Generations of student
Over the centuries, student protests have upset elders, disrupted classes and changed societies around the world. The issues have run from rancid butter to the American Revolution, impersonal universities to the Vietnam War, campus curfews to apartheid. Student protest has a long and proud tradition.
UVM students have been part of the tradition. Their our activism
has challenged issues that range from purely local to broadly
international. Students have protested segregation in campus sororities,
Burlington motels, and Southern lunch counters. They have protested
Kake Walk, lack of ethnic diversity, investments in South Africa.
They have confronted the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, CIA recruiting
and environmental degradation. One protest dealt almost entirely
with a paternalistic dean of men. Student activists have changed
alma mater, changed society and in the process, changed themselves.
Both the State of Vermont and the University of Vermont were founded
by social activists. Ethan Allen took protest to new heights by
fighting both the British
The university did not always live up to the early ideals, and
over the years, ideals changed. Thus, in the 1940s student activists
challenged enforced discrimination in a national sorority; discrimination
based not on religious preference but skin color.
In 1957, skin color again became an issue. A black student was
the leading campus hero, captain of the UVM football team. But
hero or not, when Leroy Williams, Jr. brought his Kake Walk date
to a Burlington motel where he had reserved a room for her, she
was refused accommodation. While the Cynic fulminated, the Burlington
Free Press buried the story between two ads on the comic page.
By the end of the week, in the raw winds of early March, some
400 students joined a rally to protest the discrimination. Two
months later, the Vermont General Assembly enacted legislation
prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation.
In 1960, color was once again at the fore when UVM students picketed
Woolworths on Church Street as part of a nationwide drive to end
segregated lunch counters in the South. Burlingtons mayor denounced
the protest as sophomoric, and the Student Association declared
it unjust to picket Burlington business establishments which
have no control over the present crisis in the South. But the
protests, here in Burlington and across the country, worked and
legal segregation of public places came to an end.
Through the mid-60s, UVM women were still under tight nightly
curfew, enforced with the threat of expulsion. For years, student
government tried to abolish these restrictions, but resolutions,
petitions, and Cynic editorials failed to bring change. Until
November 1st, 1967. Late that night some 2,000 students violated
curfew by marching across campus. They marched to Church Street
where they sat down and blocked traffic. They then marched to
President Rowells house where they again blocked the streets
and chanted No More Curfew!
Curfew was ended in a remarkably short time.
Awareness and opposition began boiling in the turbulent 60s.
In 1964 walkers were required to wear green makeup instead of
black, but this token was not enough; Kake Walk was dancing toward
the grave. In 1969, to the delight of many students and the chagrin
of many alums, Kake Walk was finally interred.
During the Vietnam War, especially after four students were killed
by the National Guard at Kent State University, Vermont students
mounted the same kind of protests that rocked colleges all over
the country. These protests were in large measure responsible
for the early end to the war and the decision by Lyndon Johnson
not to stand again for President of the United States.
By the early 80s, the big issue on campus was, appropriate to
the decade, investment. At issue was responsible investment, which
translated to divesting shares in companies that did business
in South Africa. After discussion, proposals, petitions and letters
to the editor, in 1985 the university still had many such shares
in its portfolio. When, in October, the board voted not to divest,
students responded by building a shantytown on the Main Street
side of the Green. This did not endear them to all parties. Someone
drove a car into the shanties. A student set some of them on fire.
The shantytown stayed up from the first week in October to the
first week in December. And the university divested.
1988 witnessed the first Waterman takeover. The issues were racism,
diversity and multi-culturalism. After negotiations went nowhere,
the students took over the Presidents Office. An arbitration
team brought the sides together and ended the takeover. A second
takeover came in 1991, lasting three weeks and bringing forth
a long list of demands, which included getting rid of the statue
of Ira Allen. That demand pretty much wiped out their support.
In the end the students were arrested, and the issues they fought
for are still open wounds.
Pat Brown, director of Student Life, has followed UVM student
activism with more than casual interest. He says, Student activism
can be defined as making history. There are peak times when people
see it happening a lot. But beneath that peak, the change process
is going on the whole time. I believe its part of a college education
to empower people to make history.
Student activists are, almost by definition, impatient. And its
often hard to judge the effect you had when youve just come out
of the thick of it. But theres no doubt that UVM is a different
place today in large measure because of the protesters push.
Sororities are no longer segregated, the school gave up its investments
in South Africa, and there are far more minority students and
faculty on campus than in Crystal Browns day. Student activists
have consistently led the way toward a fairer, more humane institution.
Sisters, Tried and True
The quota system was a means of keeping down numbers of Jews
at universities and medical schools by maintaining a quota a
percentage of acceptances which would not be exceeded. The quota
came to be applied to other minorities by other institutions,
including fraternities and sororities.
The following January the Cynic announced, Henceforth, all sorority
rushing will be on a basis of no racial or religious discrimination.
The university students, mostly girls, were young, impressionable,
with dreams of a better world. When I arrived on the campus in
1943 as a freshman, there was one other Black student.
I never expected to be asked to join a national sorority. I had
grown up in a segregated world. When I was asked to join Alpha
Xi Delta, I remember being pleased the spoken emotions and feelings
after the war made me think it was possible.
The chapter appealed to the university administration for help.
But according to the Cynic, President J.S. Millis responded, This
is a matter between the local sorority and the national.
The Vermonters responded with a momentous deed they burned their
charter. Doing so meant that no UVM group, including themselves,
could use the name Alpha Xi Delta for five years. Knowing this,
the chapter decided to close its doors essentially saying: if
we cant be Alpha Xi Delta with Crystal, there will be no Alpha
In less than a year the suspended Vermont chapter disbanded.
Today, a lively Crystal Malone Brown is a retired high school
teacher. At 71, she is active in a civic organization, Links,
with an emphasis on kids and the arts. Looking back on the furor
that surrounded her Vermont days, she says, I remember those
days with fondness. I was not an unhappy coed; my goal was to
be a UVM student, find the best of life and strive for it. Perhaps
I was too idealistic, but it gave me a wonderful four years. Sure,
I might have missed some things, but at least I tried to capture
the world before me.
I did attend rallies and marches but I grew disillusioned when
I saw that it was little more than an extracurricular lark for
many students. Seemed to me that a heap of letters, angry but
articulate, would have more of a lasting impact on the Establishment.
Today, Bonnie Christensen is a highly regarded childrens illustrator,
whose first book, An Edible Alphabet, consisted entirely of letters.
(Her latest book, Rebus Riot, consists entirely of picture puzzles.)
She lives in an old, rambling, former officers home at what was
Fort Ethan Allen. The irony of the peacenik living in a military
barracks reminds her of what she considers the greatest change
during her time at UVM, the end of the ROTC. What divine justice,
she says, that the building which once housed ROTC was transformed
into a theatre where Shakespeare is performed. Shakespeare does
such good villains who abuse power and get it in the end.
Christensen still considers herself an activist. Ive clung to
the principles of the movement like a rat to a sinking ship...
which unfortunately may be an apt analogy. So Ive never been
motivated by money but by a grandiose desire to somehow improve
the condition of people and the world.
When she graduated, Christensen worked with the New York Shakespeare
Festival, presenting Shakespeare and other plays without charge
to audiences throughout the five boroughs of New York. She then
went to work for a union, the Screen
Now, a quarter century after graduation, Bonnie still lives out
her concern for justice. She takes a last sip of coffee and sighs,
Social responsibility. Once you get it, you cant give it back.
So I still volunteer (mostly at schools and libraries), give art
for auctions, had a Fresh Air kid. Within the past month Ive
begun talking to people about an arts program for kids in Burlingtons
Old North End. Oh yeah, and my greatest pride was illustrating
The Grapes of Wrath for the Folio Society in London.
While Suarezs activism started in the streets of Boston long
before college, it was at UVM where she became part of a group
of students of color who worked feverishly to make the university
stick to its promises about diversity and to educate students
about the issues surrounding race and prejudice.
Although she didnt sit-in in the Presidents Office, she supported
the 1991 Waterman takeover, working as an organizer and a liaison
between the barricaded students and the administration. Did she
succeed? In her opinion, no.
Unfortunately, she says, I dont think we changed UVM at all.
We changed individuals at UVM and changed certain students for
the better, but in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to
multiculturalism, UVM as an institution seems to be worse today
than it was back then.
But if Suarezs activism didnt change UVM, it did change Suarez.
She pours herself a tall glass of juice and says, It prepared
me to deal with the real world where to be heard, especially as
a woman of color, I sometimes have to scream. It changed me because
I learned so much from the students around me. I gained strength
from my activism. And most importantly, I gained pride and determination
to continue to do what is right and not just what is acceptable.
She considers her words, then adds, I will say this. The people
that our movement changed and the moments that it created were
brilliant and beautiful. They were worth every moment.
At UVM, he was active on many fronts, but particularly environmental
concerns. His specialty was bringing different organizations together.
To his fellow students, he kept pointing out, Well be more effective
together than alone and separate.
Like Carmen Suarez, David Zuckerman doesnt think he had much
of an effect on UVM. But like her, I empowered other people to
get involved, and that will serve them all their lives. I think
changes in peoples mindset last a lot longer than changes in
institutions. And will eventually change the institutions. Zuckerman
says, My college activism taught me a lot about how the process
of change and political-cultural debate works. It taught me networking
and how to influence people with concise information. It got me
elected to Student Government. Theres a definite link between
my campus activity and the Legislature.
The high point of David Zuckermans UVM activism was helping organize
Earth Day, 1990. That was in his freshman year. The low point
came at the end of his senior year.
David had spent from April to September of 1991 hiking the length
of the Appalachian Trail. When he returned to UVM, he found a
campus shuttle bus system firmly in place. Though hes a supporter
of mass transit, he was appalled. Id just walked 2,000 miles,
and the school was shuttling students around on diesel buses in
the daytime to save them a fifteen-minute walk!
Zuckerman researched the issue, persuaded Student Government to oppose the daytime shuttle, and gathered the signatures of 1,000 students who felt the same. He even met with acting UVM President, Tom Salmon. But all he managed to change was reducing the number of buses from four to three. And, he says, shaking his head, soon after I graduated they put it back up to four. All the work Id done on the campus shuttle system was reversed.