Seventeen months in the president's chair: Morris Abram, black-Jewish relations and the anatomy of a failed presidency.

AuthorKrasner, Jonathan
PositionP. 52-77 - Biography

In the aftermath of the Ford Hall occupation, Abram suggested it had been triggered by a campus speaking engagement on the eve of the takeover by two protest movement leaders from San Francisco State University, faculty member Arlene Daniels and graduate student and black student union leader Bill Middleton. (75) SFU was the site of a protracted student strike organized by the Black Student Union and a coalition of other minority student groups. Afro members insisted, however, that plans for some sort of action were elaborated as early as November 1968, and a targeted plan of action involving the occupation of Ford Hall was developed by members of Afro's executive committee three days prior to the San Francisco State forum. At most, an incendiary speech by Middleton and his subsequent meeting with black students after the official forum persuaded Afro to implement its plan without delay. The San Francisco State forum was "the match that lit the gassy rags," protester Alex Aikens explained, emphasizing that the Ford Hall takeover was an inevitability. (76)

But the timing of the building takeover was influenced as much by the school calendar as Middleton's exhortations. Faculty members and students described a general sense of unrest, particularly among TYP students. With final exams only weeks away, they were increasingly anxious about their ability to keep up with their academic work. An embittered Abram eventually came to accept the linkage between the occupation and the looming exams. Indeed, it definitively soured him on TYP. Later that spring he and some members of the faculty tried to use it as a pretext to close down the program. (77)

Two somewhat different motivations for the occupation were presented by the protesters themselves, hinting at the lack of unanimity among them. On a local public television program devoted to the Ford Hall takeover, one of the radicals, Ricardo Millett, a graduate student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, insisted that, "It's a simple matter of power. It's the whole way you achieve victory. We have to achieve victory the way we want it. We do not want it handed down to us like, well, this is a piece of pie I'm going to give you because you behave [like] a good boy. And this has been the general way that victory has always been given to the black man. And we're not taking that anymore." Yet on that same program, the chief negotiator for the black students, Randall Bailey, struck a more pragmatic note. The black students were neither interested in perpetrating violence nor provoking it, he stated. In Bailey's mind, the issue at hand was simply about educational relevance, "finally getting recognition that black people in a university are going to have education relevant to themselves." Drawing an explicit contrast between the protests at Brandeis and Columbia University, he added: "This is not an issue of student power." (78)

Millett's concern with redeeming the emasculated black man was a trope that was expressed repeatedly during the eleven-day occupation. Activists included students of both sexes. But the black student population at Brandeis was disproportionately male since the first TYP class was entirely male. When black students spoke about their grievances towards the university they often mentioned petty indignities--mistreatment by the cafeteria staff, repeated identification card checks by campus police, even when they were recognized by the officers--that seemed designed to undermine their self-confidence and remind them that they did not fully belong. (79) The Ford Hall takeover was viewed by the black students as a badge of self respect. (80)

Interestingly, Abram, too, made the connection between the occupation and black desires to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. In a 1984 oral history for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Abram's thoughts drifted back to his Brandeis years as the interviewer questioned him about the 1965 Moynihan Report. Its author, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, provoked controversy with his conclusion that the decline of the traditional two-parent family within the black community was partially responsible for the persistence of black poverty. Abram believed that Moynihan was "dead right, irrefutable," and credited him for courageously exposing "a nest of worms." If black leaders were resistant to Moynihan's message, he argued, it was because his study had "touch[ed] a deep nerve," with its implicit criticism of black males for evading their duties as husbands and parents. Implicitly invoking his interactions with Brandeis' black students, Abram added:

But I have often, as a university president in 1968 and subsequently, listened to black males, and do you ever say to a fellow of yours, "man"? "Man, let's do this," "Man, let's do that." Every other sentence, "man," "I got you, man," "I hear you, man," "Man, let's go to town." That is the discourse, or was the discourse, of the black male on campus in the late sixties. It's an affirmation that I'm not a boy, I think, and I am a man, the enormous drive for self respect as a male. (81) As Abram and his advisors struggled in the early hours of the takeover to get a handle on the situation, the atmosphere inside Ford Flail was confused. (82) The growing recognition that the sit-in would be protracted prompted increased concern about securing the building in order to encumber a possible assault by police, and more systematically restrict access to outsiders. Shortly after 10 p.m. on the first night a long chain was coiled around the inside handles of the building's front doors. Aside from the black students, only a handful of black reporters and Roxbury community leaders were allowed to remain in Ford. (83)

After initially resisting his advisors' suggestions that he speak directly with the protesters, Abram abruptly changed his mind and walked over to Ford Hall with Dean of Faculty Peter Diamandoupolis at around 11:30 pm. Abram waited as the chains were unraveled and the door opened. He was led into the building where he met with DeBerry. The encounter, which was caught on camera, was brief but civil. (84) Abram would later make much of his decision to visit the protesters that first night. "Everybody advised me not to go, that I'd be endangering my life. But I would not allow fear to rule me," he wrote in his memoir. But Abram's assistant, Kenneth Sweder, categorically dismissed his old boss's recollection. "Morris never felt in physical danger and his advisors never suggested that he might be in danger by going to Ford Flail," he stated. (85)

It is conceivable that Abram's memory was shaped by his evolving political perspective. At a press conference held in the midst of the crisis, Abram was able to acknowledge "the deep frustration and anger which black students here and all over the country feel at what must seem--and often is--the indifference and duplicity of white men in relation to blacks." He assumed that "the most militant blacks are seeking reparations from the universities for 300 years of societal discrimination," a demand that he found legally dubious. Yet he affirmed that black students' underlying grievances were "very serious ... very deep, very real, very justified. By the mid-1970s, however, his views had changed. Referring to the Ford Hall protesters, Abram declared: "Truth is they didn't have any real grievances." (86) Abram's memory could also have been affected by the press coverage. The impression that the protesters were brutish revolutionaries, armed and dangerous, was actively fanned by many in the media. So, too, was the notion that they were being manipulated or even led by outside groups like the Black Panthers. (87)

"Brandeis Would Not be Another Columbia"

One lesson that was uppermost on Abram's mind was the importance of campus unity in the face of the unrest. In his view, Columbia president Grayson Kirk's failure to unite the faculty behind his response to the April 1968 student takeover on that campus, which included the deployment of a thousand police in riot gear to quell the protests, exacerbated the crisis, which culminated with Kirk's resignation four months later. In the critical first hours of the occupation, Abram managed to win the support of the Brandeis faculty and the student council. (88) "Whatever might happen, Brandeis would not be another Columbia, and no one would accuse me of pitting myself against the rank and file," Abram declared. (89) Abram made a strategic decision to dramatize, rather than downplay, the potential consequences of the takeover. "I think we are at the Rubicon," he exclaimed at the faculty meeting. "I do not myself want to preside over any institution which can be held up for ransom, by force, without votes taken, without logic but by pure seizure.... If this is a community, now is the time to demonstrate it." (90)

It is arguable whether the occupation of a single building by a relatively small contingent of students, many of whom were part of the one-year TYP program and arguably marginal to campus life, constituted an existential threat to the university, as Abram suggested. The loss of the communications and technology center surely inconvenienced administrators and some members of the faculty. Moreover, the volatile and fluid nature of the protest presented a realistic threat of property damage and the destruction of faculty research. Some faculty and administrators also feared that the black students would attempt to widen the conflict by enlisting support from activists and community leaders in Roxbury. But there was little indication that the protests would spread to the general student body.

Abram's dire characterization of the crisis was questioned by some friends and associates. For example, shortly after the occupation ended, Abram was dining with psychiatrist W. Walter Menninger, a member of President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on the Causes and...

To continue reading

Request your trial