If there was a violent demonstration on this campus involving something you really believed in, would you participate? A Trenton State College student asked one hundred of her peers this question, hoping to illustrate political apathy on campus. The results? 42% of respondents said yes, 52% said no, and only 6% had no opinion. If almost half of the students polled were willing to jump right into a violent conflict during an era that some were decrying as politically apathetic, what would they say about The College of New Jersey circa 2009?
I happened upon this poll in a 1969 issue of The State Signal, TSC’s student newspaper, amid articles on the Vietnam War, thought-provoking poetry, a review of the Beatles’ new release, “Abbey Road”, a weekly column entitled “The Perspective”, and coverage of an eleven-month saga involving the appointment and subsequent removal of the college’s president at the time, Robert Heussler.
My motivation for scouring the library archives in search of The State Signal’s 1969-1970 issues began with something uncommon—an in-depth, non-class related conversation with my education professor, Dr. Don Wright. As one topic led to another, we began to discuss the fight for Dr. Nagesh Rao’s tenure that a group of students and I were involved with last semester. My professor shook his head and proceeded to recount a similar tale of campus struggle from the beginning of his career at the College—one that involved an unqualified president, mass dissent from faculty and students alike, and the marching of a casket through Green Hall.
The fourth president in five and a half years, Heussler was appointed in 1968–a tumultuous time for both the College and the nation. American colleges had just been desegregated and students demanded the development of a Black Studies Program. Anti-war tensions were beginning to boil over. Heussler, who had little experience, and whose claim to fame was flying planes in Vietnam, failed to prove that he was qualified to lead the College during such turmoil. A list of grievances was quickly drafted against him; ultimately, 271 faculty and administration expressed “No Confidence” in a litany printed in The State Signal halfway through the Fall 1969 semester.
The charges related mostly to Heussler’s inability to manage the College’s affairs, his lack of participation in campus life, and his unilateral decision-making. Despite calls for his resignation and removal, the Board of Trustees backed him unequivocally. It took a final audacious act by outraged students to end the rigmarole—the story of the casket that was initially relayed to me by my professor.
According to Dr. Wright, at least a hundred students, fed up with Heussler and impelled by the political climate of the time, procured a casket and a large bell and marched through Green Hall, where the College administration had offices. Heussler quit the very same day.
The image of a procession of incensed students, brazen enough to haul a casket across campus for something they believed in, is a truly inspiring one. By organizing together, students at our college were able to, as The State Signal reported, “do in two days what the faculty and administration had not been able to do in seven months.”
Stories like this, even if relayed anecdotally by a professor, are the sort that compel us to ask questions, dig deeper, and become empowered to effect change. While it might seem that there is a lot of apathy on campus, there are striking parallels between the times we now live in and the late 1960s. Societal change on a large scale starts with young people, and we have all the tools needed to stand together and create an outcome we believe in. Our history is rich and provocative, and we should draw on the achievements of forty years ago to shape how we approach the issues of our day. It might be time again to break out that casket.
Dr. Don Wright has been teaching at the College since 1963.