Madison in the sixties. The third week of May, 1966. The deferment sit-in, part 2
Thursday, May 18, the weeklong sit-in at the UW administration building, which at its peak packed about 2000 into the hallways and stairwells, starts to wind down.
The peaceful, non-obstructive action, instigated Monday by Students for a Democratic Society but quickly embraced by both student government and the Inter-Fraternity Council, isn’t actually against the war in Vietnam or even the draft – it’s against letting college men avoid the draft through their 2-S student deferment. The protesters want to get rid of the deferment so that the war’s true impact fully hits middle and upper classes families, not just the poor and nonwhite, so that those politically powerful groups turn against the war.
But as the war Nam expanded in late 1965, and the monthly draft call kept getting higher, the draft system itself reduced deferments. When it hit 40,000 in December, draft director General Lewis B. Hershey warned that “marginal” students — about 10 percent of university freshmen and sophomores — could soon lose their 2-S status and be drafted. To define “marginal,” Hershey brought back the policy from the Korean War, and starting in January 1966 the selective service used class rank and/or a standardized test to determine deferments. He did not address what happens to academic integrity when grades literally become a matter of life and death – another matter of concern to the protesters.
Friday the thirteenth, a mass meeting of about 200 formed the Committee on the University and the Draft – the C-U-D. Their demands — that the university “refuse to cooperate with the Selective Service System” by not releasing academic records or allowing the draft exemption tests to be held in university facilities.
CUD leaders met with university officials on Monday, but came away empty-handed. That’s when a group just walked into the admin building and sat down. By midnight, close to fifteen hundred students were taking part in the peaceful occupation.
Chancellor Robben Fleming said the protesters could stay so long as they stayed out of the way of office business, which they did. Republican Governor Warren Knowles says it’s an “internal matter” for the university to handle, and it did.
Wednesday afternoon an extraordinary gathering on Bascom Hill – President Fred Harvey Harrington and chancellor Fleming speaking about the protest to a crowd of about eight thousand.
Fleming praises the protesters’ “disciplined behavior and responsible manner,” and announces a special faculty meeting on the draft, as demanded by the CUD for the coming Monday, May 23
Celebrating that success, the sit-in is reduced to a token force on Thursday, and ends at 4:30 Friday afternoon.
Saturday, another seventeen hundred young men take the deferment test; a few protesters hand out leaflets, but there are no pickets.[i]
It’s a dark and stormy Monday afternoon, May 23, when a record 892 faculty pack the Music Hall auditorium for the special meeting to consider four resolutions defining university policy on the draft. About an equal number of students listen to the proceedings piped into the Great Hall and other Union rooms.
The students are upset at the start, as the faculty allows only 90 minutes for debate — barely a minute of meeting for each hour of sit-in.[ii]
Professor Harvey Goldberg moves that the UW not release class rank “in any form to anyone,” provide academic transcripts only to students, and only notify draft boards as to whether or not a student is enrolled,; his motion is silent on the use of university facilities for draft exams.[iii] Professor William Appleman Williams presents the CUD’s resolution that the university “not cooperate with the Selective Service System” by releasing class rankings to them or permitting the use of campus facilities for the deferment examination, and that it not provide transcripts directly to students, but only to potential employers.[iv]
The Williams and Goldberg variations are both rejected by voice vote, as is one offered by Professor Michael Petrovich on behalf of teaching assistants. With little debate, the faculty overwhelmingly adopts the version from the powerful University Committee—that class rank not be sent to draft boards but remain available directly to the students, along with transcripts, for whatever purpose they wish, and that campus facilities should remain available for the draft deferment exams. The resolution also creates a student-faculty committee, as urged by the Wisconsin Student Association, “to review all Selective Service problems and procedures facing the University.”[v]
The University Committee’s resolution also denounced “illegal and unauthorized” means of protest, declaring the faculty “unalterably opposed to coercive methods which interfere” with normal university operations. But, at Professor George Mosse’s insistence, the faculty deleted those sections.[vi]
The activists are shattered by the faculty vote. “A total defeat,” Evan Stark says, as the movement’s trust in the faculty evaporates in an instant.[vii]
The group decides to resume the sit-in, but the administration building is locked. So about a thousand go back up the hill to Bascom Hall, which they occupy throughout the night.[viii]
Although Fleming had earlier forbidden further sit-ins, he does not roust them. But Tuesday morning, he tells the leaders that he’s “deeply disturbed” by the occupation and warns of “serious disciplinary action” if it’s not ended promptly. It is, as voted by the remaining two hundred activists. That night, about 120 students vote to make the CUD permanent, with Stark and Bergman as co-chairs.[ix]
Thursday, finals start.
University officials praise the protesters profusely. Harrington calls the leaders “predominantly high-level students,” acting against their own self-interest, and he describes their decorum inside the administration building as “quite extraordinary.”[x]
Regent Kenneth Greenquist, a past commander of the state American Legion, says that the university “has come out of this particular situation with greater prestige than it had going into it.”[xi]But he does have one complaint—with newspaper photographs that he says unfairly represent the protesters as unwashed and unkept. “Ideas are not related to how men dress, shave or cut their hair,” he says.
History professor William Taylor thinks the protest’s importance goes beyond the immediate issue. On a campus with several distinct – and often combative – subcultures, he says the most important result of these nine days in May was “the discovery that a university could operate as a community.”[xii]
At least it could in May, 1966.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, listener sponsored WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
David Sandell photo of UW President Fred Harvey Harrington, Bascom Hill, May 18 1966. WHi ID 136689 Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Archives
[i] “1,700 Men Students Take Selective Service Deferment Tests at U. Today,” CT, May 21, 1966.
[ii] Minutes, Special Faculty Meeting, UW–Madison, May 23, 1966.
[iii] Faculty Document 79, May 23, 1966.
[iv] Faculty Document 80, May 23, 1966.
[v] Faculty Document 78, May 23, 1966; Richard Scher, “Profs. Pass Resolution,” DC, May 24, 1966; Brautigam, “UW Faculty in Compromise on Draft Stand But Pleases No One,” CT, May 24, 1966.
[vi] Faculty Document 78, May 23, 1966.
[vii] John Vaugn, “‘Total Defeat,’ Committee Says,” DC, May 24, 1966; Mate, War at Home papers, Box 4, Folder 17.
[viii] Bednarek, “Students Defy Ban on Further Sit-Ins,” WSJ, May 24, 1966.
[ix] “Renewed Demonstrations Follow Faculty Proposals,” DC, May 24, 1966; Dave Zweifel, “Defiant Sit-In Is Ended,” CT, May 24, 1966; Bednarek, “UW Sit-In Protesters Become Stand-By Group,” WSJ, May 25, 1966; Well, “CUD Gets Tentative Approval by WSA,” DC, July 22, 1966.
[x] BOR minutes, June 10, 1966.
[xi] BOR minutes, June 10, 1966; Pommer, “UW Praises Protesters; Pictures in Press Hit,” CT, June 10, 1966; “’Beatnik’ Pictures of Sit-in Criticized,” WSJ, June 11, 1966.
[xii] Dolly Katz, “Sit-Ins Draw ‘U’ Together,” DC, September 28, 1966; Steven Barney, “Professor Hails ‘Unifying’ Factor of UW Sit-In Protesting the Draft,” WSJ, September 28, 1966.