A history of student activism: Penn State through the years

Protesting students rally outside the State College Municipal Building, 118 S. Fraser St. The Penn State chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union organized the protest against proposed borough housing ordinance amendments.


Protesting injustices -- for years, it has been common practice, as university students around the country rallied against any practice they felt was wrong.

From the Vietnam War to the treatment of minorities, students have made their voices heard.

Penn State is not immune to student protesting.

Recent injustices of the Kenyan government have sparked the protesting spirit of the Kenyan Student Association.

They voiced their opposition to the government's violent acts against its people in front of Schwab Auditorium.

However, this is far from the first group to utilize their right to protest at the University.

The University was saturated by student protest and activism about 30 years ago.

From the 1960s to the 1970s, students protested housing, women's visitation policies, inequality of black students and military research conducted at the University during the Vietnam War.

"The rights on campuses were horrendous -- a lot has been accomplished," said Patty Johnstone, clinical social worker for the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, as she reminisces about her years at Kent State University.

In 1966, the single largest protest in University history at that point occurred.

More than 2,000 students assembled on Old Main lawn to fight the regulation that restricted women from visiting men's off-campus housing without registering through the University.

Collegian Story:Kenyan student group discusses social, economic and political events taking place in Kenya.

In addition, women were only allowed to visit if three couples were present. As a result of the protest, women were granted visitation if they had written parental permission on file.

Because the University would not reconsider allowing women to live off campus, which would have resolved the housing shortage in 1968, it prompted a live-in protest on Old Main lawn.

The civil-rights movement also hit the University.

The Frederick Douglass Association worked to improve the status of black students at the University. The black student organization submitted a list of demands to former University President Eric Walker in 1969.

The demands included a request for a recruiter for black students, more black faculty members, the addition of a black history and culture course and the admission of 1,000 black students within one year.

When these demands were ignored, some students demonstrated in Walker's outer office.

The Douglass Association, which became the Black Student Union and then later Black Caucus, gained approval from the administration that year when a $1 million appropriation from the state was named specifically for the recruitment and advancement of black students.

Activism evolved to a new form at the start of the Vietnam War.

Violent protests transcended the passive rallies of previous years.

"Vietnam was a catalyst of student empowerment," said Jack Matson, professor of civil engineering.

Students had a right to say what they wanted their education to be and not have the school dictate it to them, he said.

In the spring of 1970, a sit-in in Old Main turned violent, resulting in the arrests of 29 student protesters.

About 200 members from Students for a Democratic Society shouted their demands from the lobbies and outside University President Walker's office, smoked marijuana and vandalized the area -- including kicking in Walker's door.

The protest ended as a court injunction drowned out student shouts. The group then marched to Ordance Research Laboratory to protest defense spending there.

Violence ensued when 100 student protesters stormed Walker's house, smashing the door and breaking several windows with stones.

The University bought Walker a house off campus because he was afraid for his safety. Since the storming, all University presidents live off campus.

At the end of the war, violent protest was not as common. There was support in non-violent civil-rights movements.

The women's rights movement and the national interest in women's equality spurred granting permission for women to live off campus, as long as they had spent one year living in the dorms.

This policy applies to men and women students today.

In 1988, 170 students took over the Telecommunications Building protesting what they called University indifference to minority concerns.

About 88 students were arrested for trespassing and removed after a 15-hour protest. Later, then-University President Bryce Jordan dropped the charges.

While the University may seem quieter today, student voices still cry out from numerous organizations.

The Take A Stand Coalition united 20 student organizations and 2,000 students to rally against a breakout of racist and hateful acts on campus in Fall Semester, 1995.

The rally "Take A Stand, For Ourselves, For Each Other" featured speakers who urged participants to celebrate their differences and reject hatred.

The University chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- whose principle objective is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens achieve equality of rights and eliminate race prejudice -- supported the Take A Stand rally.

Sandra Choute, NAACP president, was a victim of racial vandalism her sophomore year. A swastika was etched on the door of her dorm room. Her experience along with others instigated the rally.

Recently, Students for a Democratic Burma mobilized to protest human rights violations in Burma. PepsiCo, which the University owns stock in, was supporting what the organization called a dictatorship by continuing their Burmese partnership.

Students organized protests and circulated petitions to inform others of PepsiCo's involvement in Burma.

In January 1997, members were enthusiastic when PepsiCo pulled out of Burma.

"The Students for a Democratic Burma got the University's attention," said William Asbury, vice president for student affairs, in an E-mail.

Matson said their activism led the way to political awareness.

"The Burmese issue is really becoming big on the world stage," he said.

Student activism reared its head again this past spring when the University chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other interested students protested an amendment to the housing ordinance proposed by State College Borough Council.

The student housing amendment, which was approved by the council May 1, limited the number of houses that can be converted to rental housing for students in a certain area.

A second amendment, which was not passed, limited the occupancy of townhouses to three unrelated people.

Students packed the council meeting to protest the ordinances.

"I actually saw students vitally interested. They organized, mobilized and protested against the housing issue," said Matson, who attended one of the public hearings. "They were being discriminated against -- it was clear discrimination."

Despite the fact that the council passed the ordinance, many students vowed to become more involved and stay active in the local political process.

For 12 years, students have been active in another form of protest.

Every spring the Take Back the Night march is held in support and recognition of survivors of rape.

Johnstone, who has participated in the marches, said, "There has been a very positive change, the harassment has gone down."

During the first march, a faculty member was nearly hit by a car deliberately, she said.

Each time period affects society and activism differently. Despite the decline in mass protest, certain groups of students have spoken up against injustices in recent years.

Yet, many people argue that the decline indicated that student activism at the University is dying or already dead.

Matson and Johnstone agree that there are a number of student rights issues that the student body could protest.

"I would not want to see violent confrontation, however I think peaceful activism is the tool," said Johnstone.

Students lack the motivation to get involved, Matson said, because they are usually only in the area for four years, and they will not make a huge impact in that period of time.

The "how can I get a job" philosophy has replaced the need for a meaningful life philosophy of his generation, he said.

"We've got some very politically aware students, once they start voting, things will change," he said. "Students need to understand theoretically the University is here to serve them -- not the other way around."

Matson said there is potential for student activism in the future. Activism takes initiative and effort, he said.

"It becomes time-consuming, but by making it a priority you create a revolution inside yourself," he explained. Copyright © 1997, Collegian Inc., Last Updated - 8/27/97 1:21:07 PM