Background: New Student Voices

 The 1960s was a transformative time for many colleges and universities throughout the country, and Northeastern University was no exception. The period of physical and financial growth that characterized the early years of the decade would help shape student attitudes during the Vietnam War.

Northeastern had spent the 1950s developing graduate programs and preparing for physical plant expansion. In 1959, the Boston campus consisted of eleven buildings on fifteen acres of land, and dormitories supported less than one hundred students.  With the inauguration of president Asa Knowles that year, the administration oversaw a major organizational restructuring in 1960. By 1961, Knowles had announced a plan to raise $40 million (later $60.5 million) to double the number of University buildings, resulting in new dormitories, a renovated Student Center, and a Burlington campus.
During this period, the University also received funds for medical and scientific program facilities, underlining a national and institutional focus on technology and innovation in the face of the Cold War. The early 1960s saw the establishment of the University College (1960), the Graduate School of Actuarial Science (1963), and the College of Nursing (1964), as well as a merger with the New England College of Pharmacy (1962), an affiliation with Forsyth Dental School (1963), the restructuring of Lincoln College (1963), and the adoption of the Boston-Bouvé College (1964).
At this time, Massachusetts saw a rise in high school graduation rates, and more American families could afford tuition as a result of the economic boom of the 1950s. Like other Boston area universities, Northeastern expanded enrollment to meet this new demand. But with a growing student body came a growing demand for student power. With the Diamond Anniversary Development Program underway, the University became increasingly focused on financial matters and students and faculty expressed their frustrations at being excluded from institutional decision making. Students grew weary of what they felt was an increasingly bureaucratic and authoritarian administration. With more students living on the Boston campus than ever before, students began to challenge existing University residency regulations, including curfews, co-ed restrictions, and dorm activities.
By the mid-1960s, the Student Council began to play a more active role in mediating conflict between students and administrative offices. By the end of the decade, the Student Court had  been established to resolve issues of student rights and discipline. The Court also sought to uphold student freedom of speech and dissuade censorship by protecting the Northeastern News. Over the years these groups would push for students to have a more active role in determining academic curricula, residency policies, campus speakers, and other academic and administrative decisions.

Breaking ground for new Classroom-Laboratory Building, later named Robinson Hall

Students eat off trays at the Ell Student Center opening

Two students cut into the Ell Student Center addition replica cake at the dedication ceremony

Increased enrollment also brought new student voices, including an increase in women and African-American students on campus. As the student body became more diverse, students at Northeastern and other Boston area colleges expressed an increasing solidarity with social movements emerging around the United States. In the mid-1960s, local demonstrators organized campus and citywide protests in support of the Civil Rights movement, labor movement, and emerging black power, women’s liberation, and ecology movements. Underlining each of these movements was a resistance to what students perceived as a national fixation with capitalism, oppression, racism, and imperialism. Faculty at Northeastern’s newly expanded College of Liberal Arts were sympathetic to student concerns and encouraged student expression and social justice activism. Despite the University’s administration’s focus on expanding the science and technology, student enrollment in the liberal arts grew as did the College’s curriculum offerings.

Recipients of the Ford Foundation for the Advancement of Education grant stand together outside

African American couple dances at the Military Ball

Group of students studying in Dodge Library

The decade also saw the formation and growth of national student groups like the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). By the mid- to late-1960s, African-American students at Northeastern were demanding academic and administrative reform to better support students of color, while a small SDS chapter hosted protests against the University’s military ties and corporate investments. While Northeastern’s SDS never surpassed more than about fifty formal members, the group was adept at mobilizing protests and fueling campus dialogue throughout the War period. New anti-War student committees and coalitions also cropped up around Boston in the mid- to late-1960s, including the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC).
Military activity escalated in the summer of 1964, when U.S. warships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident allowed Congress to pass legislation justifying open warfare in North Vietnam. As conflict intensified in the following years, anti-War protests and grassroots organizing began to gain momentum around the country, encouraged by the successes of the Civil Rights movement. Joining demonstrations in Washington, students protested policy decisions and the military draft. On campus, they challenged ROTC programs, criticized administrative investment in pro-War corporations, and demanded freedom of speech. Inspired by major protests at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, Boston area students began to take to the campuses and the State House, and the city soon emerged as an epicenter of the student anti-War effort.