Legacies of Dissent: A Brief History of Activism at Brown

Editors Note: This piece was originally published in the College Hill Independent in November 2013 as “Action is Now: A History of Brown Student Activism,” which explores a few of the student campaigns and protests in Brown’s history in light of a semester particularly shaped by student dissent and organizing. With their permission, we’ve republished their article below in its entirety, with the exception of Kyle Albert’s segment, which has been exclusively included here.

Students cycle through Brown in roughly four years. During their time here, student activists are cycled through study committees, working groups, and disciplinary commissions. As we pass through school, the actions and lessons of previous generations get lost in the movement; we often forget how much of our campus culture has been shaped by student dissent, protest and activism. Brown has a long history of student organizing, much of which has effected tangible changes in institutional policies, such as the establishment of the Open Curriculum, the implementation of need-blind admission practices, and the founding of the Third World Center. Here, we explore a few student campaigns and protests in Brown’s history.

December 5, 1968, 12 pm:

65 black students from Brown and Pembroke College walk out of class to occupy the Congdon St. Baptist Church for five days, in protest of the University’s racist admission practices. Some of these students have already been working with the administration for a year and half to increase the number of black students admitted, and are frustrated with the slow rate of change. On the day of the walkout, the Black Men of the Afro-American Society at Brown University release a public statement in which they criticize the University’s “concerted effort” to change their admissions policies:

“This is not meaningful change. We have therefore decided that this course of action will not lead to a re-evaluation or a reorientation of the racist policies at Brown University that gave rise to our demands in the first place.” Instead, they announce, they will disassociate themselves from Brown until “the commitment we seek has been made, or the University admits to its true racist nature.”

The walkout, which attracts national attention and media coverage, culminates in a weekend of negotiations between the students and administrators. The walkout and subsequent negotiations result in a 300 percent increase in black student enrollment the following year and the creation of the Transitional Summer Program (later renamed the Third World Transition Program).

April 24, 1975, 8 am:

A secretary arrives and opens University Hall. A student spies from a window on the second floor of Faunce, where several people have slept overnight. A few minutes later, 30 students walk into University Hall and rope the doors shut; 400 more students quickly circle the building outside. By 8:45 am there are at least 1,000 students beating drums, chanting, and walking around the building in concentric circles, keeping administrators and police from passing. The takeover lasts 38 hours, during which several student organizers meet with administrators in Graduate Center over their list of demands.

The occupation, organized by the Third World Coalition—a newly formed merger of the Organization of United African People (OUAP) and Latin American Students Organization (LASO)—occurred a few weeks after 80 percent of the campus participated in a four-day class strike against University President Donald Hornig’s proposals to increase tuition and reduce financial aid. Hornig had been unwilling to discuss criticisms of his plan with the Brown community.

The proposed tuition hike was the final straw in long-standing frustrations with Brown’s institutional disregard for minority students and faculty.  Since 1968, Brown had gained a reputation as one of the most open-minded, liberal and racially diverse campuses in the nation. But that reputation was an illusion for many Third World students, who felt their presence was often tokenized by the administration while their voices and needs were disregarded. The takeover, planned after several smaller and less drastic actions failed to stop Hornig’s proposed budget from passing, was in part the culmination of student frustrations with Brown’s failure to live up to its promises to black students in 1968.

The Graduate Center negotiations ended after sunset on April 25; not all of the student demands were accepted, but the administration did promise to revamp its admissions goals for Third World students, offer more generous financial aid packages, and renew its commitment to recruit minority and women faculty. Notified that an agreement had been reached, all the students occupying University Hall filed out, exhausted, and walked over to the basement of Churchill House to debrief. “It was very emotional; we all cried,” remembered Steven Soares, a member of OUAP who was part of the occupation team. “I could say I was proud to be a Brown student because of what I did.” Students had taken well-coordinated, disruptive and loud action—and the University had been forced to change in response.

– Megan Hauptman

Spring 1969:

By the end of spring 1969, then-President of Brown University Ray Heffner would resign: “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a university president,” he told the Brown Daily Herald. To Brown students the 1968-1969 school year was defined by the black student walk-out, the struggle for co-ed housing, the ROTC issue, and curriculum overhaul. Within just a few weeks in the spring of 1969 the faculty voted to phase out the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and to instate the New Curriculum (the one Brown has today). These changes, which have come to define Brown, were largely the result of vehement student and faculty action.

Student activism in favor of the New Curriculum and in hopes of ousting the ROTC began in 1966 and 1967 respectively. While the battle for the New Curriculum consumed a larger portion of the student body, as it was thought to take up “a million student work-hours, the ROTC issue became relevant because of both the changing academic standards of the University and the ever-looming Vietnam War.  Decisive faculty action occurred first on behalf of the ROTC issue; they voted on March 18, 1969 to allow the continuation of the ROTC if the Department of Defense would comply with certain stipulations, namely ones that took away course credit for the ROTC courses and took away professor status from the ROTC instructors. Preceding the meeting approximately 300 students gathered peacefully in and just outside the lobby of Carmichael Auditorium in Hunter Lab where the meeting was scheduled.

Some students viewed Brown’s hosting of the ROTC as support for the conflict in Vietnam. Demonstrators who believed this at times carried signs that read, “Should Brown Give a Bachelor of Murder?” Other students believed that the values of the military were incompatible with the values of a liberal arts education, and that there was no justification for a military presence in the academic sphere. In a sarcastic Brown Daily Herald letter to the editor, one student wrote, “I think it would be desirable for our country’s policemen, garbage collectors, and revolutionary socialists to have a liberal arts education… Let’s introduce departments of police science, garbage collection, and revolutionary socialism into our universities.” Like-minded students would argue that a liberal arts university was not meant endorse a program with such a narrow goal and that military science courses restricted students “free and open inquiry,” especially as laid out by the New Curriculum.

Success had not been met yet; less than a month after the faculty vote President Heffner extended Brown’s contract with the Navy for at least another year without consulting faculty or students. Heffner was under the impression that refusing to continue to the contract would have been a “violation” of the contract with the Navy. Whether bound by law or personal will, the faculty and students responded quickly. The faculty held a meeting the next day to discuss their future action. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) sponsored an open mike on the Main Green to discuss President Heffner’s negotiations. Only a few days later a coalition of 125 students, not necessarily affiliated with SDS, drafted their own demands about the future of ROTC, basically indicating that no new freshmen should be admitted to the program. Then on April 18, 1969 the faculty had a final vote, where they determined that ROTC would be phased out. No new freshmen were to be admitted to the program and ROTC would be completely absent after the 1972 spring semester. For just a moment, students and faculty could exhale and reflect on their success.

Yet, there remained the crucial and desperate New Curriculum issue. While students had at times had argued about the ROTC through an academic lens, their fight for the New Curriculum was not yet won. Through a series of faculty votes in early May the New Curriculum was adopted. The faculty did not make the decision lightly, in fact immediately preceding the decision for Brown to accept the new philosophy classes were cancelled to allow the faculty to attend a marathon meeting—and 300 of the 500 faculty members did attend. The Brown students, who had advocated for so long, held a speak-out on the Main Green a final time to show their support. The new curriculum was promised to make the University, “ a far better institution than it has ever been before.” Many would argue that it has done exactly that.

The ROTC issue and the New Curriculum were debated and decided as separate matters, but they were entangled endlessly with the activism that swept the nation and Brown’s own campus. They were not the only changes made in the spring of 1969, and certainly not the only ones that have carried on into today. However, they remain to be, for better or worse, defining characteristics of Brown University.

– Grace Healy


In 1987, James Forman Jr, then a third-year student, wrote an op-ed for the BDH titled “We Tried Changing the World,” which questioned the decline of activism on campus over his three years at Brown. For Forman, 1985 was “not an easy year. It was an emotional and crisis filled time. It was an angry and idealistic time […] We had to reexamine all of the values which make up our being and which most of us had never questioned.”

In comparison, 1987 seemed to Forman quiet and apathetic, the campus devoid of the political debate and activity that had charged through the campus only two years earlier. Why had student attitudes toward activism changed? Why hadn’t the debates and actions of ‘85 changed campus culture and attitudes? “Perhaps it is the very fact that problematic issues like racism and sexism are still with us that explains the silence on campus,” Forman mused near the end of his column. 26 years later, we’re still talking about the same things.

Indy: How would you characterize activism on campus over your time at Brown? Were there connections between all the different campaigns happening? Were there divides between the general student body and activist groups?

James Forman Jr.: My freshman year, the big activism was around the whole issue of the CIA recruiters, and then there was the referendum on the suicide pills, and then there was a lot of black student activism around intolerance on campus. And that was connected to broader activism about the need for a Third World Center. So those were the big things my freshman year, and I would say the thing I was the most connected to, though definitely not in any kind of leadership way, was the black student protests. And a group of us, that spring of my freshman year, decided we wanted to meet to talk about an organization that we were going to call Brown Divest/Free South Africa. That was when the anti-apartheid protests were really kind of gearing up on college campuses around the US and New England. Some of the people in that initial founding group of Brown Divest had been very involved in the CIA protests and the suicide pill referendum. I had not been involved in any of these things, but I had participated in some of the black student protests. The black student protests were very self-consciously an echo of 1975, ten years earlier. We were always making reference to the protests in ’75, which were the protests that were our memory point, not that we actually remembered them, but we kind of viewed ourselves as operating in that tradition. And then, my sophomore year, the other things kind of died down, and the dominant activism of my sophomore year was the divestment movement.

Indy: What kinds of events did Divest Brown/Free South Africa organize?

JF: We did a lot of things. We had a number of debates with the College Republicans. We did a lot of teach-ins, we brought speakers. We organized a lot of protests and rallies. We must have had three or four big ones over the course of my sophomore year, including some that were organized specifically around the meeting of the Corporation. And then we ended up having a hunger strike. We were a constant presence in the post office— that was a place that everyone went everyday, because you had to pick up your mail, and it was a very active place. So if you set a table up in the post office, and you had literature and were talking to people as they walked by, you could get the word out about what you were doing. I think there might have been people who were tired of getting their mail because they were tired of talking to the divest people.

Indy: As someone who now works at a university, do you think that student attitudes about activism and the potential for actual impact from protest has changed?

JF: I think that the nature of it has changed. There’s less protest oriented activism; people said this in the 80s, and their context was the 60s, and I think that was true, and you just move 20 years out and it’s still true. In the 60s you had a period of American history when there was a vibrant and energetic movement at a relatively wide scale—though it’s important to remember that at every point in historical time, the majority of people were not protesting. So we often think of the 60s as a time where everyone was on the streets, but it wasn’t. If you read the memoirs of activists in the 60s, black or white, they’re talking about how hard it was to get the majority of the community to join them. And they used all sorts of tricks to try to make it look like there were more people out there marching than there really were. So just one point to remember is that the majority of people are never marching. Having said that, there was a period where mass protest was very much  part of the American historical moment, and it was how people thought about change. And that has changed.

And part of why that has changed is that there is more access to legitimate ways of influencing power. Universities have gotten much smarter. They don’t just completely lock people out anymore. They invite people in, they form committees, they have ad-hoc working groups, they have study commissions, they ask the students well what do you think and let’s write a report about this, because universities know that students graduate, and the group that was passionate about an issue, after they spend a year and half writing a report, half of them are out the door, and the other half don’t remember what the whole fuss was all about. Universities are extremely, extremely, smart at defanging protests before they become protest movements.

April 21, 1992, 8:30 am: In the spring of 1988, Brown accepted the most socioeconomically diverse class in its history up to that point. But by 1993, the Financial Aid office was either financially ill-equipped or downright resistant to prioritize robust financial aid initiatives that would accommodate the full financial needs of the low-income members of the class of ’93. The coalition Students for Admissions and Minority Aid (SAMA) began a campaign, calling on the President Vartan Gregorian’s administration to implement need-blind admissions policies and boost financial aid initiatives to ensure class diversity among future student populations.

On the morning of April 21, around 70 students entered University Hall and participated in a sit in demonstration, lining the doorways to the offices of several of Brown’s most important officials. Around 1 pm—after a fiery speech by a SAMA leader, protest organizer and low-income student, Joanna Fernandez ’93—approximately 300 students who had gathered on the Main Green to lend their voices to the rally began entering University Hall, storming through doors or being hoisted through windows in some cases. An assemblage of students from various racial, ethnic and class backgrounds took over the campus’ flagship building, occupying the space for 9 hours. The 253 students who remained inside the building after a final warning from hard-handed administration and law enforcement representatives were all arrested that night. The  need-blind admissions movement lost momentum in the following weeks as protesters dealt with the fallout from their arrests.

The Gregorian administration continued to ignore student calls for need-blind admissions. In 2003, President Ruth Simmons finally instituted a need-blind admissions policy. 21 years later, need-blind admissions policies have been in effect for a decade. These policies, however, do not apply to transfer or international students. And an important overarching goal of the protests have not yet been realized: there must be a university-wide lasting commitment not merely to need-blind admissions but to discussing and acknowledging challenges faced by students on financial aid and de-stigmatizing class differences within our student body through open campus dialogue.

– Cherise Morris

September 1990:

Beginning in September of 1990, Brown University’s administration largely ignored the sexual assault of women and men on campus – in some cases, telling survivors that their rapists were “fine upstanding members of the Brown community,” or that their assaults simply boiled down to “a case of bad chemistry.” Taking matters into their own hands, women began to write the names of alleged rapists on bathroom stalls in the Rock library, rewriting and reproducing them in other bathrooms across campus when custodial staff attempted to wash it off, including up to 30 names and prompting debate across the student body.

Student outcry led to an open campus discussion in November, where women continued to protest the university’s inaction by arranging to have a different woman standing every 30 seconds – around 40 at the end – representing the frequency with which women are raped. This garnered significant media coverage, including having four of the women originally advocating for change appear on the Phil Donahue show. This action and consequent coverage prompted the administration to act, leading to almost weekly meetings between deans and students, led by Jenn David-Lang ’91, Jesselyn Brown-Radack ’92, Christin Lahiff-Semprebon ’91 and Elizabeth Billowitz ’91. Ultimately, the University implemented a multistep-policy defining sexual misconduct as punishable under the disciplinary code, provided counseling for involved students, and allowed for separation measures between the accuser and the accused. This advocacy also helped to implement Safewalk and include a one-hour section of orientation to sexual assault education.

– Kyle Albert


In 2006, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) reformed nationwide. After going defunct in 1969, following a long decade of involvement in civil rights and anti-war struggles, the invasion of Iraq inspired its reemergence.

Following the SDS North East regional conference at Brown University in the Spring of 2006, Brown’s chapter was formed. As well as organizing anti-war protests and die-ins against recruiters for defense contractors at the Career Fair, Brown SDS began to work on an “accessible education” campaign.  SDS called on Brown to “live up to the spirit of the need-blind promise” by shifting to a financial aid policy that relied more heavily on grants and scholarships rather than student loans and freezing tuition hikes. By the following Spring 2008, following a petition signed by hundreds of students and a parade at the meeting of the Brown Corporation, SDS claimed a partial victory when the University committed to no loans for students whose parents incomes totaled less than $100,000.

Nonetheless, the demand to freeze tuition was reissued. The feeling that the Brown Corporation was generally unresponsive to student concerns and inaccessible to dialogue led to a new turn in the campaign for accessible education. In May 2008, SDS members sought to submit a petition containing more than 600 student signature to Corporation members demanding that that body’s minutes be released immediately (instead of 50 years later, as per policy), that meetings be open, that its agenda be set by the Brown community, and that the Brown community democratically decided on measures that affect the whole university. SDS was prevented from submitting their petition.

This new turn produced the pinnacle, or nadir – depending on ones perspective – of this era of Brown SDS. The 2008-2009 academic year was kicked off with a march reiterating the old and new accessible education demands. A new petition was actively circulated, accumulating over 1000 signatures. In an act of planned desperation, 20 students attempted to enter the fall Corporation meeting to submit the petition and an proposed agenda. Eight students were able to make it inside, seven of whom would a month later be issued papers charging them with Student Conduct violations that would by the end of the year result in non-academic probation.

This action of SDS brought much criticism, often in favor of the demands, but disputing the tactics. By all accounts, the action drew significant attention and debate toward the activity and transparency of Brown’s highest governing body – the Corporation – that had previously not existed on campus.

– Julian Park

 By Megan Hauptman, Grace Healy, Cherise Morris, Julian Park and Kyle Albert, Contributors

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