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A Campus in Crisis

The Sixties once more, with feeling.

Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

CULTURE CLASH: Colliding values created a divided campus in the late ’60s.

By Kevin Cool

In most of the ways that count, I missed the Sixties.

Sure, I can pretend. I mean, I do own several early-edition Stones albums, and I hung out with people who were at Woodstock and have the pictures to prove it.

But. I was a toddler when JFK was shot, a kindergartner when the Beatles arrived, and chasing frogs in the creek behind my house during the Summer of Love in ’67. For me, Vietnam and the civil rights era were the cultural equivalent of background noise.

By 1970 and “Cambodia Spring,” I was old enough and aware enough to begin to understand what was happening. When four students were shot at Kent State that May, even we fifth graders felt it.

Living just outside the boundary of what constitutes credible participation in a decade canonized for its cultural significance has left me ambivalent about the Sixties. I have friends who ingested tear gas during peaceful demonstrations and have never forgotten—or quite forgiven—the authorities responsible. And I have friends who returned from a tour in Vietnam to be spat upon—figuratively and in one case literally—by people their own age. I wasn’t there, so my interpretation of What It Was Really Like is colored by these personal testimonies of the noble spirit and hateful excess that characterized the Sixties. You see some of both in a new memoir by former Stanford president Richard Lyman.

Lyman’s book Stanford in Turmoil is fascinating reading for anyone, but especially for anyone who knows and cares about Stanford. Lyman’s tenure as provost and president occurred during the most turbulent period in the history of the school. As the campus descended into a wearying pattern of protest and counter-protest, he witnessed the student sit-ins, rock-throwing riots and serial mayhem that some at the time feared would bring the University to its knees. Forty years after these events, he delves into memory and documents to provide a compelling point of view on what happened and what it meant.

In the excerpt that begins on page 40, Lyman describes the student occupation at Encina Hall in spring 1969, gripping not only because of the intrinsic drama of a middle-of-the-night takeover of an administrative building, but also because it marked the first direct confrontation between police and students on campus. Lyman brackets these headline moments with commentary and context that he alone could provide. Agonized by the decision to summon the cops, he told a faculty meeting afterward that the event inspired neither pride nor regret—only hard realization. “It is no disgrace, and no cause for chagrin if one’s best in such times as these is not good enough.”

Sympathetic to the intentions but contemptuous of the tactics employed by the “radicals” he encountered again and again, his account is likely to irritate some of the principal foils of his administration. Hey, it wouldn’t be the Sixties without a good argument.

As if I would know.

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