Jack Newfield: A School Awakens


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May 20, 1965, Vol. X, No. 31

Campus Across the River: Cause Without a Rebel

By Jack Newfield

Twenty-thousand students march on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. Other thousands journey to the South to register and organize impoverished Negroes. On campuses from Jesuit St. John’s to left-wing Berkeley, they demonstrate for academic freedom and against “the computer.”

But the green, sprawling campus of Brooklyn College has remained relatively untouched by this new radicalism. It has stayed a subway college, seemingly an extension of Midwood High School, with its house plans, Friday night dances, and basketball games.

Last month a young history professor at Brooklyn College remarked to a group of his students, “It looks like the long night of silence and apathy on this campus is finally over.” And two days later the traditionally timorous student government adopted a resolution attacking college president Harry Gideonse, and 80 previously apathetic undergraduates jammed a loft near the campus (an on-campus room was denied them) to debate methods of protesting a long list of grievances, from loyalty oaths to dress regulations.

Although most of the ingredients are present, Brooklyn College’s current spasms of student unrest have so far appeared more naive and high-schoolish than the portents of a rebellion on the scale of Berkeley. The B.C. protests have been flabby and polite, despite the presence of a large student body (10,000, day-session) predominantly Jewish and from working-class origins; despite the college’s location in the most liberal city in the country; despite the presence of an eager martyr in the professor who deliberately abjured his loyalty oath; and despite an authoritarian administration that has provided a host of potentially explosive issues to the would-be rebels. The only catalysts that seem to be missing are a cadre of graduate students and a creative charismatic leader such as Mario Savio.

Sixty-five year old Harry Gideonse has been president of the college since 1939 and enjoys a favorable reputation in liberal circles. He is the former chairman of Freedom House and a former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. But with increasing frequency during his reign he has been accused by students and faculty of “repressive, paternalistic attitudes” and of “knee-jerk red-baiting.”

Twice in recent years Gideonse has forced the resignation of the editors of the Kingsman, the college’s student newspaper. In one incident he decreed the Kingsman must publish editorials presenting both sides of all controversial questions; in another he ordered the paper not to print a photograph taken on the campus of 53 students defying a mock air raid drill. In both cases the editors resigned rather than submit to what they regarded as censorship.

Gideonse has also engaged in frequent public disputes with his faculty. In one famous case he fired Dr. Harry Slochower, an associate professor who took the Fifth Amendment before a Senate investigating committee in 1952. When the professor won a court fight for reinstatement waged by his attorney, Ephraim London, Gideonse ordered him to stand trial on departmental charges of unbecoming conduct — meaning the invoking of the Fifth Amendment.

The seeds of the current unrest were sown last October when 1500 leaflets prepared by the campus branch of the NAACP were impounded by the college. The leaflets were to be used to spur a voter registration drive in the Negro ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant but were confiscated because Gideonse ruled the group’s charter “did not specifically enumerate such an activity.”

…This week Herb Schlagman, one of the editors of Kingsman who quit in protest in 1959, talked about his alma mater. Now a legal writer with a wife and two children, Schlagman said, “Harry Gideonse is one of the few people I have ever met whom I still hold a grudge against.

“Gideonse,” he said, “each year produces a graduating class of well-educated clothing manufacturers. He rewards docility with recommendations to graduate schools and employers, and he punishes a social conscience with silence. He prepares students for a life of looking the other way. He teaches you that if you speak out against injustice, you get hurt. I think the most profound comment on Gideonse as an educator is that only five kids out of 10,000 of Brooklyn College went to Mississippi last summer, and more than 100 went from Stanford.”

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