Dissent on Campus

Generations of student
activists have rallied
to change UVM,
the community, and
the world

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
and the New Yorkers. Two of UVM’s founders, the Reverend Doctor Samuel Williams and his student (and UVM’s first president) Daniel Sanders, set the university on a liberal and unorthodox course. UVM was the first American college to encode in its charter the requirement that its “rules, regulations, and by-laws shall not tend to give preference to any religious sect or denomination whatsoever.”

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. Burlington’s 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 Rowell’s house where they again blocked the streets and chanted “No More Curfew!”

Curfew was ended in a remarkably short time.
The most indigenous protest at UVM focused on Kake Walk, the university’s wildly popular winter carnival and signature event. While nearly everyone on campus thought it was our strange but original creation — an athletic two-man dance performed in satin tails and blackface — it was in fact a leftover from plantation days when, for the amusement of their masters, slaves were required to dance for a cake. (You’ll find an indirect reference to it in the movie Jerry Maguire.)

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 President’s 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 it’s part of a college education to empower people to make history.”

Student activists are, almost by definition, impatient. And it’s often hard to judge the effect you had when you’ve just come out of the thick of it. But there’s 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 Brown’s day. Student activists have consistently led the way toward a fairer, more humane institution.
To learn more about individual activists, read the stories on the following pages, briefly told, of four of UVM’s student activists.

Sisters, Tried and True
In 1946, a year after the end of World War II, Alpha Xi Delta sorority pledged Crystal Malone ’47, a black student from Washington, D.C. This action by a hitherto all-white sorority was probably sparked by a UVM conference on religion in November, 1945. Anti-Semitism and “anti-Negroism” were among the themes of the conference. The Cynic reported that when the meeting ended, 100 students “thronged the lounge to elect a committee to investigate the quota system and abolish it on this campus.”

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.”
Ms. Malone (now Crystal M. Brown) describes the campus then:

“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.”
But it wasn’t possible. When Alpha Xi Delta pledged Crystal Malone, the national sorority president, Mrs. Beverly Robinson, traveled to Burlington to try to dissuade 18-year-old Malone from joining. Mrs. Robinson said, “Life is selective, and maybe it’s just as well to learn it while we are young.” But Malone declined to be de-selected, and the UVM chapter stood by their sister. At which point, the national sorority suspended the UVM chapter.

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 can’t be Alpha Xi Delta with Crystal, there will be no Alpha Xi Delta.”

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.”

Letter Writer to Letter Artist
Bonnie Christensen ’73 sighs and sips her coffee. “I wish I could tell you I was a notorious activist-agitator who led thousands of protesters against lines of National Guardsmen whom I’d disarmed with nothing more than pure, brilliant rhetoric.” She shrugs. “Oh well. Fact is, I sat at various folding tables for hours and hours trying to convince apathetic members of the UVM populous to sign petitions, write letters and boycott... What was it in ’68— lettuce, grapes, and Saran Wrap?

“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 children’s 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 officer’s 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. “I’ve clung to the principles of the movement like a rat to a sinking ship... which unfortunately may be an apt analogy. So I’ve 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
Actors Guild.

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 can’t 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 I’ve begun talking to people about an arts program for kids in Burlington’s Old North End. Oh yeah, and my greatest pride was illustrating The Grapes of Wrath for the Folio Society in London.”

To Be Heard, I Have To Sometimes Scream
While Bonnie Christensen volunteers for causes in Vermont, Carmen Suarez ’94 volunteers for her own causes in California. An aspiring writer and actor, she gives time to many organizations including L.A. WORKS, Habitat for Humanity and Laubach Literacy Action where she’s a volunteer adult-literacy tutor. In May she ran the Los Angeles 5K for Breast Cancer. And at the moment she’s still breathless from an early morning training run.
Wiping her brow, she says, “I want to continue making a difference. I’d like to be able to pay my bills along the way as well, but ultimately I’d like to help change the world and make it a better place.”

While Suarez’s 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 didn’t sit-in in the President’s 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 don’t 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 Suarez’s activism didn’t 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.”

Stop the bus!
When it comes to living your beliefs, David Zuckerman ’95 walks the walk. He’s an organic vegetable farmer, a member of the Vermont House (elected in 1996 at age 25), a volunteer for Vermont’s independent congressman Bernie Sanders and a tireless community activist.

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, “We’ll be more effective together than alone and separate.”

Like Carmen Suarez, David Zuckerman doesn’t 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 people’s 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. There’s a definite link between my campus activity and the Legislature.”

The high point of David Zuckerman’s 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 he’s a supporter of mass transit, he was appalled. “I’d 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 I’d done on the campus shuttle system was reversed.”