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Radicals in the HeartlandThe 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois$

Michael V. Metz

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780252042416

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252042416.001.0001

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The Board Surprises

The Board Surprises

(p.53) Chapter 11 The Board Surprises
Radicals in the Heartland

Michael V. Metz

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

Numerous university faculty appeared at the board of trustees meeting, declared support for DuBois Club recognition, and stated there was no evidence to deem the club subversive and that the university’s educational environment required an open exchange of ideas. The board’s own subcommittee agreed and also recommended approval. The board voted to accept these recommendations and allow the university to recognize the club. Politicians and newspaper editorial writers immediately attacked the decision. President Henry supported the decision.

Keywords:   academic freedom, exchange of ideas, subversive, Howard Clement, Chicago Tribune

In January, in their first board meeting of the new year, the trustees took up the DuBois issue. The board’s General Policy Committee questioned faculty representatives from the two university committees regarding the nature of the local club. The faculty members argued intensely for approval of the club, noting that the group had complied with all university regulations and that there was no evidence that the organization could in any serious way be considered “subversive.” They contended that the university’s academic environment depended on open and free discussion of ideas, that an academic institution needed “wide powers of student activity” in order for the university to fulfill its role. One suggested that for the board to accept and acknowledge the academic freedom requirement of the campus was the only way to avoid “an embittering confrontation between the administration and the faculty and student body.”1 However, the trustees’ questions revealed they were less interested in the issue of academic freedom and much more concerned with the presence of communists on campus, and they took the faculty counsel “under advisement.”

However, one month later, surprising nearly everybody, the board announced that it had accepted the recommendation of the two committees, and by a vote of six to three, they returned the decision on the DuBois Club back to “normal administrative channels,” effectively supporting university recognition of the club. In response, Millet announced he would soon approve the club’s application. The board statement said that “no proof that the DuBois Club is subversive, seditious or dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of Illinois or the United (p.54) States exists.”2 However, the decision was not a unanimous one, and dissenting board members spoke their minds freely to the press. One argued for a path of further delay: “The board should defer any action until the Attorney General of the United States has resolved charges that the club is a communist front organization.” A second opponent of the decision added, “There is no urgency about the issue.” But a third went further with his opposition, calling the decision “weak and dangerous” and warning that the board should not be taking such chances with “a potentially dangerous organization.” However, legal principle prevailed for the moment, as board president Howard Clement pointed out that “basic philosophies were involved” and that the trustees “had the responsibility of insuring that the DuBois Club was not treated as though it were guilty before any charges could be proven.” Six of the nine members supported Clement, emphasizing that the most important issue involved was one of “due process, the very basis of our system,” with one explaining that “until it can be shown the club is subversive, it must be allowed to exist at the University.” The board cautioned that should the subversive, seditious accusations ever be proved against the club, recognition could and would be immediately withdrawn.3

The Chicago Tribune attacked the decision immediately, speaking for many Illinoisans with an editorial titled “Berkeley Comes to Illinois”: “The thin opening wedge to possible campus anarchy in the state universities of Illinois was attained when the board of trustees of the University of Illinois granted recognition to the W. E. B. DuBois club at the Urbana campus.” The conservative paper warned that worse was yet to come: “When a university administration begins yielding to the demands of student leftists it simply invites new and more excessive demands, until academic freedom becomes a cover for license. That is precisely what happened at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.” The editors suggested a clear remedy: “The people of Illinois, who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the universities of the state, have a stake in this. Are they going to control the universities through their agents, or are they going to allow the inmates to take over these institutions? We have no doubt the people will demand a firm rein over the campuses.”

Not unexpectedly, Ralph Bennett was ecstatic:

We have brought before the University and before the students the issue that the club should be judged on its merits and its views and not on some anti-communist act. … We have made people aware of the nature of the Clabaugh Act and its repressive features, and our fight has helped unite students to fight the act. We now have the right to exist despite our beliefs.

He announced the focus of the newly recognized club would be threefold, neatly tying together the major issues of the day: opposition to the Vietnam War, promoting (p.55) civil rights issues in the local community, and (likely most alarming to legislators, university administrators, and the public) inviting a communist to speak on campus to present a direct challenge to the Clabaugh Act.4

President Henry declined to elaborate on the board’s decision, stating simply, “I concur.” When asked about reports he had influenced the board in their decision, he replied, “I discussed the matter with board members, arranged for the presentation of all points of view and encouraged the general position finally taken by the board.” In hindsight, the entire episode might be seen as an act of adept diplomacy on Henry’s part. The decision to move the question to the board, likely the president’s, rather than making the call at his level, provided him with a degree of political cover. Henry’s “encouragement” to the board to make the decision that they did, subtly indicating his support for their position, avoided an outright decision on his part that might have antagonized the board and certainly the legislature. It is no surprise that Representative Clabaugh was unmoved: “I think the Board of Trustees acted just as juvenile and irresponsible as the kids. … I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” adding ominously, “I do not regard the matter as over.”5

On a side note, some hard feelings between Bennett’s group and the campus SDS organization appeared in the aftermath of the decision. Bennett castigated SDS for what he considered their lack of adequate support in his club’s effort for recognition. Sheedy, speaking for SDS, explained to the DI that Bennett had attempted to force reluctant SDS members into joining his club in order to enlist the required number of members. The DuBois vice president fired back, calling SDS members “Uncle Tom radicals … a bunch of middle-class students who like to think of themselves as radicals. … When it comes to gut issues, they’re worthless.” A frustrated Sheedy responded, “The DuBois Club is actually a conservative, coalition-ist-oriented group. … [T]hey supported Pat Brown against Ronald Reagan in California on the thesis of lesser evil. As a result they’re always bought out even if they have left-oriented goals.”6 At this point the two defenders of free speech seemed to be using their free-speech rights largely to disparage each other.


(1.) Robert Goldstein, “Board Hears DuBois Issue,” Daily Illini, January 14, 1967, 1.

(2.) John Schmadeke, “DuBois Club Wins Battle,” Daily Illini, February 10, 1967, 1.

(4.) Editorial, “Berkeley Comes to Illinois,” Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1967.

(5.) Robert Goldstein, “React to DuBois Decision,” Daily Illini, February 11, 1967, 1.

(6.) Ibid, 2.