Eliot" appears beneath this thing, but I strongly suspect that this is merely "Old Bill's" snide way of giving credit to the sources from which he swiped most of his best lines - Edith Sitwell and T. S. Eliot.

Events at Berkeley and Harvard should have sounded the alarm for all of us, but most of us remained snugly asleep in our provincial dreams.

I guess that the blinding flash of recognition came to me, that there was something deep and painfully wrong and that future was incalculably menacing, on that late October afternoon in 1967 when I found myself wedged into a narrow stairway on the upper slopes of the approaches to the Pentagon, a wet handkerchief held over my face, while I kept an eye on the long row of helmeted figures standing silently above me on the edge of the roof, each fully equipped with gas mask, rifle, bayonet, and each gazing fixedly down upon us. My wife and I beat a hasty but orderly retreat at that point, but one of my sons and several of my students who held their ground for the rest of the week-end came back badly "shook" and bearing horror stories.

By the spring of sixty-eight the trouble could not be ignored, even on the sand plains west of Albany. The University had my wife and nine students arrested for allegedly interfering with the recruiting activities of a representative of the Dow Chemical Company (manufacturer of Napalm), and then came the much greater shocks of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Meanwhile, of course, the inner cities had been going up in flames.

At this point I copped out completely and went off to England for a year. From that distance even the Chicago riots seemed a little remote. When some of us expatriates would gather in a pub of an evening for our pint of bitter, we would shake our heads and say that things were certainly awful back in the States, but, we would add after a pause for a long sip, "That's where the action is."

I returned to Albany for the 69-70 academic year. At first things seemed much the same as before, though it was a little odd no longer having Van Collins at the head of Albany State. I sort of missed him, for all his sometimes rather arbitrary paternalism, and I suppose he's the last university president I'll ever try to know as anything more than a power or a function.

Our own department had expanded its activities while I was away, especially in the area of graduate study. That part of the story was discussed in the last installment of this history.

Yes, things seemed fairly quiet in the fall, at least on the local scene. Of course, each faculty member was issued a pamphlet titled, "Rules and Regulations for the Maintenance of Public Order," and a wallet-sized yellow card, headed on one side, "Emergency Guidelines for Serious Situations," and, on the other, "Demonstration Alert Plan."

The climax came in the spring of seventy. Kunstler, fresh from the big political trial in Chicago, addressed an overflow crowd in the Gym early in March, and despite the protests of some local political figures. A couple of weeks later there was an unusually vigorous student reaction to the denial of contract renewal to Jerry Wagner, a popular and youth-culture oriented instructor in the Speech Department. Some windows were broken in the Administration Building. Long lists of student demands started to appear. Calls for a day-care center, an end to "racism" on the campus, student participation in every phase of university operation, elimination of "general education" requirements for degrees, and many other changes became daily more numerous and more strident. Then came a rising cry for a student strike.

The disturbance came closer and closer to our own little cell in the ivory tower. A group of students tried to tear down the fence then surrounding the large rectangular court overlooked by some of the windows of our departmental offices. The area was as yet a sort of sand lot, awaiting landscaping, and a newspaper story had appeared claiming that the cost of formal landscaping of this and the companion court near the other end of the Podium would come to several hundred thousands of dollars. The students, in obvious imitation of incidents at Berkeley and Columbia, wanted to turn the area into a "People's Park." As I write this, I turn from my desk and look out at the rather dull symmetry of what might have been the "People's Park." Well, it would have been messier, rather less compulsively pure and regular, more free-form and squalid, but it might have been more interesting. Whether any genuine "people" could have been found to occupy it is an unanswered question. They may be a romantic fiction.

What brought the disturbances closest of all to us, though, was that we were in the process of conducting one of our own disputed tenure votes at the time. The students got wind of it and took up the cause, so our own efforts to reach some sort of reasonable decision had to be suspended while the issue got churned up in the whole madly bubbling stew.

Classes were suspended for three days while we were all - students, faculty, and administrators - supposed to engage in highly-structured "dialogue." A few of us worked at this task long and earnestly, though most of us withdrew in frustrations or anger or just drifted off in boredom.

There were a few weeks of uneasy quiet, punctuated by a rising frequency of incidents, such as one with racial overtones that took place one day in the Colonial Quad. cafeteria. Then, at the beginning of May came the resumption of bombing of North Vietnam and the Cambodian incursion. There was also unrest centering around some allegedly political trials of Black-Panther leaders and a host of other incidents, outrages, and headline-grabbing disturbances.

On the afternoon of Monday, May fourth I found "STRIKE" chalked on my office door and on all the other doors I examined. That evening came news of the "massacre" at Kent State, and the lid blew off. On the morning of Tuesday, May fifth I found an odd, excited, expectant atmosphere pervading the campus. Students seemed to have stationed themselves at every door and were, non-violently so far as my direct observation went, trying to persuade faculty and students not to hold classes. There had been a rumble at the Library late Monday night after a mass meeting at the Campus Center. Windows had been broken and books dumped into the shallow pool beneath the steps leading to the Lecture Center.

Clandestinely I held a two hour meeting of a small graduate course on the British Empiricists in my office. Later I decided that, come hell or high water, I was under a contractual obligation to try to hold all of my regular classes. Fink that I doubtless am, I continued to do so for the next three weeks, till the scheduled end of the semester, but fewer and fewer students came.

On the afternoon of the fifth we held a departmental faculty meeting to try to determine our collective position on the strike. There was considerable disagreement among us, but it is my clear recollection that a majority of us were for continuing to hold classes. I had to chair the meeting when our Chairman had to leave to take a distinguished visitor to his plane. The argument went on and on, but I finally declared that there was no longer a quorum and that the discussion from then on was purely a private matter.

A general faculty meeting a few days later approved a resolution offering students all sorts of options for getting credit for their spring semester courses. I do not personally recall any undergraduate student choosing an option which included taking a final examination or doing anything else at all demanding in order to complete his work in a course.

During the "strike" students were supposed to engage in demonstrations, attempts to communicate with the wider community, soul-searching, earnest discussion, and good works. As a matter of fact, most of them went home. Many of the more timid students claimed that they or their parents feared for their safety.

Not all students went home however. Some continued very earnestly with the project to make the world hear and change its ways. Some, or perhaps they were non-students, worked hard at smearing the buildings with tired slogans applied with permanent paint. Still others tried burning down the place. We had several bad fires.

Faculty volunteers organized to patrol the buildings at night. I recall Bill Reese being on duty all one night, and Bob Creegan and I shared a patrol of the Humanities Building from two to four-thirty one morning. When our relief arrived, two bearded young men in Romance Language, we hesitated before unlocking the door and letting them in. The seeds of mistrust had been deeply sewn.

The faculty reacted with all deliberate slowness. Five days after the onset of the revolution the first of several four or five-hour-long general faculty meetings were held. Prima donas representing the "right" and the "left" competed for the attention of the group, and there were others who weren't very political - just self-advertising and difficult. As a matter of fact, I was laboring under a severe physical disability at the time (an attack of fulminating glaucoma), and I felt much more like crawling into a hole somewhere than participating in this dull and wordy revolution. I sat there grimly by the hour humming over and over to myself a nonsense ditty I had somehow derived from an old Erie Canal song.

Oh the internal proletariat is a-risin'

And the gin is gettin' low.

The Knickerbocker News for May fourteenth, 1970 quoted Cliff Thorne, who was then our Vice President for Student Affairs, and who had been associated with Albany State in similar capacities for a good many years, as saying, "Higher education, for better or for worse, will never be the same again in this nation." Thorne and I had frequently had rather different views on things, but this time I had to agree with him.

Perhaps the final segment of this account can try to deal with how things have been different for the SUNYA Philosophy Department since the revolution and take a look at how they might go on in the future. [Leue here continues his pattern of misjudging the number of installments remaining. I have not discovered any further episodes of his departmental history.]