The politically-charged ’70s

Jake Levitas

Was Wash U the disco-hoppin’, party-never-stoppin’, research university in the 1970s that it is today? Not exactly, but it was a center for political and civil rights activism in the Midwest, and was in the midst of developing into a top-tier school.

Fall 1970: Wash U was, as one alumnus says, a “very politically charged” campus. A few months earlier, students burned down the ROTC building in a protest against the Vietnam War. When Nixon was elected, one Student Life article described “frustration, disgust, and despair” as the “pervading sentiments of WU students.”

Though the campus is somewhat less homogeneous today, Mark Baum-Baicker, Class of ’74, says he “can’t remember a person who wasn’t liberal” when he was a student.

This dominant view throughout campus resulted in a barrage of anti-war and anti-administration activism. There were protests, sit-ins, break-ins and bomb threats. As one trustee said, “the very existence of the University was at stake,” when William Danforth became chancellor in 1971. From there, the school was faced with the necessity to complete a crucial transition and turnaround. They started an aggressive fundraising campaign, and successfully reached their $60 million goal in 1976, giving them hope for the future.

Despite the student-administration problems around campus, alumni agree that the education they received was “phenomenal.”

Baum-Baicker said that Wash U was “a very good school when I was there, but it didn’t have the reputation it does now.” Perhaps it is because of this lack of reputation that he says the school was, “full of great students, but the academic environment was not as serious as it is today.”

The campus was similar, with one big difference: the law school building.

“The law school won all these architecture awards, but everyone on campus hated it,” says Baum-Baicker. “It was a joke on campus” and “stood out like a sore thumb. It was an atrocity, it really was.”

Food was poor and so was personal grooming.

Baum-Baicker remembers all the guys sporting beards and long hair.

Intramural sports were “huge” for students. So big, in fact, that they sometimes had their own set of team rankings in Student Life.

Regionally, a “tremendous number of people were from Eastern and Midwestern cities, but only a scattered number of people were from the West coast,” Baum-Baicker said.

On the weekends, there was a less vibrant social atmosphere around campus than there is today. Lipkin described Clayton as being, “a kind of sleepy place,” while Baum-Baicker recalls the Loop as being, “just Blue Hill and a few Chinese restaurants.” However, there were more theaters and bars around campus, which students frequented. In addition, on-campus music was big.

“We had concerts on campus fairly frequently, especially during Freshman Orientation. The scene was definitely different than today’s WILD though,” he said.

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