COLUMN: College campus disruption – one 1970 solution

Published 8:05 am Wednesday, May 15, 2024

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By Robert N. Holt
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In April 1970, the Vietnam War was in full force. A hundred or so students at Virginia Tech disrupted the Corps of Cadets on the Drill Field, preventing the completion of their training. A “substantial” number of students insisted that the university administration send a telegram to President Nixon renouncing his war policy. University President Dr. T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., decided he needed to get ahead of this situation.

President Hahn developed and received approval from the University Council for a policy warning students that “interference with any authorized activities on campus” would result in strong disciplinary action. At 10 PM on the evening of May 12, 1970, 107 students entered Williams Hall, home to the English and Mathematics Departments and, as such, one of the busiest classroom buildings on campus. Williams Hall is located beside Burruss Hall (Administration), and both face the Drill Field.

The students brought food and then locked themselves in.  They committed to staying in the building and preventing its use until the administration rescinded the policy on interfering with authorized activities and also, the telegram to President Nixon condemning the Vietnam War must be sent.

At 6:25 AM the next morning, the 107 student occupants of Williams Hall awoke to see 60 state troopers and local law enforcement officers, two rented moving vans, and a police paddy wagon.  The Maintenance Department removed a locked side door, trucks were moved to the door entrance, and the students walked or were carried inside the moving vans for transportation to the Montgomery County jail, where they were booked and incarcerated.  As they entered the vans, each student was handed a letter that stated as follows: “Because of your involvement in the occupation of Williams Hall, you are summarily suspended from the university. This is to advise you that you may make one trip to the campus to remove your personal belongings.  Thereafter you will be regarded as a trespasser.”

In the eight and a half hours from 10 PM on May 12 to 6:25 AM on May 13, President Hahn had contacted the Virginia Attorney General’s office, assembled 60 law enforcement officers, rented two moving vans,  secured a police paddy wagon, developed and copied letters to the students, and notified the jail of over 100 students coming.

President Hahn’s actions were widely acclaimed, and numerous universities contacted Hahn for advice on their own campuses. Some commenters thought it was “heavy-handed,” but the overwhelming majority were supportive.

On May 14, Hahn called a faculty meeting to discuss the situation.  I attended that meeting and witnessed that when President Hahn entered the auditorium, he received a strong and lasting standing ovation.

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is