“Takin’ it to the Streets”: Anti-ROTC Protests at MSU

4 12 2012

In the 1960s, students at Michigan State University echoed nationwide anti-war sentiments. For multiple reasons, student activists began to question the role of the military in the university. In 1960, students joined together to protest what was, at that time, compulsory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps). One group of students and faculty raised their fists in solidarity, carrying picket signs that read “No Regimentation at MSU”, “Education or Indoctrination???”, and “Politics and Universities don’t Mix!.


Students and faculty protest compulsory ROTC in 1960.

University policy came to reflect these concerns in 1962 when ROTC became an elective program at MSU. Some universities had chosen to abolish ROTC altogether. Commanding General of the U.S. Continental Army Command, Herbert Powell, anticipated MSU’s ability to continue the program in an “efficient” manner, even as an elective. He noted that the military still relied on “enlightened and patriotic supporters among faculty and students to point out to each and every man at State the absolutely essential nature of the ROTC program.”  Though male students were no longer required to do Reserve Officer’s Training, many continued to enroll in the program.

The validity of ROTC as an academic program came in to question once again in 1967 when a student, James R. Thomas, was ordered to drop his ROTC course, Military Science 100. James, a former infantry sergeant in the U.S. Army who had been taking the class as a visitor, had written a letter published by the State News which he described as “criticizing the inadequacy of the program.” The comment did not go over well with the head of Military Science at MSU, Colonel Robert G. Platt. In his letter to the editor, James notes that he was no longer allowed to ask questions or participate in any of the course activities. He was also forced to sit at the back of the room, otherwise, as his instructor explained, “The rest of the class might see that [he] was not being called on.” Later, James was notified that he did not actually meet the perquisites for the class. He claimed that the Military Science department did not give any reason for why he no longer met the criteria. Feeling that his student rights, as published in the Academic Freedom Report, had been violated, James filed a protest with the Ombudsman. He cited Section 2.2.1 of the Academic Freedom Report in his complaint. “It is the instructor’s role to encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression among his students in their quest for knowledge.”

James’s complaints sparked others’ concerns about the place of ROTC within the university. One editorial asked whether ROTC at MSU was “existing or co-existing in the academic community”. Were James Thomas’ rights violated? Did the Department of Military Science and the ROTC program have authority above the university’s academic regulations?


Military officers standing before a crowd in 1942.

If you are interested in learning about the rights of MSU students or faculty member in the current Academic Freedom Report, click here.

Two years later, ROTC came under fire from students for yet another reason. This time, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who were against the Vietnam War, were protesting ROTC on the grounds that it proliferated a war which they felt was unduly aggressive. The group said that 85% of all junior war officers were supplied by ROTC programs and cited Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserves as saying “the Armed Services cannot function properly without the ROTC system.”  SDS wanted to see an end to ROTC because of its role “in providing officers to maintain U.S economic domination of underdeveloped countries. Abolishing ROTC [would] help end the war in Vietnam and prevent the initiation of similar wars in Thailand, Guatemala, Brazil, and elsewhere.” In October of 1969, Students for a Democratic Society planned a rally to demand the complete abolition of ROTC. They encouraged fellow students to take action and join them in protest at Demonstration Hall, saying “nobody has a right to study the ways of oppressing people.”


A poster from the Students for a Democratic Society inviting students to protest ROTC at MSU from 1969.

Anti-ROTC protests continued as the Vietnam War escalated. What did campus sentiments look like around campus on a whole though? Some students were so opposed to ROTC that they resorted to what ASMSU described as “violent acts of destruction”, acts that resulted in “serious and costly damage to University facilities”. It may be that groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Committee to Abolish ROTC were in the minority when it came to negative attitudes toward ROTC. A survey done by ASMSU showed that a near majority of students (48.1%) “support[ed] ROTC with its current academic standing”. Only 13.6% of students surveyed “wanted ROTC abolished”.

In 1969, University President Walter Adams welcomed the Special Senate Committee to Study Michigan Colleges and Universities on Campus Disorder and Student Unrest (the Huber Commission) to investigate the degree of student protests on campus. The Huber Commission defined organized protests as picketing, striking, marching, petitioning, participating in a sit-in or teach-in, or assisting in a letter writing campaigns. Their survey of campus unrest indicated that there had been only one or two incidents and no more than 5% of the student body was involved.

As is the case with students across the country, MSU students have a long history of student activism. They have demonstrated in the name of equality, human rights, both socialism and capitalism, environmentalism, and against issues such as war and aggression, and university policies. These protests have been both violent and peaceful just like the array of anti-ROTC demonstrations. As the history surrounding anti-ROTC sentiments on campus shows the activists may actually make up a very small percentage of the population. However, that may be all that is necessary to trigger controversy and promote change.

A Brief History of Military at MSU

1 06 2012

The military of M.A.C. in the 1890s

Michigan State University has a history of being involved—whether we want it or not—in nearly every area of social and political life and this includes military service.  M.A.C. had only existed for six years before the onset of America’s next big conflict, the Civil War, and the faculty and students responded dutifully.  In fact, the first seven graduates of the college were not even present at the awarding of their degrees, having already been allowed to leave to serve in Missouri.  Two of these courageous men gave their lives by the end of the war.

The cadets of 1915 have a wall scaling contest.

For its duration, the First World War was not as widely discussed across campus.  Certainly faculty and students participated in the war effort, but there was a restraint in discussions and support that persisted until World War II. And while World War I was no less devastating to the family and friends of M.A.C. than the Civil War in terms of casualties, stories of bravery and commitment, and, occasionally, comical coincidences did float back to campus.  One such story arose from two men named Ralph Johnson and Paul Ginter.  These soldiers met in an aid hospital in France shortly after the outbreak of war, and found quickly that not only were they both graduates of M.A.C., but that both were forestry majors!  Comforting how our college can form bonds between men and women in the most unusual of circumstances.

Two men train on campus in the 1920s.

With the arrival of World War II came a new community spirit the likes of which M.S.C. had never seen before.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of U.S. involvement, M.S.C. president Hannah was instrumental in adapting the ways of Michigan State.  The college created a new summer school program so that students could finish their degrees within two years and move on to serve.  New interdisciplinary classes and training programs were imposed in order to ready the enlisted youth and faculty—nearly 6,200 of them, just at the start—at M.S.C. for service.  Professors believed the soldiers of M.S.C. needed a rounded education to be entirely prepared-after physical training the students were taught foreign languages, map making and aerial photography skills, and the benefits of geopolitics.

At some points, up to 50% of the population on campus were soldiers assigned for training at MSU by the US War Department.  These great numbers of people, in addition to the usual crowds of students, strained resources in the area, but this was a challenge the students and residents of East Lansing were willing to take.  Civilians in the area learned first aid training and fire fighting skills, they threw parties and sold produce grown in their Victory Gardens to buy war bonds, they entertained veterans around the state, and they researched ways to improve the war.  This included food production as well as penicillin and rubber manufacturing.  M.S.C. also supplied laborers to help on farms that were struggling to meet their quotas.  Radio stations, newspapers, and every college department pitched in to help the effort.  Michigan State experienced camaraderie unlike any before.

Three girls in the Women’s Land Army help out on a farm in 1944.

More than just a graduation photo backdrop: The eclectic history of Demonstration Hall

2 06 2011

Every May thousands of new MSU graduates congregate near Circle Drive to take part in what for many is their final MSU tradition – having a photo taken, in full graduation regalia, with MSU’s famous Spartan Statue.  Unbeknown to many of the new alumni the backdrop to their photograph is one of the most storied and interesting buildings on MSU’s campus.

Demonstration Hall, or Dem Hall as it is affectionately known, was planned by the then Michigan Agricultural College board in 1925 to replace the Campus Armory.  Erected in 1928, it was designed to serve as a building “suitable to be used for the demonstration of agricultural stock and implements, for college athletics and the housing of the military department of the college”.  At a cost of $355,000 the Romanesque Revival style building has been one of the most versatile on MSU’s campus and with its impressive arches and vine covered exterior it is still one of the most iconic to stand on the banks of the red cedar.

In its early days Dem Hall served many varied purposes for M.S.C. including housing commencement – as seen in this photograph in 1931 – as well as being an arena for agriculture students to show their cows as these students are doing in Farmers’ Week in 1933.

Dem Hall was always a popular sport arena with basketball, soccer, volleyball, and many other sports taken place inside its hallowed walls.  From 1949 Dem Hall was home to MSU Men’s Hockey.  However, this did not prevent MSU from melting the ice in 1951 and using the building as a dormitory to house 650 beds for the Michigan Future Farmers of America and the Michigan Future Homemakers of America; not, it should be pointed out, at the same time….Dem Hall proved to be a happy stomping ground for MSU hockey throughout the ensuing decades and even hosted a game against Gordie Howe’s Detroit Red Wings in 1959 and housed the Spartan team that won its first NCAA Hockey National Title in 1966.

However, Dem Hall was slowly beginning to lose its appeal to MSU’s hockey faithful.  Called (rather unfairly) an “eyesore” by the State News in 1971 and described at the same time by then MSU Head Coach Amo Bessone as “the only hockey rink that can guarantee everyone a bad seat” the old building’s days as a major sport arena at MSU were numbered.    MSU hockey eventually moved to the purpose-built Munn

Ice Arena in 1974 but Dem Hall’s iconic high ceilings and low lighting  still plays host to numerous sporting events such as Intramural indoor soccer and Intramural floor hockey.  The arena has also recently become home to the Mitten Mavens, a Lansing/East Lansing flat-track roller Derby team who regularly attract hundreds of spectators to their bouts at the storied venue.  Dem Hall has also been used at various times as a gallery for local artists to showcase their goods, as a venue for plays and concerts, and as the location of MSU’s blood-drive.

In recent years Dem Hall’s exterior has been renovated with the north facing windows replaced to give a more aesthetic image for the thousands of MSU grads who have it as a backdrop to their Spartan Statue graduation photos and 23 Sienna Glen Maple trees being planted to give the building a more historic feel.  Inside the building the smaller hall has been renovated and now serves as a practice venue for the Spartan Marching Band; the acoustics have even been improved so as to replicate the game day sound for the band.  The building still houses MSU’s ROTC, although the shooting range has gone, and the budding cadets no longer have to fight for space with cows, sheep, and other livestock!

Next time you are near Spartan Stadium or Munn Ice Arena and you pass by a rather dilapidated old-style building or you see a graduate having their photo taken on the Spartan statue with an intimidating but impressive looking arena in the background; stop and take a closer look.  As you do, remember the graduation ceremonies, agricultural shows, ROTC training, Red Wings hockey games, NCAA championships, and many other events that have taken place in one of the most historic venues on MSU’s campus.