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Turbulence at Fresno State: History in the shadows

By | May 06, 2014 | Campus, Front page, News (2)
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Photo from The Daily Collegian archives

As the semester closes, another year has gone by in university history with relative calm.

Yet this absence of unrest was not always the case. During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Fresno State was a campus of turbulent conflicts between faculty, administration and students.

The Collegian, then published daily, was full of articles about faculty dismissals, photography of demonstrations, satirical cartoons of campus politics and letters to the editor that were bold with passion.

Not only did headlines become repetitive with the word “protest,” but captions described events that are unheard of in comparison with today’s university activism:

“FSC Computer Center firebombed – Estimated $1 million worth of equipment destroyed by arsonists,”

“Student senate votes 12-7 to hold campus-wide boycott next week,”

“Why Black professor was fired by Baxter,”

“Chicanos go on hunger strike, issue 10 demands,”

“Zumwalt, Chittick are demoted, campus police board up offices,”

“Students detain acting dean as meeting erupts into confrontation.”

The series of events that took place at Fresno State were what several previous professors called an example of the “corporalization” of a higher-learning institution.

Alex Vavoulis, a professor emeritus of chemistry who taught at Fresno State from 1963-1989, said the movement against liberal faculty and students by conservative administration was not “considered academia as we know it or as we want it to be.”

Paul D. Bush, 81, a professor emeritus of economics who taught from 1961-2001, said the occurrences were an example of corporate procedures in which “faculty become employees, and students become customers.”

“The university begins to think of itself as a business, employing good business principles as opposed to good academic principles,” Bush said.

“This is what bothers us,” Vavoulis said. “That this has happened, and it continues to happen. Not only in Fresno, of course, but throughout the country.”

THE CASE THAT STARTED IT ALL

“The whole story began with the Mezey case,” said Bush, who served as a type of counsel to faculty and students involved in the multiple legal cases that shook the campus from 1967 onwards.

Robert Mezey, former Fresno State English professor and award-winning poet, was invited to participate in a panel discussion about marijuana alongside other professionals.

During the “Panel on Pot,” held Nov. 14, 1967, Mezey made remarks that the drug was “perfectly harmless.” The Daily Collegian ran the headline “Mezey Defends Use Of Pot.” The article went on to say Mezey admitted using the drug on and off for 12 years and criticized the drug laws in place as “insane, probably unconstitutional.”

“It [his comments] got him fired, pure and simple,” Vavoulis said.

Following the panel, an anti-Mezey campaign was launched by certain campus groups. In an interview with The Daily Collegian published on Feb. 29, 1968, Dr. James Fikes, a health education professor at the time, disclosed that a petition was circulated and collected 140 signatures.

“Some people have accused us of illegally trying to hang an individual, but we’re guaranteed the right to petition in the Constitution,” Fikes told a staff reporter. “And besides, if we’re going to hang someone, I can’t think of a better individual to do it to.”

In an announcement on March 1, university President Frederic W. Ness made the decision to terminate Mezey’s contract at the end of the semester.

In a letter written to the Ad Hoc Committee for Academic Freedom and released to the student senate March 19, Baxter explained his stance on the situation.

“I can assure you that my decision on Mr. Mezey’s reappointment was not made as the result of any pressure exerted upon me from on or off campus,” Baxter wrote. “Let me add that it will not be changed as the result of pressures from on or off campus.”

The incident sparked a debate about the consultative procedures, free speech and faculty rights.

“If faculty could be fired for exercising their right to free speech in open campus forums, what could be said of its traditional duty to pursue the truth in its teaching?” Bush said.

Groups of students and faculty rallied to see the poet reinstated.

“These were principles we cherished as academicians – namely academic freedom and academic due process, which we believed in very thoroughly,” Vavoulis said.

FACULTY DISMISSALS CONTINUE

Following the Mezey controversy, Ness submitted his resignation in the fall of 1969. By the end of October, an acting president was announced as Ness’ replacement – Dr. Karl Falk.

“The Falk administration of course took a very authoritarian point of view, and a very legal point of view,” Vavoulis said.

In a speech given to the Fresno County Bar Association on Feb. 20, 1970, Falk offered his thoughts on the growing discussion of academic freedom on the campus.

“Nowadays, we hear a great deal about academic freedom and how the community and the body politic should not try to stifle this academic freedom – assuming we can agree on a definition of academic freedom,” Falk said. “Academic freedom is not license. It implies responsibility.”

Falk had some support within the community, evident by letters to the editor sent to The Fresno Bee. The Fresno Guide wrote a headline as early as Nov. 7, 1969, that the “Community backs program of acting president at FSC.”

The liberal and conservative factions that developed since the Mezey case further escalated under the Falk administration, and continued into the administration of Norman Baxter, who was appointed July 14, 1970.

Bush said while the Ness administration reluctantly nullified “rights of democratic academic governance,” Falk and Baxter “did so with enthusiasm.”

The Collegian and university archives reveal a number of reorganizations, dismissals and decisions to not rehire faculty under the two latter administrations. The most notable cases were taken to court.

The most dramatic faculty termination happened in the English department on Dec. 4, 1970.  Acting dean of humanities Ralph Rea entered the offices with plainclothes police officers and handed Dr. Eugene Zumwalt, chair of the English department, and professor Roger Chittick letters of demotion.

According to archives, a locksmith then proceeded to change locks and bolt Zumwalt’s door shut with an iron bar. Filing cabinets were also reportedly searched for incriminating documents before being chained and padlocked shut.

“When the dean and the plainclothes officer came through my door, I asked the officer to identify himself because he wasn’t wearing a uniform,” said 90-year-old Zumwalt, now a professor emeritus of English. “He didn’t say anything. He just folded back the front of his coat jacket and showed me a revolver, and that was it.”

After the incident, armed guards were put in place both inside and outside the department. Reports even surfaced that guards were stationed on rooftops.

“This is the incredible thing,” Zumwalt said. “They had a rifleman on the roof of the science building next door.”

“It was a military takeover of a faculty department, and it had never happened before in the United States,” Zumwalt said. “I don’t think it’s ever happened since then.”

The takeover attracted national media attention from the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker to name a few.

“The news of this went like wildfire all the way to the East Coast,” Zumwalt said. “From then on, for days I had people calling from all over the country to find out what had happened.”

Baxter addressed the faculty, staff and students in a letter Dec. 7 explaining his version of events that “has been overly dramatized by some of those involved.”

He said the campus police chief  “dispatched two plainclothes officers – only for the purpose of accompanying the locksmith” and that, contrary to reports, officers “were at no time on the roof of the building.”

“The president who pulled this off was ultimately disgraced, but the university has never, ever acknowledged what it did to the department or to me, to my career or to my family,” Zumwalt said.

He said the force and demeanor of violence used by police at the time caused a fear on campus that is still felt today.

“The students are not even as near as politically involved now as they were then, and I think that’s all partly a result of the police action on the campus,” Zumwalt said.

STUDENT PROTEST AND ETHNIC STUDIES CONFLICTS

While the campus saw student protest on wider social issues like the draft and the Vietnam War, frequent demonstrations also took place that were specific to the university.

This seemed to peak in the spring of 1970, a semester in which a number of anti-Falk rallies took place. Student unrest especially escalated due to what was seen by minorities as increased moves by the administration against the Ethnic Studies Program.

Falk addressed these concerns during his Fresno County Bar Association speech. He said while it would be a “stupid society” that fails to recognize “the equity of providing them [minority students] with an opportunity for the best possible education,” limitations on the program were “not of our making,” but rather the result of financial stringencies by the state administration.

“But I am sorry when I see the minorities and their legitimate grievances and demands being diverted in a direction for achieving revolutionary aims by some who are not really interested in the education of minority students,” Falk said.

Chicano students staged a weeklong hunger strike March 1 in protest of “the daily oppression of all Chicano people” and the “suppression tactics of the Falk-Fikes regime,” according to an article in The Daily Collegian.

During the hunger strike, violence broke out between Chicano students and a group believed to be agricultural students.

“We understand that there were arms on both sides of this, and so a group of faculty linked arms and made a fence between in the Free Speech Area and held them apart,” Zumwalt said. “That was a very dangerous moment because if anyone had done something just the slight bit wrong, I think gunfire could have broken out.”

African-American students also faced challenges during 1968-70. This included the Marvin X case, outcry concerning a Black Panther speaking on campus and the suspension of five black students and professor Dr. Joe Toney for allegedly detaining acting dean Phillip Walker.

On May 19, 1970, the administration issued a news release saying it would not rehire eight faculty members in the Ethnic Studies Program. The announcement caused the campus to turn to chaos, with Falk declaring a state of emergency on May 20.

A computer center was firebombed, destroying $1 million worth of equipment. A group of 50 students marched through campus yelling, “Strike,” damaging furniture and smashing windows. Two days later, 47 students were arrested after a demonstration along Shaw Avenue.

During a press conference on May 21, three faculty members from the Ethnic Studies Program said the college had “effectively destroyed” the black studies program.

This article only begins to discuss Fresno State’s history under the presidencies of Ness, Falk and Baxter. However efforts were made, both during and since, by faculty on both sides of the debate to expose their grievances.

One such account was “The Slow Death of Fresno State: A California Campus under Reagan and Brown,” a book written by Kenneth Sieb, an English professor during the time of unrest. First published in 1979, it is now available as an e-book.

Using Fresno State as an exemplar, Sieb applies the argument of “corporation” to university systems on the national level.

Bush said, “the absolute and relative decline of higher learning in the U.S. over the last 50 years is clearly foretold” in the book.

Despite these events taking place around 45 years ago, Vavoulis, Bush and Zumwalt all agree the period should be carefully remembered.

“There is history here on this campus, and students and faculty ought to know what happened,” Vavoulis said. “And why is that? Because it could happen again.”

Vavoulis, a believer in the free exchange of ideas on universities, said all it takes is another Mezey-type to instigate an upheaval in today’s power structure.

Meanwhile, Bush quoted famous philosopher George Santayana when asked about the purpose of such historical information, seen in the likes of  “The Slow Death of Fresno State:”

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Information for this story has been gathered from interviews, Collegian archives, University archives and “The Slow Death of Fresno State.”

 

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