Doug Clifford’s Recollections

In January, 1970, just over forty years ago, I started college as a freshman at UMass Boston. A few months before that I returned from Vietnam and received my release from active military duty (my formal discharge did not come for a couple more years, during which time I could have been recalled to active duty, by the way). I was a 24 year old college freshman just back from Vietnam at a time when the war was still very active. Before being a new but older college freshman, I was a relatively experienced member of the military, an Air Force Staff Sergeant, trained to be a photographer, who had spent almost four years in the service and a year in Vietnam. I went to Vietnam with few illusions, sure that I was not going to save the world from anything. I was just a G.I. doing what I had to do and hoping to get by and get out, and long before I got out, I knew that I wanted to go to college. And it was during that first semester I was at UMass when I finally got to College that the University went on strike.

For me, that strike was a dramatic turn of events that really changed my plans. After all, I was just getting started, and I was almost 25. I knew that I wanted to go to college because that is what the whole military experience had been about. If I got through the service, I would have the G.I. Bill to help me pay for my education. Other than that I had no resources – no money, no family who could financially support me, and no knowledge of other resources that might be able to help someone such as myself get an education.

I was at a junction in a journey that began in the Somerville, MA housing projects and went through numerous variations of a low income urban upbringing, which either explains itself or is too complicated to describe here in any detail. In the military phase of this journey, I was clear that this was a way for me to go to college. It was not exactly the reason I joined initially. I joined because a few years after high school and banging around the country, I got drafted. Faced with no other prospect than military service, I got myself enlisted in the Air Force. As luck would have it, I got assigned to attend photography school, which, truth be told, I enjoyed a great deal, and I still pursue photography as an avocation now.
After a couple years in the service, I got orders to go to Vietnam, and it is there that this story gets relevant. For it was during that year that I went from thinking about  anti-war protesters in the U.S. as potentially preventing what I wanted to do by causing various obstructions and disruptions in colleges and elsewhere to understanding that what they were doing needed to be done. Protesting the war that I was in became a matter of common sense to me. My experience in Vietnam made clear to me how wrong it was. What Americans were being told about the war was not true: that we were winning, or that we were making progress, or that we had the support of the people, or that we were at least winning hearts and minds, or that there was something positive, something constructive or redeeming about our mission. None of it was true.

So when I got out and enrolled at UMass Boston, I did so with that mind set. I opposed the war and I was willing to share that sentiment with anyone willing to hear it. It was January, 1970, and the war was still going on, with a huge number of troops in Vietnam and great numbers of dead and wounded American soldiers, not to mention the enormous number of deaths among the Vietnamese. There was a lot that I wanted to read and learn in college, but there was also a lot that I wanted to share and talk about that might not be in the curriculum.

As it turned out I got my opportunity to venture beyond the curriculum because the country found out that President Nixon had authorized bombing Cambodia, a sovereign country whose major crime was being a neighboring country to Vietnam. There was already widespread sentiment against the war in Vietnam, and it was growing steadily. Then the Nixon administration decided that the border between the two countries was too convenient for soldiers from what was North Vietnam at the time to enter what was South Vietnam at the time, so he began a bombing campaign to disrupt those travel routes. It all became too much. All over the country, outrage triggered reactions on campuses and elsewhere.
By the spring of 1970 protests and demonstrations were growing in size and intensity all over the country. Then protesting students were shot and killed by authorities at Jackson State College in Mississippi, and most infamously at Kent State College in Ohio. By that time it seemed that everyone wanted to do something.

At UMassBoston, students, and many faculty, were feeling anger and frustration about the war in Vietnam, as well as other issues, and communication with the university administration seemed to be, at best, problematic. Even the news that UMass Boston was planning to build its campus at Columbia Point in Dorchester was contentious. In all of these matters, there was an underlying feeling of powerlessness to be heard that was felt by many segments of the U/Mass campus. Voices were being raised all over the country against the war and that included at U/Mass. After countless meetings over endless days and nights, with sit-ins, protests, demonstrations, and attendance without invitation at meetings of the Board of Trustees, the campus went on “strike”. The strike was an effort to end business as usual and use the time and energy that had been going into the study of ancient texts and current psychology and so many other subjects that were being pursued as a way to get ahead and instead to do something more relevant to what was going on in the world, in the country, and at UMass Boston.

People at the university, both students and faculty, had grievances that they wanted to be heard, and the question then became what to do – how to express these concerns now that classes had been suspended and school was out for the rest of the Spring 1970 semester. The underlying premise was that if students felt so strongly about the need to deal with other matters, then that is what they should do, but the idea was that students would do something. Most students, it seemed, went home or simply back to their jobs and increased their work hours for the rest of the semester and the summer.

For the people with whom I associated, close friends and a loosely defined group of older (“returning to education”) students, veterans, and others politically interested and active, the answer was to spend the remainder of the semester figuring out if we could explain how the University was run and what the organizational structure meant functionally. For all of our strife with the administration, we were constantly directed to the Trustees, who, we were told, were the ones who really made the decisions. By that time many of us had been to plenty of Board of Trustee meetings, which by law are public, but we certainly were not invited. So expecting some response from them in an open forum was not realistic. If students demanded to be heard, they were regarded as out of order. If the Trustees agenda was interrupted, they went into “executive session” which is not open to the public, to conclude their business.

On it went like that until the university closed down for the semester. There were similar stops along the way with meetings and confrontations with Deans, Vice Chancellors, and the Chancellor. In fact, one quote from the Chancellor at the time, Dr. Frank Broderick, a friendly, politically liberal, genteel man (and I say that all without irony) is very interesting (and ominous) in this regard: “No matter how carefully everyone prepares for the entry of the police – with faculty and students observing, with photographers, with careful briefing, the risk of violence cannot be ignored.” Now that may be an appropriate warning for some , especially given his position of responsibility, but to many, like older, urban bred students, Vietnam veterans, and others, that could sound like a threat – or a challenge.

One unintended consequence of this situation was a fundamental change in the relationships students had with many faculty members. It did not take long to realize that many of them, often junior faculty but some senior faculty as well, were as upset and outraged as us students. Students came to understand that we shared many of the same concerns regarding the university and the world. In some instances, they became our allies and we shared with them our concerns, issues and problems. To this day there are faculty members from that time that I still count as friends.

For the next several weeks we researched the University Trustees, and some of us wrote personal accounts of our experience at the University. We wrote about our experiences as women, veterans, graduates, and just thinking, concerned students. At the end of the semester we published a 75 plus page pamphlet that discussed many aspects of the University, but we focused on the Trustees. We printed their names, addresses, phone numbers, where they had gone to college, where they worked, and what other affiliations they had. We also did a “power map” showing all the interlocking directorates and the connections between the trustees and the several powerful institutions, like banks, insurance companies and even the Lehman Corporation – organizations that were among the most powerful in the city of Boston and the state. We made no attempt to slander, nor did we make an effort to defame. Our intention was to make as public as possible how the University operated in the context of the corporate and institutional structure in Boston. Our aim was to reveal the power structure in Boston and how the UMassBoston trustees and by extension, U/Mass Boston, fit into that power structure.

We came a long way toward finding that out, and we learned a lot. We learned about research in real time in the real word; we learned about sharing and collaborating;

We learned about responsibility to each other and to our goal; we learned about how institutions and people are interrelated and how those interrelations have consequences.

We learned that by asking questions you can get answers. We learned that acceptance of structures and assumptions about what we are told regarding politics and power in general does not need to be passively endured.

At the end of the pamphlet we explained our methodology and urged whoever might read the pamphlet to go further and find out for themselves how their world worked and who was running it. Some of us would like to think that the efforts we began during that semester have stayed with us. In our lives since then, many of us have continued to believe in the importance of being involved, finding out the facts, and making decisions accordingly. Whether we went on to have careers in public sector jobs, as, by the way, we predicted in our pamphlet, or have gone in other directions, the importance of empowering people and supporting efforts by people to gain power over their own lives at least, whether they are our students, our patients, our clients, our colleagues, or even our employees, has been a guiding principle in our lives.

Finally, in this regard it is interesting to note that Steven Tocco, a current member of the U/Mass Board of Trustees, last year spoke out against U/Mass having a law school because (to paraphrase what he said in the paper) given the current economic situation it may not be a good idea to be training more lawyers. Instead we could be preparing students for jobs as medical technicians and similar careers.
Now that may be true, and maybe UMass does not need a law school. However, another way of approaching the issue is to say that if Harvard, B.U., B.C., and many other private institutions are preparing students to be lawyers, then why not have U/Mass make the same education available at a public institution for students who very well might not otherwise have that opportunity, for substantially less money? That was our point: we deserve to know whose interest is being served by the decisions being made by the trustees. Now, forty plus years later, we all still need to be reminded of whose interests are being served by the decisions being made by those in power.

— Doug Clifford

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