Among the Reed faculty of 1968 were leftover antagonisms from as far back as the McCarthy days, and throughout the ’60s there had been internal divisions concerning academic freedom, student liberation, the war, and the recruitment of minority students. When the BSU’s five demands appeared, they provided just the fuel needed to rekindle a smoldering fire.
“I thought it was a serious mistake for the BSU to frame these issues as ‘non-negotiable demands,’” remembers Marvin Levich, now an emeritus professor of philosophy. “Academic freedom and the prospect of losing it was the issue that had to be confronted. The thing that was especially unwelcome to members of the faculty like myself was the idea that there would no longer be a general committee of the college which would evaluate members associated with black studies—that they would be subject to review by the black students only.”
In the beginning, most of the faculty were agreed on at least one point: the final three demands were out of bounds. Only three faculty members supported the five demands as written.
On December 6 the BSU presented their demands to the Reed board of trustees at their regular meeting. The trustees informed the BSU speakers that while they had delegated to the faculty and the president all authority to determine educational programs at Reed, the trustees hoped to be updated on how the discussions between the faculty and the BSU were going at their next meeting in January.
They didn’t have to wait that long.
On December 11, the day that the BSU took the top floor of Eliot, they also called for a general boycott of classes. By the afternoon, pickets and demonstrators, mostly white students, circulated around campus, disrupting classes with noise. Print and broadcast media had arrived earlier in the morning.
At the request of the BSU, a three-person faculty committee met with black student representatives. Although it is unclear whether this group was actually sanctioned as a “negotiating committee” by the president, that’s how they were perceived. The negotiations, as such, went nowhere.
At 3 p.m., Rosenblum called a special meeting of the faculty. Over the protest of the students present, the meeting was closed to them, as well as the press and non-faculty staff members.
A few faculty members angrily demanded that the police be called in. Mathematics professor H. E. Chrestenson condemned the BSU’s actions as illegal and immoral. He complained that the faculty seemed unwilling to deal with those actions. He said that the president was endowed with emergency powers to deal with such circumstances, and in refusing to exercise those powers Rosenblum had abdicated his responsibilities. History professor Richard Jones argued that “having accepted special incentives to draw these students to Reed, we now have the obligation to take their point of view most seriously, even if that means putting up with some procedural violations.”
Throughout the coming week, Rosenblum would steadfastly refuse to involve the police.
Following the meeting, the faculty issued a resolution stating that BSU demands three, four, and five would compromise academic freedom and were therefore unacceptable. The resolution made clear that the faculty supported “in principle” the establishment of a black studies program, that consultants were welcome, but that faculty for the program would be hired by the faculty advisory committee and the president, based on the recommendations of a special committee composed of two faculty members and two representatives of the BSU. Black studies faculty so hired would then be subject to normal criteria for promotion and tenure.
On Thursday, debate continued in another special faculty meeting, this time open to all. Over the next few days, in fact, the seemingly endless and highly contentious faculty meetings did more to disrupt classes than all the protesters combined.
“I was very much on the side that said we should pause and listen to [the black students] and see what could be worked out,” says emeritus economics professor Carl Stevens ’42. “I spent hours in faculty meetings trying to persuade my colleagues. The opposition became very nasty. Some of my colleagues from that era still seem very unsavory to me, and I don’t have much to do with them. They were so ridiculously extreme.”
Meanwhile, the BSU settled in for the long haul. The Oregonian, hardened by years of reporting campus violence and riots around the nation, covered the events with some degree of bemusement:
“The confrontation at Reed continued as probably the most peaceable college disturbance in the country, with some picketing by white supporters of the BSU. The mildness of tension on campus was suggested by a woman in the Reed information office. When asked whether black students were maintaining their stand on the floor above, she declared: We assume they are; I don’t think anyone has looked.”