The University of Chicago experienced two campus-wide sit-ins during my time there (1967-1971). In neither case did I actively participate as I was focused on my classes, staying in college and deferring my possible military service until I graduated. The sit-ins were difficult to ignore, however, as they attracted a lot of crowds, got the attention of local media, and disrupted the school’s functioning. The first one arose from a protest by college students over the failure of a popular female sociology professor to have her teaching contract in the college renewed. (The second concerned the war.) Teachers in the college did not enjoy coequal status among most University faculty members but they often were felt by undergraduates to be better teachers. The college had about 3,000 students at the time whereas the University’s graduate programs, and medical, law and business schools had about 10,000 students.
In any event, I wasn’t a sociology student nor were my friends, so I didn’t pay much attention to the demonstrations, or to the occupation of the Administration building. After the sit-in had gone on for several weeks we grew curious about what was going on inside, and decided to go check things out. One of us had a professor who was participating in a “teach-in” up on the top floor (4th), I believe.
My recollection is there were 4 of us who went – myself, Mark, Louis and Tom. We walked up the stairs to see what was going on but after we got there and had listened for a while we didn’t find it very interesting and decided to leave. We were walking down the Ad Building interior stairway together when we unexpectedly encountered the Dean of Students, James Vice, coming up the stairs. We knew who he was on sight, I’m not sure exactly how. In any event, Dean Vice was quite a portly man and when he encountered us on the landing he shuffled towards us, his elbows sort of sticking out from his sides like a Thanksgiving turkey, as he tried to belly us into the corner to keep us from “escaping” to the outdoors.
“OK, give me your Student ID’s” he barked to the group. To my amazement, my friends started reaching for their wallets. “NO,” I said loudly, having one of those fabled, “life flashing before your eyes” moments. I had first thought, “This guy has no idea who I am,” and second, “If I lose my scholarship and have to drop out of school for being in this building during a sit-in, I’m going to lose my student deferment, get drafted, end up in Vietnam, and probably die!” So, betting that the Dean had been planning on receiving cooperative, compliant behavior from us and was not really prepared to wrestle us to the ground to seize our ID’s, I again said, “NO.” My friends looked at me, saw that I was NOT reaching for my wallet and was, instead, staring down Dean Vice over the issue. They decided to follow my lead. Hands went into pockets. The dean looked us over, waited another moment, and then silently turned away from us and waddled up the stairs, looking for a student that he could more successfully intimidate, or perhaps recognize. Students who were identified in the building were later subjected to University discipline, including suspension, loss of scholarships and even expulsion in some cases.
I felt good about this afterwards. Here were these city kids, all smart, better educated than I, from big high schools, from wealthier homes, more travelled than I and surely more sophisticated, but lacking the common sense to size up a situation and do the smart thing. I may have kept us from getting expelled. Well, maybe I had some skills of my own!