Over winter break, when Wesleyan students return home for the holidays, students inevitably field the same sort of questions from their parents, parents’ “liberal” friends, conservative uncles, or anyone outside of Generation Z. What’s the deal with the radical politics on college campuses these days? Why don’t kids believe in free speech anymore? Why so hostile? And in fairness, if you only read the media coverage of campuses, glimpsing at the world of college campuses through the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury or the Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter protests at Berkeley without knowing about the other forms of activism that college students are taking part in every day, then you might also get a distorted view of college politics. But within these questions, there’s always an insinuation that there is something new and heretical about the political attitudes and tactics taken by campus activists today.
This position is untenable, or at least ahistorical, particularly when considering the firebombing of President William Chace’s office in the spring of 1990 by a student-activist, an act that concluded one of the most politically contentious periods in Wesleyan’s history.
This series will document the year 1989-90, investigating the events and milieu that led to one of the most outlandish and extreme moments of political action in our school’s history. Along with offering a portrait of Wesleyan at the end of the ’80s, which also reflects the broader political climate of the United States at the end of the Cold War period, the series will, hopefully, offer a historical perspective to our current political moment in college activism.
This first installment will look at the contrasting political forces at Wesleyan in the 1980s and the broader political environment that would ultimately lay the groundwork for the firebombing.
The story can only begin in the fall of 1989 with the arrival on campus of Helen Suzman, a liberal-leaning member of parliament in South Africa, who was welcomed as a fellow to give a lecture. Along with being the only female, Jew, and liberal in parliament, she sported a record of left-leaning positions, fighting against human rights abuses under Apartheid. She was met with virulent student protests, attempting to shut down her lecture.
“She was treated to essentially fascist agitation by students who opposed her connection to the South African government,” said Professor of History Emeritus Richard Elphick, a South African history scholar who helped bring Suzman to campus in an interview with The Argus. “They had twisted a quote from Bishop [Desmond] Tutu in an article saying that Blacks should suffer and put it into her words, which was entirely false. They stomped like fascists but were unsuccessful. She told them that she had dealt with real fascists in parliament and she would deal with you twits and won over her audience.”
To understand this conflict, it’s first important to recognize the political climate on campus during the ’80s, in the throes of the anti-Apartheid movement. While the U.S. government would eventually impose sanctions on the Apartheid regime in 1986, the Reagan-Thatcher “constructive engagement” policy had rejected sanctions until then because they declared South Africa a guard against communism.
In a 2012 senior thesis, titled “An Adversarial Place: The 1989-1990 Academic Year at Wesleyan University,” Caroline Fox addressed the divestment efforts.
“The anti-apartheid movement in the United States responded by lobbying individual businesses and institutional investors to withdraw investments – to disinvest or divest – from South Africa as a matter of corporate social responsibility,” Fox wrote. “The divestment debate extended onto the campuses of American universities in the late 1970s (and was renewed and intensified in the mid-1980s), prompting university trustees to reconsider their institutions’ holdings in companies with contracts in South Africa.”
University students, using tactical activism and praxis, pushed for the University to reconsider the institution’s holdings in companies with contracts in South Africa and fully divest from all companies doing business there.
“Starting around 1979, Wesleyan students wanted the university to divest which was somewhat ahead of their time,” Elphick said. “Throughout the ’80s, the student movement was well-led, especially when it was led by a South African. They accomplished putting constant pressure on the trustees.”
Under President Colin Campbell, Wesleyan founded the South African Research Consortium, an association of 50 universities and colleges that studied the role of U.S. corporations in South Africa. Consequently, in the ’80s, Wesleyan withdrew investments from over 60 companies but did not entirely divest from Apartheid-linked entities.
From 1987 on, the University committed to only investing in companies that adhered to “Sullivan Principles,” a recommended set of practices that corporations should follow if they wished to do business ethically in South Africa. However, complete divestment was the issue in question for campus activists.
“I remember this silly phrase, ‘Apartheid kills, Wesleyan pays the Bills,’” Elphick noted in an interview for Fox’s senior thesis. “So Wesleyan, because it invested in General Motors, was responsible for apartheid.”
According to Elphick, the University chose to use their investments strategically in South Africa.
“We wanted to put pressure on the corporations to take an active role,” Elphick said.
Despite constant antagonism between the administration and student activists, Elphick described the situation for most of the 1980s as controlled.
“In the early ’80s, there were still young faculty members who had been involved in anti-Vietnam protests, and they understood how to have teach-ins and how to engage with political turmoil,” said Elphick. “President Campbell and Dean of the College Edgar Beckham [’58], who was Black, became very used to this and both knew how to handle student protests.”
As events in South Africa became more turbulent toward the end of the ’80s, Wesleyan students began using more hostile tactics to voice their demands. Students built a South African shantytown outside of the administrative offices, as well as in front of Olin Library in 1986, mimicking a similar form of demonstration that had been done at other colleges around the country. For 15 days in the spring of 1988, over one hundred students occupied the office of President Campbell. They also carried black balloons and coffins at graduation.
The retirement of President Campbell in 1988 ushered in a new administration headed by President Chace, who did not handle student protests as smoothly and escalated tensions on campus.
“He was not ready for the role and the irrationality of student protests,” said Elphick, who is still visibly exasperated by the perceived lack of pragmatism exhibited by student activist circles at the time. “First, he alienated the faculty by saying we had to tighten up the curriculum, which he hadn’t laid the ground for. With student activists, the leadership in the 1980s was seniors, but then in ’89 to ’90, it was young and mostly sophomores. Before, there were certain understandings of what you could and couldn’t do and how you had to behave towards the president.”
Chace earned a reputation with student activists and professors for being untrustworthy, making comments to one person and then something different to another just to please them, which caused several spats between the administration and students. This was the backdrop that culminated in the student eruption at Helen Suzman’s lecture. A frustration with not being heard by Chace, constant political mobilization, disorganized radicalism, and a degree of youthfulness defined the activism of this period.
Two students, Kofi Taha ’92 and Nick Haddad ’92, would form the vanguard of the divestment movement and etch themselves into the fabric of Wesleyan activist lore. The next section of this ongoing series will take an in-depth look at these individuals and the way in which they deeply influenced the campus in the year of 1989-90, fundamentally changing the Wesleyan activist tradition.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.