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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sit-ins can have consequences

By Robert M. Kamins and Robert E. Potter

Recent news stories about the students' sit-in at UH-Manoa carried a headline that echoed the distant but still-relevant past: "Protesters take over UH president's office." So it was in May 1968, when about 200 students occupied Bachman Hall, the administration building of the campus.

Elly Chong sang folk songs to entertain the students who occupied the UH-Manoa administration building 37 years ago to protest the firing of a professor. Although the professor was rehired, the authors suggest that protest did long-lasting damage to the university.

Advertiser library photo • May 23, 1968

Then, the issue was how a controversial faculty member had been fired. Now it is a proposal to create a classified research center to serve the Navy.

There are lessons to be learned from what happened 37 years ago. The students of 1968 were protesting the way an assistant professor had been dismissed, saying it was a violation of academic due process. They ultimately won.

Facing dissent on and off campus, and the threat of censure by the American Association of University Professors, the UH Board of Regents reversed its decision to fire.

However, while academic freedom was upheld, there was a cost to the university. By their conduct at meetings of the board, when regents were roundly cursed and heckled, a few students alienated these policymakers.

Blaming the UH administration for the turmoil, the regents took over more and more control of faculty and staff appointments. It took the resignation of the Manoa chancellor, in protest against policymakers becoming administrators, to restore balance to the governance of the university.

The issue raised by today's protest is whether a classified research center, which may prohibit its researchers from publishing their findings or discussing them with students or other faculty members, is compatible with the primary aim of a university — which is to gain and disseminate knowledge.

That issue is fundamental and demands the best effort of the university — its policymakers, administrators, faculty, staff and students — to understand how a classified research center works, and if and how it can avoid a conflict with academic freedom.

Understanding requires discussion in detail, with a candor which the protesters say has not been forthcoming.

The record of 1968 shows that the burden of proof is on those who propose changing the ground rules of a self-respecting university, whether of hiring and firing faculty, or of openness in research.

In 1968, useful discussion did not take place until the shouting was over, leaving anger and division that took a decade to lift. Those who love our university must hope that it will go better after this sit-in, that the regents and administrators will be candid, open and thorough in explaining how the proposed University Affiliated Research Center would function, and how academic freedom will be safeguarded.

And we must also pray that protesters avoid the kind of fighting talk that put salt in the wounds of 1968, wounds that did not heal until those students had long left the campus.

Robert M. Kamins and Robert E. Potter are emeriti professors of the University of Hawai'i and authors of "Malamalama: A History of the University of Hawai'i." They wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.