Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Richard W. Lyman's Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972 (Stanford University Press, 2009).

Apr 19, 2009 7:38 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Richard W. Lyman's Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972 (Stanford University Press, 2009).

In 1966, when I was an undergraduate there, Haverford College set out to find a new president to succeed the austere, formal Hugh Borton. They came up with John R. Coleman, an outgoing, accessible leader who turned out to be the right man for that time and place. Haverford was small—fewer than 600 undergraduates—and intense, and although the spectrum of its campus politics was relatively narrow, ranging from anti-war liberal to anti-war radical, its disputatious undergraduates demanded a lot of their elders. Coleman’s warm inclusiveness and respect for students’ seriousness made the institution a far more civil place than many other colleges in that agonized and angry time.

Coleman’s appointment also seemed to confirm the Pendulum Theory of Presidential Hiring: search committees seek to make up for the perceived deficiencies in the departing executive by hiring his opposite. So imagine my surprise when, 43 years later, Richard Lyman reveals that Haverford had offered him the presidency first. Reading this in the light of my own vague recollection of Lyman’s buttoned-up persona, I couldn’t help but wonder what Haverford had seen that made Lyman seem the right man for the job. That question stayed with me as I read the rest of his book.

Lyman, a professor of history at Stanford since 1958, leveraged Haverford’s offer to become Stanford’s Provost. He stayed in that job through the waning days of the presidency of Wallace Sterling, the leader credited with leading Stanford from regional to national stature, and through the brief, unhappy presidency of Kenneth Pitzer, who was clearly overwhelmed by the chaos increasingly visited upon the campus. In 1970 Lyman became president himself and presided over the University as it experienced its last spasms of violence in the wake of the Cambodia invasion and the divisive case of Prof. Bruce Franklin, a tenured Maoist removed from his position on the recommendation of an elected faculty advisory board for advocating that students attack the University’s computation center.

As a graduate student in Stanford’s History Department from 1969 to 1973, I was there for about half the time Lyman discusses in this “cross between a case study and a memoir.” I don’t recall ever seeing him in person; he was quite literally a distant, remote figure, most notable for issuing statements from crisis to crisis about Stanford standing firm. After reading about the Haverford episode, I hoped the book as a whole would be reflective and give me a sense of the man behind the pronouncements. It wasn’t, and it didn’t.

This tightly-packed narrative does provide, however, a chronicle of the accelerating activism and accompanying tensions on campus from the early 1960s, when Stanford was an important recruiting center for the student-based who served in the civil rights movement, through Franklin’s firing in 1972, after which both Stanford and the country seemed to recoil in exhaustion. Relying as he does primarily on sources such as the Stanford “Daily” and records from various faculty and administrative committees and boards, Lyman seems detached from his own memoir (a tiny but revealing detail: he is more likely to refer to his wife, Jing, as “my spouse” than as “my wife,” and rarely uses her first name at all). As a result, while events are described clearly and in detail, the personalities involved and the role that those personalities (including his own) might have played are minimized. This is unfortunate not only because many of these personalities were colorful—consider only Chaplain B. Davie Napier, the local equivalent of Yale’s William Sloane Coffin; student government leader David Harris; and, of course, the combustible Franklin—but also because this omission means that the role of individuals in shaping the course of events is not considered as seriously as it might be. For a historian, as Lyman is, that’s a serious omission indeed.

Lyman narrates events matter-of-factly, but they are so vivid that even deadpan prose can’t flatten them completely. At first protests were peaceful, focused on student rights and civil rights. But the escalating Vietnam War changed all that. Stanford’s rise to prominence after World War II had been fueled partly by Provost Frederick Terman’s genius in finding federal support. By the mid 1960s, classified research, funded by the Defense Department and presumably war-related, was conducted on campus and at the nearby Stanford Research Institute. All war-related activities became a lightning rod, and protest turned violent. In 1968 the ROTC building was burned, and a fire was set in President Sterling’s office. The 1969 occupation of the Applied Electronics Laboratory (AEL), which ended relatively peacefully, was followed by the occupation of an administration building, Encina Hall, which ended with police clearing the place.

Compared with the ugly scenes that had taken place when buildings were cleared at Columbia and Harvard, the police’s removal of demonstrators from Encina was not a horrific spectacle, but the pattern was becoming clear and a splintering protest movement included elements becoming angrier and more desperate. Lyman, who made the call to police in President Pitzer’s absence, later reported soberly to the faculty: “No one is entitled to consider the clearing of Encina Hall a victory. Any time it becomes necessary for a University to summon the police, a defeat has taken place….[As Churchill said of Dunkirk,] wars are not won by successful evacuations. The victory we seek at Stanford is not like a military victory; it is a victory of reason and the examined life over unreason and the tyranny of coercion.”

Unreason reigned, however. Stanford was home to a far broader spectrum of opinion than, say, Haverford; the right was often looking for fights (ideological and physical), too, and was just as creative as the left in finding them. The Bay Area’s own distinctive brands of craziness added fuel to the fires (sometimes literally), and national events, especially the Cambodia invasion of 1970, further inflamed tempers on campus. Minor and not-so-minor acts of vandalism were so commonplace at Stanford that they stopped seeming remarkable. The Hoover Tower’s ground-level windows were “trashed” so regularly that the University stopped replacing the glass and simply boarded them up. Graffiti duels were conducted on the walls of the Bookstore and other campus buildings, slogan versus slogan: “Repression Breeds Revolution,” and so on, and on.

And then there was H. Bruce Franklin, the Maoist English professor who finally crossed the line when he urged a crowd to “shut down the most obvious machinery of war, such as…that Computation Center.” The crowd proceeded to do so, and when the police arrived to disperse the crowd, he urged them not to leave. Charged with violating the terms of his tenured position, tried by an elected Advisory Board of faculty members who recommended his dismissal, and ultimately fired by the Stanford Board of Trustees, Franklin did not go quietly. The hearings dragged on and on, and the last of Franklin’s own unsuccessful lawsuits was not resolved until 1985.

Lyman devotes two of his book’s twelve chapters to the Franklin affair, but reveals little about his own role in it. The greatest public burden fell on a good friend, law professor Herbert Packer, whose involvement has been movingly chronicled by his son, the writer George Packer, in “Blood of the Liberals.” The stress of the case undoubtedly contributed to Packer’s stroke and subsequent depression and suicide. Characteristically, Lyman says virtually nothing about the personal effects on him. The campus and the country finally quieted down, and he continued as president until 1980.

In a “personal note” all of two paragraphs long, Lyman mentions and immediately dismisses the idea that he might be remembered, in the words of admirers such as Stanford presidents Donald Kennedy and Gerhard Casper, “for having saved the university.” After all, he argues, “to save something presumes that you were in danger of losing it or seeing it destroyed, and it is pretty clear now that no American university was destroyed, or even very seriously damaged over the long run, by the turbulence of the 1960s.”

The closest he comes to taking credit comes in the next sentences: “I think we did some things better at Stanford than at most other institutions; in particular, our development of ways to lessen the traumatic effect of calling police to campus was significant in saving us from the total collapse experienced, however briefly, at places like Harvard and Columbia. I think I contributed to faculty morale by managing to articulate the proper purposes and parameters of a research university. I also avoided the mistake, so characteristic of Ken Pitzer, of looking for solutions that would please everybody; pleasing everybody was not an available option in those troubled times.”

The passing swipe at Ken Pitzer in that last sentence, unnecessary and accurate at the same time, is so characteristic of Richard Lyman. Now in his 80s, he still won’t yield an inch. Enigmatic and stubborn, distant and dismissive, and, one senses, an indefatigable player of the bureaucratic game, it’s impossible to imagine a man so aloof and comfortable with hierarchy at intimate, egalitarian Haverford. But at larger, more complicated Stanford, he positioned himself well and, yes, reasonably. In effect, he stood between S. I. Hayakawa of San Francisco State, who cracked down hard, and James Perkins of Cornell, who caved in. Ironically (to use one of Lyman’s favorite words), he was the right president for Stanford in a troubled, terrible time. Almost in spite of itself, this book shows why.

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