Book Review – Going to College in the Sixties

by Leo Z. Archambault, DBA

Book Review graphic

One of the most useful English idioms to live by is “don’t judge a book by its cover.” This came to mind while reading “Going to College in the Sixties,” by John R. Thelin. For some readers, the title will conjure up thoughts of student demonstrations, sit-ins, radical left-wing protests, and the creation of a counterculture, described in a 1969 Life Magazine article, that “has its sacraments in sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.” Thelin’s book provides the reader with a detailed snapshot of the political and cultural history in the sixties and its impact on higher education.

Showing us a broader view of higher education, Thelin suggests that student demonstrations even at the most radical campuses coexisted with the “business as usual” at state and national universities, which consisted of admissions, curriculum development, student government, fraternity and sorority life, and athletics. Additionally, these institutions depended on federal government grants from the Department of Defense related to arms research. Higher education was becoming a “knowledge industry.” Colleges and universities across the country were recruiting the best and the brightest as they sought to develop university systems that could rival the rest of the country. The armed services draft during the Vietnam War begot student deferments that created a ground swell of student enrollments, and the need for more classroom space.

State university system master plans were being developed; each designed to rival the iconic institutions on the east coast. While there were many master plans for growth, Thelin focuses on University of California President Clark Kerr who emerged as a public “celebrity” featured on the cover of Time magazine. These plans created a centralized management hierarchy, which lacked the decentralized, homespun management style of a local campus. California became the model, and other states sought to create similar organizational structures. This movement became “a political and educational success in accomplishing expansion and reducing local fiefdoms,” but there were still internal problems to be rectified.

The student body reacted to the academic priorities of these master plans. Thelin states that college students back then were homogeneous, full time students between seventeen and twenty-two years of age. Academic leaders were surprised at the harsh student criticisms, which began with campus living conditions and evolved into a commitment to racial desegregation, civil rights, and social justice. Civil rights laws were federally mandated in 1964, and these laws represented a national commitment to end all discrimination in education. This was easier said than done, since state universities at that time showed reluctance to desegregation. The resulting nominal enrollment of African Americans in white-male dominated institutions showed that there was compliance, but not to an optimal level to create consistent equity and inclusion in the overall student life and culture on campus. In addition, Thelin provides vignettes describing the inequities faced by black athletes at major institutions who had to deal with being “slotted” into defensive and lower skilled positions in team sports. Coaches possessed the power to limit the social life of black players who were reluctant to complain about their mistreatment.

Unlike their male counterparts, women faced a series of strict regulations on campus; they were purposely excluded in certain academic disciplines and campus activities, including varsity sports and a range of other groups. Student reform groups discouraged female leadership, relegating women members to subordinate secretarial functions. During the 1960s, women undergraduate enrollment numbers were high and the coed institutions had strong academic success. Thelin highlights the statistics of “many women dropping out without having a bachelor’s degree.” He suggests that the mistreatment of women in male-dominated coeducational institutions strengthened the enrollments at women’s colleges.

Finally, the quest for systemic changes in this country during the sixties appeared to be very promising. The higher education establishment sought to provide better access, admissions, and affordability for students. It also looked internationally to educate the world. The hope was to provide equity and inclusion for all spearheaded by civil rights legislation (1964), the poorly funded Higher Education Act (1965), and “the federal grant university” concept which provided financial aid for research and development at institutions and was funded by federal agencies or commissions. Institutions were thriving with many of them offering a smorgasbord of curriculum for everyone. Sadly, more than five decades later, we see a situation where colleges are closing, and student debt is growing due to the out-of-control costs of higher education. More work is necessary to address diversity and ensure that processes are created to promote equity and inclusion. The hope is that the country has the courage to change long established practices that continue to allow these historical inequities.


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