What if there was a mass exodus of students from campuses in late October, not due to pandemic related matters, but instead for electioneering? Would such activity encourage mass participation among young people in U.S. electoral politics, or by contrast, would students become increasingly disaffected with what could be accomplished through the political system? In 1970 approximately thirty universities adopted a two-week election recess ahead of the midterm elections. The ramifications of that experiment provides insight into sentiment about the U.S. political process and the attempts of universities and colleges to manage student political activities with administrative stratagems.
Two days after President Richard Nixon announced that he had ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia as part of the war in Vietnam, the editors of the Daily Princetonian published a proposal in a front page editorial to redirect the energy of striking students. They called for “the University Council to rearrange Princeton’s 1970-71 academic calendar to create a two-week recess before the November congressional elections.” Just days later, Princeton approved the plan. The hope for what would become known as the Princeton Plan was that the promise of time for directed political activity would calm student protests across the country.
The Princeton Plan did not stop the strike at Princeton. Neither did it prevent National Guardsmen from firing on and killing demonstrators at Kent State University on May 4th, nor did it stop police in Jackson, Mississippi from killing two student protestors and injuring a dozen more at Jackson State. According to a survey of college presidents, protests against Nixon’s Cambodian incursion “significantly impacted” 57 percent of U.S. universities that May. The lethal violence and the scale of the demonstrations would pressure Nixon to commission an executive report that to his dismay would suggest, “campus unrest reflects and increases a more profound crisis in the nation as a whole.”
Even if the Princeton Plan didn’t solve a crisis, which to the Campus Unrest Commission was rooted in divisions “as deep as any since the Civil War,” its implementation touched off a series of national conversations about the politicization of higher education, the franchise for college students, and the erosion of academic freedom. Fifty years later, as the U.S. approaches a pivotal presidential election amidst a global pandemic and the largest social movement in the country’s history, these issues are familiar. Though student initiated, the Princeton Plan became a vehicle for some university leaders to wrangle political discourse on campus away from activists on the left. At the same time, the backlash from the right sought to thoroughly destabilize the foundation of political neutrality upon which the public charge of the university system purported to rest. Revisiting the contestation and the adoption of the Princeton Plan highlights continuities surrounding ideas of political neutrality on campus, sanctioned forms of student activism, and broader frustrations with electoral efficacy in times of intense political turmoil.
Though the proposition generated early national attention and endorsements from the likes of Senator Edward Kennedy, only thirty or so campuses adopted an election recess. Those campuses were largely concentrated on the east coast, but, frankly, there was no clear pattern to the institutions that adopted a form of the plan and those that didn’t. In the Ivy League, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown implemented it, while Yale, Harvard, and Penn rejected it. The City University of New York was for it, but the University of California and the California State College system were against it. Neither was there a consistent campus constituency supporting its implementation. Faculty at Yale College voted for its implementation, only to be overruled by faculties in Yale’s other schools; students at the University of Maryland voted against the plan, despite it being endorsed by the state’s governor; and the faculty senate at American University adopted the plan only to reverse their decision weeks later. These erratic patterns of support indicate how the plan’s framing, as well as the national conversation around it formed a novel configuration regarding academic freedom, university politicization, and student political activity.
Boosters saw the Princeton Plan as a means to encourage college students to enter into the state-authorized political system, rather than to challenge that system through organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society or the Black Panther Party.1 Generating faith in the electoral system for students grew more important when Congress lowered the voting age to 18 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1970 in June. (The Supreme Court ruled this provision unconstitutional in December, which would prompt the ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971.) The Civil Rights leader Whitney Young would outline this rationale in his syndicated opinion column. “Ballots, not bombs,” Young writes, “bring change and student activists will have the responsibility of trying to make the system work for them.” Distinct from other commentators, Young roots his frustration with the use of violence in the student movement in an observation about racism. The stakes for white people to take part in revolutionary political activity were much lower than they were for Black people, or, as he writes, “if you are white and get tired of the game, or if the system goes beserk in repressive rage, killing black people and burning out ghettos, why you can just get a haircut and go into dad’s business.” Young’s observation spoke to another concern: the recess appeared to give America’s 7.4 million college students, 91% of whom were white in 1970, special privileges.
Other objections to the Princeton Plan, however, focused on the institutions themselves and on partisanship, not equity. The plan’s emergence from the context of student strikes and a stated preference to replace “hawks” with “doves” in Congress led those on the right to see it as a thinly veiled attempt to support a peace platform. In a line of attack, segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond overtly questioned whether an election recess would jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the institutions that supported it. In response, in partnership with the IRS, the American Council on Education established guidelines to ensure the maintenance of the legally required non-partisan status of tax-exempt entities. Election recesses were permitted if lost instruction time was made up, and campuses were encouraged to levy fees on political groups, including those run by students, that used campus facilities. For example, in the wake of these recommendations Stanford leased a house to a student political group and as part of that lease surrendered the property’s existing tax-exempt status. Some faculty crusaders, like the philosopher Sidney Hook, saw the prod for students to participate in elections en masse as significantly dislodging the university from its primary academic mission. The discursive blowback led institutions to foreground the primacy of academics above political matters and centered the impossible pursuit of political neutrality.
Aspirations for and aspersions cast on the Princeton Plan went far beyond the program’s eventual impact. One study found that there was only a small increase in political activity amongst students at Princeton Plan institutions, so small in fact that it may have been within the margin of error; 14% of students participated in electoral campaigns at colleges that adopted the election day recess, while 11% participated at institutions that did not. This amounted to about 70,000 students working for campaigns in late October, down from summer estimates of 500,000 fall campaign workers. As two researchers put it, “academic recesses not only fell woefully short of achieving most of these goals but, in at least one respect, were counterproductive.” The researchers discovered that students who participated in electioneering, regardless of the outcome, had less faith in the electoral system. Moreover, this disillusionment was most prominent in the most politically committed campaigners at election recess institutions.
The Princeton Plan offers a vexed, but familiar lesson about what happens when colleges and universities seek to manage radical and revolutionary political activity by incorporating and reconfiguring those movements. On the one hand, they leave themselves vulnerable to reactionary claims about partisanship and seemingly predetermined investigations about university operations. On the other hand, the separation between the political energies that prompted administrative policies and the policies themselves are clear to people with a tendency to disavow top-down interventions, as well as to others that take the terms of such policies at face value. Nixon’s commission on campus unrest made the point that the political forces that led to such turmoil went beyond what was happening on campuses. It was a national problem, not an academic one. The election recess was but a cursory acknowledgement of that greater national problem. But without a more thorough reckoning with the terms of that problem–a reckoning that those who work and study in the university, then as now, may be well-poised to offer–the crisis would only persist.