Writing Their Own History: San Francisco State University Is Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Student-Led Strike That Brought about the Creation of the College of Ethnic Studies

By Nance, Molly | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 30, 2008 | Go to article overview

Writing Their Own History: San Francisco State University Is Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Student-Led Strike That Brought about the Creation of the College of Ethnic Studies


Nance, Molly, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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In the early 1950s, Dr. Joseph White rived in the Fillmore District in San Francisco and attended San Francisco State College, now called San Francisco State University. His life was relatively simple; he took the number 22 bus to school, hung out with friends in jazz clubs, and studied courses in psychology. But something was missing.

"Now, when I was an undergraduate student at SFSU, Black folks were invisible in the curriculum," says White. "They were invisible in the administration and invisible in the faculty. And the same was true for when I was there for the master's program, so I never had a Black teacher in all of my higher education."

Fast-forward to 1968, when a new generation of students walked the SFSU campus, and White was the dean of undergraduate studies. The political and cultural climate in the United States was at its boiling point. There was the Vietnam War, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy. The students were not only fueled with the desire to end the social and political injustice of their time, but also to gain equal rights to a college education.

Their demands for the admittance and enrollment of more students of color, the hiring of more minority faculty members and the creation of a School of Ethnic Studies resulted in a formation of alliances among racial and ethnic groups, mainly the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. Their combined efforts made it possible for their voices to ring loud and clear--for five long, tumultuous months.

From Nov. 6, 1968 to March 21, 1969, the students led a strike that made an enormous impact on the higher education system in the United States and resulted in SFSU's becoming the first and only university to establish a School of Ethnic Studies, now called the College of Ethnic Studies.

The strike was not peaceful, though. During its initial stages, students marched into the administration building and later set up picket lines around the campus. They disrupted classes in session, shattered windows, set off up to four fire bombs, and made threats to students who went to class and professors who held class, says White.

University president S. I. Hayakawa opposed the students' protests and called for increased police presence, up to as many as 300 officers a day. After a week of confrontation between students and the police, the campus was temporarily shut down from Nov. 13 to Dec. 2, 1968. Few classes were held when the campus reopened.

White, who in 1969 co-drafted the legislation resulting in the Equal Opportunity Program designed to boost minority student enrollment with then-California State Assemblyman Willie Brown, was stuck in the middle, between emotion and protocol.

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"The students were mad because they didn't feel like I was revolutionary enough. The senior administration was mad because they thought I should settle those kids down," says White, a retired UC Irvine professor emeritus of social science. "It was intense."

Changing Higher Education and the World

Growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown, Dr. Laureen Chew experienced hints of racism while attending a predominantly White Catholic school, but was a relatively quiet young woman. Attending SFSU changed her perception of the world. She worked in the library on campus in 1968 and was a member of the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action, an entity of the Third World Liberation Front. She went on strike, was arrested and went to jail for 20 days.

"Issues of equity and access are etched in your psyche when you go through something like that," says Chew, now the associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. "Once I got involved, there was no turning back. I really felt we could change this world."

And they did.

This month, SFSU is recognizing student and faculty struggles and successes during a 40th anniversary commemorative celebration of the student-led strike of 1968. …

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