The Cal Poly community mourns the passing of former president Robert E. Kennedy.
It is probably unfair to evaluate a 39-year career on one incident but if you are wondering why people remember faculty member-administrator-president of Cal Poly fondly, turn the clock back to spring of 1970.
It was the worst time to be a university president.
Riots protesting the war in Vietnam and racial inequality had been a part of the fabric of the 60s. Berkley and San Francisco were linked with violent protests but the Central Coast was not immune.
On April 18, 1970 a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara was accidentally shot and killed by a police officer. The student was trying to ward off a troop of angry rock throwing demonstrators. Kevin Moran, 22, was a UCSB senior.
At the end of the month United States President Richard Nixon announced he was expanding the Vietnam War by sending ground troops into Cambodia. Draft age students reacted strongly to the escalation of the war.
By May 2 headlines on the front page of the Telegram-Tribune shouted “Students protest nationwide against Cambodian offensive, ROTC is prime target”.
A few minutes after noon in Kent, Ohio four students were killed, two men and two women, when the National Guard opened fire on a protest group. The victims were 19 to 20 years old, killed when the troops formed a skirmish line and fired without warning. One story said the gunfire lasted as long as a minute, another said three seconds, in addition to the four students slain 10 were wounded. In both the Santa Barbara and Kent incidents authorities claimed to have heard sniper fire but later investigation established that the students were throwing rocks.
Nixon essentially blamed the students for getting in the way of bullets.
At the White House the President, learning of the tragedy, said it should convince educators and students alike that when “dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.”
May 7 – Both Cal Poly and Cuesta College were shut down by Gov. Ronald Reagan as part of a four day statewide closure of colleges in an attempt to cool emotions down. Barriers and guards were posted at all entrances to Cal Poly though the school’s president did it reluctantly. Kennedy’s statement said:
“As president of Cal Poly, I must comply with the order. I do so reluctantly. I am certain that our students, faculty and staff would agree with me that there are no problems on this campus which would justify the closing down of the educational activities on this campus.”
There was concern that if the campus remained open it would become a magnet for those with free time, and violent intentions. The campus didn’t shut down completely however. The cows still had to be milked and the long scheduled Future Farmers of America convention was allowed to continue.
May 13 – protest activity exploded nationwide, even at conservative private schools.
• Stanford – protesters spent a week trying to shut down administration buildings though 300 others signed a petition supporting Nixon.
• USC – 1,000 students march in protest
At hotbeds of protest at UC Berkley and UC San Francisco administrators tried to avoid conflict.
At San Jose State college president Hobert W. Burns could not bridge the gulf between his authority and a faculty caught up in the fever of the moment. From the Associated Press:
He stepped down after an overwhelming majority of the 56 – member Academic Council urged that “teaching be redirected to the crisis in current American life caused by our presence in Southeast Asia. Toward this end we recommend that teach – ins, convocations and community work be undertaken…”
“A man who cannot command the support of official faculty and student government bodies ought not to be the president at San Jose State,” Burns said.
The day before the biggest political rally in Cal Poly history covered the Dexter Library lawn. Nearly 2,000 students and staff crowded to standing room only to hear members of Students for a Democratic Society from Berkley, and Cal Poly organizations like Student New Action Politics, Iranian Student Association and Black Student Union. Though there were some hecklers a series of speakers denounced President Nixon, the Vietnam war, the Cambodian invasion, the ROTC, Gov. Ronald Reagan and Kennedy.
— Bill Ouage, Students for a Democratic Society member: “The SDS is not a violent organization, but we’re not against violence. Most people involved in the violence don’t have any choice. People oppressed by the Shah in Iran don’t have any choice about being violent. It’s resist or die. For students, it’s too easy to sit in the sun. If you are going to help stop the oppression, you’re going to have to at least defend yourselves, maybe more.
“Those ROTC guys — They’re not pacifists. They are all for peace as long as you let them do their thing, which is killing people.”
— Darryl Bandy, Cal Poly Black Student Union member: “I would like to appeal to you people, whatever your group may be, to come together and form a united front against this facism, this monstrous machine that’s eating us all up. They say the revolution’s coming. Does it have to knock on your door, push you out of bed and into the street? The revolution is here; its inside all of us.
“What about this petition Kennedy handed out to the classes? What is that for? He was protecting himself so that when the trouble comes, he can hold up the list of names and say, ‘President Kennedy had nothing to do with the revolution.’”
The mild petition circulated by Kennedy garnered 5,148 signatures and urged that in the wake of campus closures that classes resume peacefully and “Spring academic term be permitted to run its course without further interruption.” Hot heads on both extremes didn’t like it but Kennedy was standing up for the institution. A closed university serves no purpose. Radicals probably didn’t like that the school’s president was a better petitioner than they were.
As the rally played out Kennedy was walking to an Academic Senate meeting when he was persuaded by a student to talk to the remaining crowd. He spent an hour taking questions from students and agreed to come back the following day.
Keep in mind that Kennedy lived on the campus.
It took a level of personal courage and confidence to wade into the crowd and give answers they may not be happy to hear. As quoted in the December 28, 2010 Tribune:
“He had a lot of physical courage,” Don Morris, a retired Cal Poly administrator, said while recalling several different protests on campus.
During one protest over the Vietnam War, Morris said Kennedy walked into Cal Poly’s University Union to confront the protesters.
“He just took charge and calmed it all down,” Morris said. “He has comparatively small stature, but he was very tough. He didn’t back down.”
An even larger crowd turned out the next day.
The story from May 14, 1970
3,000 hear Kennedy at Cal Poly rally
By Dave Verbon
A one-hour “rap session” between Dr. Robert Kennedy and nearly 3,000 Cal Poly students Wednesday centered mainly on a Vietnam war teach-in and a controversial petition Kennedy circulated in classes Monday.
Also heard was a threat by a senior that a petition would be circulated among those scheduled to graduate in June and August to stop S. I. Hayakawa, president of San Francisco State College, from appearing as commencement speaker next month.
Kennedy stood on the library lawn, surrounded by students, and answered questions from the audience.
He refused to answer any questions about two Iranian students who were arrested for passing out political pamphlets during Poly Royal last month. He said to do so would be prejudicial to the students’ case.
Some of the questions asked, and answers given by Kennedy included:
— Some students would like to stage a teach-in on the war in Vietnam for the rest of the school year. Would you support this and give instructors the option to let students either take an incomplete grade in their classes to work on anti-war activity, take whatever grade they have received to date in the class or continue to attend class in the regular manner?
“I have no intention of interfering with the relationship between the instructors and their students. I could certainly support such a proposal. It does not violate the order I have received (from Chancellor Glenn Dumke’s office) stating that no authorization has been given to close classrooms or curtail programs. Each student will have to make a contractual agreement with his instructor.
— On Monday, 30 students went to your office to talk to you about the petition you had passed out. You assured us it wouldn’t be used in the news media. If so, why were the results of that poll on the 6 p.m. news, and why was it implied that the students that did sign it agreed with Nixon?
“Well, the press is very insistent, and only wanted to know one thing — how many signatures were on it.”
— Were the 5,000 signatures you said were on the petition signatures of different students, or did students sign it several times in different classes? Was it 5,000 students or 5,000 signatures?
“There were 5,000 signatures on the papers I got back.”
— Did faculty members have any choice about passing the petition out?
“A lot of them didn’t hand it out, but most of them did. They didn’t have to do it.”
—Would you issue a directive to faculty members that students who participate in the teach-in won’t be academically penalized?
“It’s interesting how people who are interested in democracy are always asking for directives. I can’t do this. It would be interfering with the relationship between an individual professor and his classes.”
— If the majority of seniors sign a petition saying they don’t want S.I. Hayakawa as our commencement speaker, can we not have him?
“I was a approached by the senior class officers and asked if I could use whatever influence I have to ask Hayakawa to speak here. I didn’t think I could get him, but I tried and I did. What kind of position would I be in if I asked him not to come now? I did what the seniors asked me to do.”
The great majority of students listening to Kennedy appeared to be satisfied with the answers.
In his autobiography “Learn by Doing” he says, “At no time did I ever feel threatened by a mob of Cal Poly students — even when I was in the middle of one.” The photo from the second Dexter Lawn rally is the cover photo.
Kennedy was an advocate for the university and the concept of open exchange of ideas.
He defended the ROTC program when it was criticized.
Kennedy was attacked by the County Farm Bureau and Paso Robles school trustees when LSD advocate Timothy Leary spoke on campus. In this July 21, 1969 story his statement reads:
“Such people exist, the students know it, and it is often better for them to hear these people first hand,” Kennedy said, “for such people often reveal themselves as persons who are lacking, in some respect or another.”