Sesquicentennial Memories

Tumultuous Dedication of the Student Union

By Michael Smith

As the College looks forward to the reopening of its newly renovated and expanded Student Union later this semester, it is interesting to look back to the lively circumstances surrounding its dedication 35 years ago, on February 28, 1968. It might surprise some alumni who matriculated during the less confrontational earlier years of the institution or alternately, during more recent years when student involvement in campus activities has been more subdued, that Rhode Island College was once the state’s hotbed of student activism.

During dedication ceremonies for the $979,000 building, some 1,700 students boycotted the ceremonies and instead marched across the campus carrying signs, shouting slogans, and singing songs of protest. It may have been, according to The Providence Journal, the “largest ever” demonstration held on a college campus in Rhode Island up to that time. The size of the peaceful protest was impressive considering the total College enrollment in 1968 was about 3,000.

"Student Power" sentiment had been brewing on campus for several weeks prior to the dedication of the Student Union. A flashpoint for the protest was said to be the notification by the College Administration that a popular instructor would not be granted tenure. However, the Student Power protests, organized primarily by leaders in the Student Senate, as Parliament was then known, had more general goals. Interestingly, in an era when the age of majority was still 21 and student representation in matters of College governance was largely unknown, the students found a philosophical ally in acting President Charles Willard, who had just the previous fall called upon students to become more involved in College affairs. In reaction to the boycott, Dr. Willard expressed his hope that students “will be able to keep their enthusiasm up and channel it into areas that will produce the results they want.”

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the third installment.

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