Turbulence through time: 50 years, separate canceled commencements

SIU_riots_70s_6

John Lopinot

Chancellor Robert MacVicar talks to protestors from the hood of a car parked in front of Woody Hall.

By Rana Schenke, Editor

In spring 1970, SIU was shut down and the commencement ceremony was canceled due to Vietnam War protests, marches and riots that had taken place at the beginning of May.

Fifty years later in 2020, SIU seniors saw the university close and their commencement ceremony canceled amid a pandemic.

Tom Britton, SIU class of ‘70, said he sees parallels between the unrest of 1970 and the current protests going on today.

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“I see youth seeking to claim its own identity and its own territory, seeking to have a voice and not just have a voice but be heard. So I think some of those dynamics are the same,” Britton said.

Britton said the pressures on students from the threat of war were different and he wasn’t sure what current pressures would be comparable, but named the COVID-19 situation as something stressful that might be comparable.

In May 1970, days of protests against the Vietnam War, sparked by the attack on Cambodia and the Kent State incident, caused the closure of the university.

Thomas Busch, who graduated from SIU in 1970 with a bachelor’s in political science, said there were a lot of similarities between SIU and Kent State.

“I can say probably the best thing that ever happened at SIU during that period of time was that neither side was very well organized and thank God nobody got killed,” Busch said. 

Busch was a Vietnam veteran when he came to SIU, after spending almost a year in the hospital due to injury. He said veterans weren’t welcomed in many communities around that time.

“I remember being asked to leave the American Legion club in Carbondale because they didn’t want Vietnam veterans who had lost or weren’t doing well to be part of their organization,” Busch said. “It really divided even the military community at that time.”

Roland Rose, another graduate who received his bachelor’s in music education from SIU in 1970, was student teaching that semester, so he didn’t experience most of the protests.

“They kept the high school open, so we were able to complete our degree. So a lot of that stuff I kind of missed because of the fact that I wasn’t on campus,” Rose said. “That’s the one thing I really remember about it, I felt kind of isolated away from it.”

Rose said he agreed with what the students were protesting, but was mostly focused on keeping the dorm he was a resident fellow at safe.

As in spring of 1970, classes were canceled and students were sent home in spring 2020, but for a different reason: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic not only affected students’ classes and living situations, but affected the plans of 2020 seniors as well.

Dakota Holden, a class of 2020 graduate with a degree in radio, television and digital media, planned to move to Nashville in August.

“There were just so many different questions and concerns around that time that it made a whole lot of sense to remain here [and] move somewhere where I could remain isolated,” Holden said.

Holden said his plan is to make the move and try his best to keep up in the music industry, which he said is “already chaotic.”

“That’s really been my plan my whole life since I started playing music and right now it’s just a waiting game,” Holden said. “I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can keep up week by week by myself and try and make ends meet locally until I can make the big move.”

Olivia Vincent, a 2020 graduate with a bachelor’s in aviation management and associate’s in aviation flight, said her after-college plans were also disrupted when she was unable to find an aviation job after graduation.

“Normally in SIU Aviation, there’s kind of a precedent set where once you graduate from SIU with your flight instructor certificate, you kind of transition into working for SIU,” Vincent said.

Vincent said the university can usually use more flight instructors because of the amount of students, but because of the pandemic, they weren’t doing any flight instruction.

“Normally when I would have gotten at least a part time flight instruction job over the summer, at the end of the spring semester, that wasn’t available to me because there was no flight going on,” Vincent said. 

Both Holden and Vincent said they felt the effects of the pandemic on their senior year with SIU’s closure.

Vincent said she felt she missed out because of the transition to online learning.

“I definitely feel like the level of instruction, the level of knowledge and learning, wasn’t obviously the same as it would be if it was in person,” Vincent said.

Holden said he feels bad for people who had to return in the fall and deal with going back to school during a pandemic.

“I consider myself pretty lucky for this to have happened at the time that it did just because I feel bad for people that have to go back to school in a very adjusted and really tedious way,” Holden said. “I’m glad that people are going to school, I’m glad that people are continuing to be able to do cool things, but for the most part it was a good time to be where I was.” 

Both classes also saw their commencement ceremonies, typically seen as the culmination of one’s college career, canceled.

Britton said his reaction to the 1970 cancellation at the time was indifference.

“I think that students […] felt alienated from those kinds of traditional things, and so I don’t remember being terribly disappointed. My parents were disappointed, I can tell you that,” Britton said. “I was the third of three kids to go to SIU and graduate and I know my father was very disappointed that he wasn’t able to see me graduate.”

Rose said the cancellation was a disappointment.

“You wanted your parents to come and all of that and basically they just shut down the campus and that was the end of it,” Rose said.

Rose, who came to SIU from Chicago, said his parents were very interested in coming to the ceremony.

“Two years later, I graduated with a master’s degree, and they were able to come to that one,” Rose said. “That was at Southern also. So they sort of got it made up, but missing the bachelor’s degree, that was very disappointing.” 

Vincent said she was disappointed about the cancellation of the 2020 ceremony.

“I was looking forward to walking across the stage, I know a lot of my classmates were kind of like over it at [that] point,” Vincent said. “Like their four years throughout college, they’re kind of bored with the whole thing, but I actually wanted to do it and I was just kind of sad that it got canceled.”

Editor Rana Schenke can be reached at [email protected]

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