Student Protests at NMU

Like most of the country, NMU experienced some student protests during the 1960s. However, the largest of the protests was not about Vietnam or other typical protest topics of the time but about the firing of a professor.

Dr. Robert McClellan was hired as a history professor at Northern in 1966. Just prior to the 1967-1968 school year, he was informed that it was his last year at NMU. No specific reasons were given to the public. McClellan protested, and Harden eventually stated that McClellan was fired for four reasons:

1) He had openly criticized the Four Course Plan, a program where each student’s coursework would be entirely standardized.

2) He had advised students that they had a right to sue the university for lower dormitory fees when they arrived in the fall and there was no furniture, water, or electricity in their dorm rooms.

3) He had sent students to interview Marquette residents on their feelings towards the university.

4) He had informed home owners whose homes were going to be appropriated for the expansion of the university of their rights to resist the low prices that the university was giving them.

McClellan was a very popular teacher and many felt that his firing had been unfair. Students reacted to his firing by protesting. Faculty also protested in large numbers and many threatened to resign at the end of the school year if McClellan wasn’t rehired. A Committee for the Defense of Academic Freedom was established. It was essentially a coalition of faculty and students who sought to reinstate McClellan and ensure that faculty would be able to express their opinions on the university and would have a say in its policies. The ACLU also became involved with the case as legal advisors.

“McClellan Week” was an entire week of protesting which included a parade and demonstration through the streets of Marquette, a burning in effigy of Johnson, Harden, and the Board of Control, a fundraising dance, a “Trick-or-Treat for Academic Freedom” on Halloween as a fundraiser for the trial, a sky diver to attract attention, a sound truck to circulate around Marquette and spread messages about the cause, a boycott of classes (many professors had already cancelled classes for the week), a boycott of the Bookstore and the Wildcat Den, a library/read-in day to reestablish academic freedom, a motorcade with signs, information centers to distribute literature about the cause, sending transcripts to other schools suggesting that students would leave en masse if McClellan wasn’t allowed to return, an “eat-in, eat-out” where all students would go to the cafeteria at once and then none would go the next day, a “love-out” on Sugarloaf Mountain, a mock funeral for academic freedom, and a “teach-out” on topics related to academic freedom.

At a night of speeches, professors sarcastically created the Harden Award for Academic Freedom and gave it to the entire student body for its commitment to McClellan’s rights to academic freedom. The newspaper article about the event continues, “Following a speech by Vernon Pierce, speech department instructor, the capacity crowd of 2,200 students moved en masse to Kaye Auditorium where folk singers and popular bands were waiting. Somewhere in between they picked up about 300 more students, as security police estimated 2,500 students were packed into the auditorium, and at one time, according to Duane Staumbaugh, administrative assistant in security, there were as many as 3,000 students roaming the halls of Kaye. Songs of freedom opened the ‘concert’, followed by a variety of selections, speeches and general noise. Rolls of toilet paper and hand towels and stacks of IBM cards were tossed about the auditorium as students chanted, ‘Hey Hey! Ogden J. How many profs did we lose today?’” They then moved from Kaye Hall to the Fieldhouse, where the protest/party continued until 6 AM.

 
Some of the protests were aimed at trying to get Governor George Romney to respond to the situation. He eventually replied that the university had autonomy and that he would not intervene. The state of Michigan’s legislature also threatened to close Northern if students refused to return to classes. When Jamrich became President, he reinstated McClellan to calm the student body and the faculty. McClellan would later be involved with future protests and controversies on campus.

Currently, the Archives is creating a website about Student Protests at NMU. Look for it in the coming months!

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Prepared by Annika Peterson

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