Protests of Precedent (3 of 3)
Justfeatures researched student activism from 1968 - 1976
A Professor's Perspective
In his 52 years at Brandeis, Professor Gordon “Gordie” Fellman (SOC) has witnessed some major campus activism, from Ford Hall 1969 to Ford Hall 2015. In an interview with the Justice, he spoke of his experience and involvement.
According to Fellman, on the night of the Ford Hall takeover in 1969, the University President at the time, Morris Abram, called a faculty meeting as abruptly as the takeover itself. At the meeting, Abram told the faculty to go to the dorms and tell the white students to stay out of the conflict and continue with business as usual. When a faculty member objected to this and requested to hear what the Ford Hall occupants had to say, Abram insisted that he had told them all they needed to know and sent them off to the dorms.
Four faculty members, however, defied orders and went to Ford Hall instead to hear the students’ side. After the students explained how administration had betrayed them by not following through with promises the first University President, Abram Leon Sachar, had made to students of color, one faculty member pointed out that the University betrayed faculty all the time and advised students not to take it so personally. “Why do you take it?” a student asked.
Throughout the protest, faculty remained in support of the students, even clashing with Morris Abram when he wanted to call police and have students forcibly removed from Ford Hall. Fellman in particular continued to keep the students’ best interests at heart, though he remained relatively silent due to the tenuous position of his tenure. But at one point, he spoke up. When he heard whisperings about Ford Hall students considering going on strike, he discouraged them from doing so because a settlement seemed imminent at that time.
“I think if it would make you feel good to go on strike, that’s one thing,” Fellman said he told them, “but I don’t think it’ll help the cause.” The next day, however, a front-page article in the New York Post falsely reported that he had encouraged students to strike and that morning, an infuriated Abram called Fellman into his office. Fellman tried to explain, but only publishing a letter correcting the facts in the next issue of the New York Post satisfied Abram.
After students protesting financial aid cuts took Pearlman Hall on April 29, 1975 news sources swarmed Fellman — Sociology Department Chair at the time — for a comment, hoping he would condemn the students’ actions. Instead, Fellman said, “Why don’t we find out what they’re doing there? Why are they there? Let’s take it from there.” Out of numerous publications present — including the New York Times and the Boston Globe — only the Justice published his comments.
Fellman also witnessed the divestment protests of the 1970s and 1980s. Human rights activism shifted from local to international as students, in protest of apartheid, urged divestment from South African companies. According to Fellman, students did everything from hijacking the PA system to play Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” at a trustee banquet to building and living in shanty towns in order to pressure the University to take action.
One tactic, blocking the second entrance to the University near the Village, which is no longer used, resulted in arrests. The majority of the students arrested took a plea deal that would expunge their record in exchange for an admission of guilt, but four students — two of them Fellman’s students — refused it. Instead, they chose to defend themselves in open court and ultimately, won. Eventually, protestors achieved divestment after they threatened to disrupt commencement.