By Douglas Jastrow and Monica Miller
Article Launched: 11/01/2008
No students were arrested for unlawful protest at San Francisco State
University last week. And no professors were fired for refusing to
hold classes. But the people and ideas behind the longest student
strike in academic history were back on campus to commemorate its
"The strike revolutionized the university," said Joseph White, dean
of undergraduate studies in 1968. As a result, "no one today would
exclude people of color from any aspect of higher education."
The four-and-a-half-monthlong strike that rocked San Francisco State
was marked by several violent clashes between police and students.
Beginning this week and for the next six months, participants in the
strike, scholars and university personnel will explore the lasting
impacts of that momentous event.
White spoke Friday on how scholars and activists built the department
in the post-strike atmosphere, one of about 30 sessions held at the
university during the anniversary's kickoff program.
The strike, which began in November 1968 and lasted until March 1969,
changed academic history. It led to the establishment of the first
and only College of Ethnic Studies in the United States, the first
gender-studies program at an American university, as well as academic
rights for students and professors.
During the strike, classes were often canceled, and the campus closed
for months. Hundreds of students were injured and arrested in the
process, as were police officers called in by then-university
President S. I. Hayakawa to dispel protesters. Dozens of instructors
who declined to hold classes and walked the picket lines lost their jobs.
"It's difficult to revisit painful experiences," said Ken Monteiro,
current dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU, which includes
programs devoted to the study of Africana, Raza, Asian-American and
American Indian studies. "But part of our growth as an institution is
to look into the past, however painful that may be."
Indeed, the strike still strikes a raw nerve with some faculty
members, and the university did not acknowledge the four-day
celebration of the 40th anniversary in either the Oct. 27 or Nov. 3
campus memos, an online publication distributed to the university community.
President Robert Corrigan declined to comment on the strike's legacy.
Creation of a College of Ethnic Studies was one of the 15 demands
made by the striking students and one of the few demands actually met
when the strike concluded. By gaining this small victory, however,
academia was changed forever.
"The liberal arts educational system was meant to teach people about
themselves," said James Hirabayashi, dean of Ethnic Studies at San
Francisco State from 1970 to 1976. "And only by defining ourselves
can we prevent others from defining us."
During World War II, Hirabayashi was detained in a Japanese
internment camp in Northern California. He said that Americans felt
justified in imprisoning fellow citizens because of the "stereotypes
(at the time) of what it meant to be a Japanese-American. And it was
that outside definition that put us in there," he said.
It was this call for self-determination and a more relevant education
that was always the rallying cry behind the student-led protest. With
40 years of hindsight, what was gained and lost can both be seen with
"This was the place where people were arrested," Monteiro said.
"Where faculty not only lost their jobs, but also the ability to
Steve Zeltzer, a striking student in 1968, said the loss of teachers
was one of the worst results of the strike. "Great people like Nathan
Hare and George Murray were fighters for justice, and they were
purged from this campus," he recalled. "Their professional lives were
destroyed because they made a life decision to fight and change the
situation at hand."
Hare, whom students had wanted as the chairman of Black Studies, and
George Murray, a graduate associate professor, were both fired and
have not returned to campus since the strike.
Zeltzer was also a member of Students for a Democratic Society, an
instrumental group that often protested with the Black Student Union
and the Third World Liberation Front, two of the leading groups in
the strike at what was then San Francisco State College.
He originally came to the campus to study socialism and communism but
soon found himself in the heart of the struggle.
"The problem with higher education is the fact that the same system
is still in place," he said. "You have trustees and people with money
governing the university, and there are no people from the labor
force able to make decisions about working-class education."
Anatole Anton, a student, echoes Zeltzer's feelings about the current
situation with state-mandated education. "The strike never ended, and
the issues were never resolved," he said. "There hasn't been a
movement quite like the strike since it happened in '68, and I hope
the current students can soon understand what kind of game they are
With elections Tuesday and the current budget crisis, revisiting a
time when students fought for their futures would seem to hold
relevance even today. When current students arrived at one of
Friday's sparsely attended panels, there was confusion but a sparked interest.
Tiffany Camp, a transfer student from City College of San Francisco
in her first semester at SFSU, said, "I could see something like this
happening again. If things don't change, it might not only be our
campus, but campuses all over."
Camp had been unfamiliar with the strike. Her professor gave extra
credit to students who attended the commemoration.
"The fallacy is that there is one correct lens to see reality," White
said. "What we're saying is that there are multiple lenses to see
reality. We want to be part of that definition."
For more information on the strike and The San Francisco State
University College of Ethnic Studies, go to