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W&L 's Response

On May 19, 1970 Washington and Lee senior, and active member of Young Republicans, Homer Gamble sent a letter to Virginia State Senator William F. Stone defending Washington and Lee’s actions, and his own vote on the student resolution to allow students who felt so inclined to  suspend their class attendance the for the May Demonstrations. Homer was an active member of Young Republicans according to the University yearbook, The Calyx, and remembered as quite conservative and active in conservative causes by a classmate and fraternity brother. Though Homer himself professed to support the Nixon administration’s actions in Vietnam and oppose the protests on campus he praised the attitude of the University- students, faculty, and President Huntley, in response to the tense atmosphere. He praised Huntley’s actions as saying “to both faculty and students: Have a reasonable and thoughtful attitude” and celebrated the prevention of more drastic consequences. He maintained that, had the “faculty denied the more radical group of students their right to express their opinions, one snap of the fingers would have had Lexington filled with agitators from the University of Virginia to the University of California. They were just waiting for the word.” The students, faculty, and administration of Washington and Lee responded differently to the period unrest than most institutions around the country.

According to alumnus Gary Poliakoff who was a freshman at Washington and Lee in 1970 and involved in the anti-war movement, the students as a whole were very respectful of the way that the faculty, board of trustees, and President Huntley handled the situation. One factor that may have contributed to the respect between faculty, students, administration, and board at Washington and Lee was the small size and close relationships. Underlying student reactions across the country was sometimes the sense that had existed in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement that the university’s shortcomings were “its impersonality, its huge lecture sections evaluated by multiple choice examinations that were graded by machines, its preoccupation with lucrative contracts for “practical” research projects, and, above all, its lack of concern for students as individual human beings.” However none of those were true at Washington and Lee. The Honor System, Speaking tradition, and general campus culture were strong and fostered bonds of trust and respect like those reflected by Homer Gamble's decision to support the consciences of his fellow students even where he politically disagreed. Unlike on other campuses where ROTC buildings were burned or administrative buildings taken over, there was no destruction of property or invasion or occupation of buildings at Washington and Lee. One ROTC student kept watch one evening over the ROTC building but there was never any threat to it according to Mr. Poliakoff that wasn't the attitude on campus- no one was going to damage the building. 

Ring Tum Phi: Faculty, Student Leaders Ask For Stability

May 1970 was a unique time in Washington and Lee history. The historical records and memories of those with longtime experience on campus can recall nothing that nears the type of student protest that occurred at W&L in May of 1970. Poliakoff, who was a student on campus at the time commented that " Everybody felt it was uncharacteristic of W&L." The solidarity of students on campus created a unique atmosphere, a kind of camaraderie that didn't exist before on campus and national events pulled W&L into the extraordinary Student Strike of 1970. 

 

Washington and Lee charted a unique compromise among Universities of the time. This compromise is important in that it both sheds light on the University’s general perspective and Modus Operandi and exhibits the way that W&L addressed this exceptional period. Homer’s letter, correspondence between Senator Stone, William Friday (President of the University of North Carolina) and President Huntley and the faculty’s decision on the matter suggest alternative paths and views by both faculty and students at other institutions. Washington and Lee managed to both accommodate the consciences of more “radical” students and continue with its educational mission.