James F. Brennan: Personal Lessons From the Kent State Tragedy

Roundup: Talking About History

[James F. Brennan is provost of the Catholic University of America.]

When I was 9 years old, my dream job was to be the person who calls off school when it snows. Now that I have that job, it stinks. Over my 10 years of canceling classes because of snow, my decisions have rarely met with universal approval: Without fail, some loud constituency is fast to complain.

This past winter, the Washington area was hit with an extraordinary three blizzards, two of which occurred within a four-day period, and I ended up canceling six days of classes. Upon our return to class, and after much consultation with colleagues, I distributed a plan to make up the lost days, one of which involved taking back a university holiday on the day after Easter. For varied and goofy reasons, this one aspect of the plan produced some negative reactions, most of which fell within my level of tolerance as a provost who's been around the block a few times.

But one reaction, in the form of an e-mail message from an undergraduate, struck me. According to this student, my decision was capricious and insensitive, showing that I just didn't care about students.

The accusation felt like a punch in the stomach. It brought me back almost 40 years to a Monday afternoon in Kent, Ohio, at the height of spring on a breezy, sunny day, when it seemed that nothing in the world could go wrong. Of course, that sense of a pacific spring was illusory because much was going wrong that day. The invasion of Cambodia by U.S. forces had precipitated student protests around the country, including one at Kent State University, where I was a graduate student in the psychology department. On May 4, the Ohio National Guard lobbed tear gas to disperse the crowd. The wind blew the gas in all directions. And then came the gunshots....

I trace my touchiness to the four students who died that May 4th of 1970—with so much in their future. Two of them, Allison Krause and Bill Schroeder, remain vivid in my mind's eye because I had them in class earlier in that academic year. Now that I am a father and a grandfather, privileged to witness the growth of those whom I love, I am ever more poignantly aware of the magnitude and senselessness of the loss. Along with marveling at the growth of my own family members, I've watched my students grow beyond their undergraduate years, and I've seen them move into advanced study and careers, most of them successfully....

I didn't respond to the e-mail message from the irate student who accused me of not caring after I took away a holiday to compensate for a snow day. She couldn't have known that the tragedy at Kent State is always with me. Its anniversary reminds me of how precious young life is and what a privilege and responsibility it is to usher our students into the futures that are theirs to live.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Darrel Dean Voegler - 5/3/2010

On that fateful 5/4/70 I was a college student(not in Ohio)attending a campus protest rally when I first heard about Kent State. This was my first rally of its kind. An angry group marched to take over the campus ROTC and I joined in-an action I later regretted. The arrest of 13 students had led me to the rally. The next summer of 1971 I worked as a contract security guard at a strking midwest meatpacker. The comapny had hired nonunion workers to replace strikers. Acts of vandalism and violence surrounded the strike. One night I heard bullets hitting the outside of the plant I was in. We did not know what was haoppening. We later learned a sniper fired well aimed shots to damage the plant. Our captain said one of the outside guards whould have returned fire. The next night we were told we would be fired if we spoke to pickets-a measure of the tension I Am sure. Some of the pickets carried guns at times.One picket made a threathening gesture at me with a possible shotgun. I also picked up nails he spread out. But we were not blameless either. One guard carried two revolvers. If he did not get them with one he would use the other.He told of his anger when firearks landed near his position. One night he accidentally fired his gun into a restroom door and was apparently fired. Another guard supposedly pulled his gun for no reason was was transferred. I carried a loaded .45 caliber relover and was never told when I could use it. Our captain laughed as he told of reading of Arkansas prisoners allegedly tortured wityh electricity by guards. It was a long hot summer. The community and local police had never experienced anything like this. Memories of a bitter 1969-70 meatpacking strike hung over us. I shudder to think of what might have happened. At the time I did not think much of dying. So I have seen both sides. May those who died on 5/4/70 at Kent State rest in peace. I attended memorial dedication there in May 1990.