On the morning of Nov. 8, 1968, I was eating breakfast in my Grant Street apartment when the phone rang.
It was a secretary in the Purdue administration building summoning me to a meeting with the dean of students within the hour.
I was editor-in-chief of The Purdue Exponent, and the paper had been evolving from a publication that dutifully reported campus events, no matter how trivial (there was actually a column announcing “pinnings”), to a serious student newspaper that reported on and advocated for the issues of the day, from the Vietnam War to civil rights to issues of student power. Thanks to that and to some high-profile speaking engagements, I was by this time known as the “controversial editor” of The Exponent.
So when the dean’s office phoned that morning, I felt like a forest animal smelling smoke.
In the dean’s office I was handed an announcement that the University president had removed me from office, and then I was sent on my way. Unknown to me, the rest of the senior staff had been summoned to a separate meeting exhorting them to carry on without me, now in a more responsible manner (less about civil rights, more about the Glee Club).
This was on a Friday. Over the weekend the newspaper staff created an argument that the University was not, in fact, the legal publisher of the paper, the president therefore had no legal authority to fire me, and I was continuing as editor. Monday morning’s paper — which I think of as the Tennis Court Oath edition — announced our stand.
Students, faculty, and various organizations on the campus and even across the country weighed in on our behalf. The national press picked up the story. Even people who agreed that The Exponent had become too liberal and too activist (and many thought so) opposed the University’s attack on freedom of the press. Students and faculty called for a boycott of classes.
The administration now had either to send in the police to seize The Exponent office (pretty bad visuals there) or back down. They chose the latter, and the result is now history. The president held his decision to fire me in abeyance, a committee was appointed, and two months later the committee recommended that I continue as editor and that The Exponent become independent — as it later did.
The paper continued its critical role, became even better at it and produced special supplements that spring (one on campus racial issues, another on the administration itself) that won national awards.
Looking back on this chapter of Purdue history, I do remember a couple of widely held misperceptions that I feel obligated to correct.
I emerged from the fray as something of a campus hero, featured a couple of months later in a “Look” magazine story and even decades later in a couple of master’s theses. It was thought around campus that I had “outsmarted” Purdue’s president.
I outsmarted no one. From the beginning I was merely putting one foot in front of the other in the blind faith that a campus newspaper should be a real newspaper, not a public relations organ of the University, and that freedom of the press was a good thing and worth fighting for. For the record, the strategically brilliant ploy of refusing to accept the editor’s firing was the idea of our associate editor in consultation with her boyfriend, who was a law student.
The other misperception was to assign me more credit (or blame) than I deserved. The more vibrant, exciting, and controversial Exponent of 1968 was a team effort, and there were other staff members who were much better journalists than I.
It was also true that The Exponent was reflecting a wave of critical and rebellious thinking that was sweeping the country. What happened at Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement of 1964 made its way to West Lafayette. It took four years, but we had our own revolution, Boilermaker style, in 1968. But that movement made me; I did not make the movement.
As someone who has taught history, I challenge my students to look for its lessons. In the Exponent 1968 chapter of Purdue’s history, I see two lessons as important today as they were 50 years ago.
First, in a democracy a free press is essential to report realities some would rather keep hidden, make criticisms some would rather not hear, and challenge leaders who would rather not be challenged.
Second, any free press doing its job will be attacked by those in the “rather not” camp. Defense of a free press is defense of democracy. The real heroes in The Exponent revolt were those across the campus who showed themselves willing to stand up for a free press.
– William Smoot
Smoot was editor-in-chief of The Exponent as a student in 1968. Today, he lives in Berkeley, California. He teaches part-time with the Osher Institute at University of California, Berkeley and with the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison. He is also the author of “Conversations with Great Teachers,” published in 2010.