For the handful of us who were there at the beginnings of UC Irvine — and are still around — the current student demonstrations bring to mind the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and early ’70s on college campuses across the country.
They played out against a backdrop of a high U.S. casualty rate in Indochina and a deeply divided nation at home.
In hindsight, I feel rather like the last remaining Civil War veteran in my Indiana home town. Whatever his modest role in society prior to that war, he must have sensed that survival alone was enough to make him historically important.
Survivors of my war, World War II, who were burdened with the label of the Greatest Generation, are beginning to be consigned to the role of hero-in-waiting simply because we’re still around. Society hasn’t yet grasped our increasing longevity, so the role making is premature. And it is from this place that déjà vu takes over as we watch the modest campus protests today.
But hold on. Wondering anew why we didn’t allow the role model of Vietnam to keep us out of Iraq isn’t where I am headed with this.
I’d like to stay at UCI and offer up a human role model who had to learn on the job how to deal with campus protests when they were becoming lethal.
His name was Dan Aldrich, and he was the first and longest-serving chancellor of UCI. I was teaching there during his tenure, and for a decade I watched Aldrich keep his cool and tamp fires that threatened to become violent while he was being savaged from both ends of the political spectrum.
It is worth studying today, not just on college campuses but in Washington, D.C., as well.
When President Johnson helicoptered in to dedicate the UCI campus in 1964, the Vietnam War was escalating, Gov. Ronald Reagan was campaigning for a second term on a promise to “clean up the mess at the University of California,” and an editorial in the Santa Ana Register said “the last thing we want at Irvine is another Berkeley.”
Orange County and UCI were able to co-habit in a superficial sort of harmony for a year. The biggest controversy was over the selection of the anteater as the mascot.
Then the San Francisco Mime Troupe entered our lives, and Aldrich made it clear that he was his own man who would have to be reckoned with there.
The troupe was an aggressive, irreverent purveyor of left-wing causes that had mounted a show called “Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel.” And, quicker than you could say “criminal communist conspiracy,” our honeymoon was over and UCI was labeled a home for subversives.
Amid this first crisis, Aldrich simply refused to cave in to the pressures on him to cancel the troupe’s scheduled booking to appear on campus. Instead he checked and found the performance had been properly booked and that the troupe had been invited by a recognized campus organization. So he approved the troupe’s appearance with the condition that it would remove some obscene material deemed excessive.
When this trust was violated in the performance, the chancellor banished the troupe from ever again appearing at UCI. But a large segment of the local populace — most of whom hadn’t seen the play — were still fuming about it six months later. Meanwhile, the rules that allowed the Mime Troupe continued to govern campus speakers, including a state Senate member of the John Birch Society and a communist party mole as well as Eldridge Cleaver, head of the Black Panthers, who wasn’t allowed on any other UC campus. But there was no balance to be found or sought for the vicious personal attacks on Aldrich by the Orange County American Legion and the United Republicans of California.
Aldrich, who died in 1990, was quite possibly the only educator of stature in California who could have survived this barrage while building a fine and strong foundation for the university that’s in our back yard today. He was a registered Republican, excelled in athletics, and wore his patriotism proudly. He had a prestigious background in agriculture and was a vigorous, outgoing family man. He had a straightforward way about him that was equally effective at a Kiwanis Club luncheon or an academic seminar.
He was a true leader who picked up trash during his walks through the campus with the same elan he threw a discus in the senior Olympics. And there is one still vivid picture of him in my head that best catches all of these leadership qualities.
It took place on a night when deep trouble was brewing on campus in the plaza in front of the library. A mob was forming, mostly of students, to let off a consuming anger at what seemed a hopeless continuation of the war in Vietnam. I came over from my office to investigate, and saw the chancellor arrive on a deck above the plaza.
Below him was the mindless, haphazard buzz of a mob. He watched it for a moment, then stepped to the balustrade and began speaking. They didn’t listen at first, but he didn’t change his delivery. I don’t remember what he was saying, only that it was getting through. He was a big man, and he seemed to overflow the space in which he was speaking. And the crowd in the plaza began to stop milling about and appeared to listen.
Then, almost as if it were choreographed, the mob began breaking up into groups and drifting off almost aimlessly. He kept talking until foot traffic began moving again into the library. Then he walked back to his office.
JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.