In this episode of the 10 Blocks Podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson interviews Harry Stein, author of recent City Journal article “How My Friends and I Wrecked Pomona College.”
Brian Anderson: During the 1960s, demonstrations, sit-ins, and student occupations were a permanent feature on many American college campuses. The unrest was, perhaps, understandable. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam and the culture was undergoing a radical change. The spirit of protest has been revived on American college campuses in the last few years, only this time the targets are less well-defined. Murky allegations of systemic racism, unsafe spaces, and micro-aggression have taken center stage. What does it all mean and how did we get here? In 1968, student protestors at Southern California's Pomona College shut down the Air Force's efforts to recruit on campus. Future City Journal contributing editor Harry Stein was one of the ring leaders of the protest, as he described in his latest feature for the magazine, "How My Friends and I Wrecked Pomona College." He joins me today to discuss the lasting effects of that era on both the campus culture at our colleges and universities and on America culture at large. In addition to his long affiliation with the magazine, Harry is the author of numerous books including "No Matter What... They'll Call This Book Racist." Harry Stein, thanks for joining me on 10 Blocks.
Harry Stein: My pleasure, Brian.
Brian Anderson: When did you arrive at Pomona College and what did you find when you first got there? What kind of place was it at the time?
Harry Stein: Well, I came in the fall of '66 and it was a small, very conservative, very quiet campus. Of course, Pomona is one of five colleges in the Claremont Consortium, but they were all that way. And actually I was very disappointed because I was kind of an activist kid myself.
Brian Anderson: And you were coming from the East Coast.
Harry Stein: I was coming from the East Coast and I was a red diaper baby, so I had participated in all kinds of demonstrations against the war, including, you know, marching in New York shouting "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" And "Ho Ho Ho Chi Ming, NLF is gonna win." And I'd picket at the White House, but there was nothing like that going on at Pomona when I arrived.
Brian Anderson: You write in the piece about an entrepreneurial friend that you met not long after you first arrived on campus. Tell us about this guy's bright idea, Andy, his name was, to make a few bucks of the growing antiwar sentiment on campus.
Harry Stein: Yeah, well the strange thing was Andy was pro-war, but he lived across the hall from me. His father worked on Wall Street and he was an entrepreneurial type himself, and he was aware of all these candlelight vigils going on on campuses across the country. So one day he said to me why don't we do one of those here? We can scoot into L.A., buy a bunch of candles wholesale, sell them at double the price and make some money on this. And that was the basis under which he took it although he was for the war, until the day before the event we were interviewed by the local paper, the local Claremont paper, not school-affiliated, and there was a young, very attractive reporter who was delighted that we were doing this demonstration. She was against the war herself. And she asked when we turned against the war. And I said well I've been against it for quite awhile and Andy gave me this look of absolute terror because he was for the war and he said well, basically I've been thinking about it lately. In other words, he turned against the war at that moment, during the interview.
Brian Anderson: As I mentioned in my introduction, you were involved in this protest against the Air Force when they came to recruit at Pomona. Could you give some details about how that played out?
Harry Stein: Yeah, well in short order, starting with the candlelight vigil, the campus moved increasingly to the left and increasingly to an antiwar position, partly because that was just the ethos of the time. It was really the zeitgeist. Kids all across the country were demonstrating against the war and it was on the one hand very serious because we genuinely opposed it. On the other hand there was a kind of antic element to it, where it was a lot of fun and socially it was certainly the way to be connected. So what happened at Pomona was a number of us took over the [inaudible] student paper at Pomona. It had been replaced by a five-college paper covering all five colleges. And we turned our paper into a little kind of antiwar rag and had a lot of fun doing it. I mean we were—we kidded around a lot in the paper. But in any case the big issue at Pomona as on many other campuses was the use of the college's placement facilities. We objected to representatives of what we considered pro-war companies like Dow Chemical, as well as the American military recruiting on Pomona's campus. And what we did, since the president of the school announced that the placement office at Pomona was nonpolitical and open to all, we had one of our group contact the Communist Party of Northern California and had them request use of the placement facilities. We got a copy of their letter the same day the administration got it and we ran it on our front page with the headline "Communists May Recruit Here," and the sense of the article was Pomona would be the first college in the nation to allow communists to actively recruit students on their campus. We then sent copies of this to every prominent alumnus we could find, and we had our issue. The administration immediately denied that communists would be allow to recruit on campus, we said that was discriminatory, where they were picking and choosing who to recruit, and by the time the Air Force representatives came a couple of months later the whole campus was split, the antiwar movement was galvanized, and 75 of us actually sat in and blocked the Air Force from being able to recruit.
Brian Anderson: Now did you get in trouble for this?
Harry Stein: We had been threatened with expulsion so we were pretty nervous. We felt, in the grandiose way that a lot of antiwar kids thought of themselves at that time, we were really putting our lives on the line, we were putting our bodies on the line, we were as brave as you could be. So—on the other hand, the administration at that point and certainly most of the faculty was against the war, so we had some sense that maybe the punishment wouldn't be all that severe. Maybe we would only be suspended. So initially we were put on trial in a big, banked stadium, all of us, and we turned that into a show trial. The kid who was representing us, one of our number, was a future radical lawyer as a matter of fact, and he, of course, put the war on trial. So that collapsed pretty quickly, and they began bringing us in one by one before the judiciary committee. And of course we were all guilty so all we could do was acknowledge that we had been there and sign a statement to that effect, and then the verdicts came. And the verdict was suspended suspensions, which was of course a joke and we laughed about it and felt very relieved, but at the same time I think we also felt a kind of contempt for these ostensible grownups in the administration who didn't even have enough faith in their own values and traditions to stand up to us. Because we knew we were kids. We knew, even serious as we were against the war, we knew we were essentially kids pushing the boundaries and they didn't have the gumption to stop us. And that was a real kind of psychological break with the past and I think for Pomona a very important moment, because it's been all downhill from there.
Brian Anderson: Let's speak a bit about that. If we flash forward to today, at Claremont McKenna College, which along with Pomona is part of the five-school Claremont Coalition you mentioned, was involved in a very high-profile controversy having to do with race and political correctness. Describe what happened and how, in a way, that does link up with your experience back in the 60s.
Harry Stein: Well this was this past fall when of course in the wake of the protests in Missouri and at Yale there were similar protests at schools around the country. And it happened in Claremont as well. There were actually a couple of distinct incidents. One involved the president of the—or the vice president, of the junior class at CMC, Claremont McKenna, as it's now called—it used to be Claremont Men's College—Claremont McKenna, who was found posing with a couple of students who were dressed in sombreros, Mexican garb for Halloween. And although she wasn't in costume herself, there were demands that she resign her position, which she, in short order she did, with a kind of pathetic apology. I mean it was really something out of the Cultural Revolution, saying she hoped others could learn from her experience. But the more important issue also at CMC involved an administrator who was trying to write a sympathetic letter to an Hispanic girl and said toward the end of her letter something to the effect that we want to make kids—I wish I had the exact phrase in front of me—but who are not normally part of the CMC community feel welcome. And that phrase was taken out of context and used to bludgeon her. And she also resigned in a kind of pathetic, [inaudible] way, at which point students at all five of the colleges started making demands on their respective administrations and . . .
Brian Anderson: And how did the administration respond?
Harry Stein: As they invariably do in these cases, they tried to placate, they felt the students' pain. In the case of Pomona they were demanding a new department of people with disabilities, disabilities studies department and another department—it escapes me at the moment exactly what it was, but the—and all kinds of other really quite ludicrous and extreme demands, and essentially the administration took the position that they would consider these demands, they were legitimate, they were authentic, they had real compassion for the students' suffering, and it was left at that. I don't think there's been any resolution to date of any of that, but it calmed the protests for the moment.
Brian Anderson: Do you think it's going to be possible to restore the ideals of free and open debate in the academy, or has that battle already been lost? I guess it began to be lost in the 60s when you were there.
Harry Stein: I don't think it can be won unless there's an entire new breed of administrators and probably faculty as well. Of course, faculties tend to be self-perpetuating. At schools like those in Claremont, senior faculty tend to pass judgment over who gets hired in their departments, and those departments in the liberal arts are almost uniformly on the left now. And not merely the left, in many cases the very hard left. These are people who do not brook dissent, who do not book open conversation. So it's hard to envision exactly how that would change. The administrators are certainly inclined to placate. And those schools are simply not welcoming to those who would challenge that system. They believe in it. I mean basically they are on the left themselves. They believe that America is all the things that the hard left believes America is, which is essentially exploitative. They do not honor the traditions that we as conservatives embrace. So I don't—I really can't see it.
Brian Anderson: It may come down to the creation of new institutions entirely.
Harry Stein: Or the actual bankruptcy and closing of enough of these other institutions that they begin to learn some lessons. You know one hears, for example at Missouri, that applications are way down. That's a very good sign in the wake of those protests. I've read on various blogs and websites about Pomona that parents were upset about some of the things that were going on and prospective students in some cases chose not to apply, following the events of last fall. On the other hand, these schools are very highly rated. Pomona has been named by Forbes the top liberal arts college in the country, which I must say I have mixed feelings about. I'm kind of proud of it on the one hand. On the other hand I'm kind of startled by it. What kind of criteria are they using?
Brian Anderson: Right.
Harry Stein: That is to—and I must say I do feel a little bit that one, you know I'm kind of betraying my school, my alma mater and all my friends who went there, and so in the spirit of being true to my school I will say that there are still some very, very good things at Pomona, particularly if you get away from the liberal arts.
Brian Anderson: That's all the time we have to read Harry Stein's fascinating article, "How My Friends and I wrecked Pomona College." Visit our website, www.City-Journal.org, or check out our Spring issue. We would love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks. Also, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks for joining us, Harry.