Editor’s note: This is the second column on former Cal Poly President Robert Kennedy. The first was published Jan. 2.
‘You were right, President Kennedy, that crowd is under control. It won’t get violent unless there is some provocation. We are not going to provide it.”
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Larry Mansfield’s comment to incoming-Cal Poly President Robert E. Kennedy characterized the mode of the Cal Poly campus during the late 1960s epoch of campus unrest.
In February 1968, as the time of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam approached, newspapers, magazines and, most significantly, television had shown images of the effects of napalm on Vietnamese villages. Dow Chemical, the chief manufacturer of napalm, came to Cal Poly to recruit students from the June graduation class.
A new student organization, SNAP — Students for New Action Politics — sought a forum on campus to demonstrate against Dow’s recruiting effort. Earlier that month, a Dow recruiter at CSU Los Angeles had barely survived the actions of a violent mob scene on campus.
Bob Kennedy hadn’t yet been formally inaugurated as Cal Poly’s new president, but these events were on his watch.
Kennedy knew that the demonstration wouldn’t get out of hand. Working within the rules that the-then California State Colleges Board of Trustees had set for campus demonstrations, he approached the leaders of SNAP:
“I encouraged them to do it ‘right’ by providing the speakers’ platform, the public address system, security officers to protect their speakers in case some students with pro-war tendencies initiated a fight.”
He told Sheriff Mansfield that his real test of leadership would be in seeing SNAP keep their part of the bargain:
“I told them part of the deal for my cooperation was for them to clean up the lawn area and not leave a mess for the groundskeepers,” Kennedy said.
Other campuses were covered with shattered glass and the residue of tear gas. Bombs, police and National Guard gunfire were common events over the next three years.
The fact that Cal Poly did not experience such violence has been explained by some as a result of our fairly remote, rural setting. Others attribute it to political apathy among many Poly students at the time.
Certainly, these were factors. But then why did UCSB, immediately to the south, explode with the burning of a bank and the killing of a student in April 1970?
Part of the answer has to be found in the leadership style of Kennedy. He had a “hands-on” style during an era of crisis when it was really needed.
His attention to detail came again to the fore when the CSU trustees were about to hold one of their regularly scheduled meetings in Poly’s staff dining hall in March 1969. Such meetings had caused great disturbances on other campuses.
Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan was not popular with many students because of his raising student fees and his very direct language in saying what he thought about academic freedom and demonstrators.
The governor’s security chief wanted to place sharpshooters on the roof to protect Reagan. Kennedy asked why this was necessary. The security chief asserted that such marksmen could readily observe a potential assassin. Kennedy asked with great concern, if they saw such a person “what would the sharpshooter do?”
Kennedy was assured that the presence of the highly visible sharpshooters was to act as a deterrent, and that they would never fire into a crowd.
Only then did he grant permission with the caution: “Make certain your officers understand your stated rationale for their role.”
On May 4, 1970, four students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. More than 450 American campuses had to be partially or completely shut down.
At that moment, high school students were arriving at Cal Poly for the large traditional spring meeting of the Future Farmers of America. Kennedy notified Gov. Reagan that he wanted Cal Poly exempted from the statewide closure order. His request was granted.
Kennedy spoke sympathetically to Poly’s students on the library lawn, explaining why he wanted the education mission to continue even in this moment of unprecedented tension.
Nearly everyone understood his reasons.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.