- Uprising at Bowling Green: How the Quiet Fifties Became the Political Sixties by Norbert Wiley, Jr. Joseph B. Perry, and Arthur G. Neal
Despite the focus on well-known examples of student activism in the 1960s, the first large student protest of the entire decade did not occur at the University of California‒Berkeley or the University of Michigan; it occurred in 1961 [End Page 86] at the conservative Bowling Green State University, nestled in the northwest corner of rural Ohio. In Uprising at Bowling Green, Norbert Wiley, Joseph Perry Jr., and Arthur G. Neal examine the circumstances surrounding this unexpected outpouring of student unrest and place it within the larger narrative of student protest. This book is not an institutional history of BGSU written for nostalgia’s sake; it is an investigation into an overlooked example of student protest.
Working with limited primary sources due to an absence of material in the university archives, the authors rely heavily upon personal correspondence, their own personal experiences (all three authors were members of the BGSU sociology department at the time of the events), and an unpublished manuscript by James R. Gordon to rescue this forgotten event. The authors vividly recreate the conservative atmosphere of the school, where drinking, holding hands, and walking on the grass were prohibited. Faculty were not permitted to speak during meetings or drink in public. The narrative demonstrates how a water fight among students escalated into a power struggle between the authoritarian university president and a growing resistance movement. With the help of an untenured philosophy professor, the students reframed their grievances from an issue concerning university rules to an issue of free speech. The seemingly punitive firing of this professor helped unite parents, students, and faculty. After a newspaper battle that swept across Ohio, the state legislature passed a new law altering the administrative structure of BGSU. This law served as a vote of no confidence for the university president, who subsequently resigned. The contextualized retracing of this sequence of events clearly explains how and why the “uprising” occurred and was successful. Those interested in university leadership, communication, student activism, or the behavior of crowds will find this narrative insightful.
The authors make an overarching argument that the uprising at BGSU illustrates a change that occurred when the activism of the 1950s transformed into the activism of the 1960s in terms of tactics and leadership. The unexpected student protests were “an outgrowth of a crisis of authority” (5). For years, the conservative views of an authoritarian president went unquestioned by students and faculty. Ultimately this “overdetermined quality of this school’s passivity, turned out to be the very source of the demonstrations” as the built-up frustrations exploded due to an unexpected spark (12). The subsequent protests succeeded because of student solidarity and the proper framing of grievances and goals (111‒12). [End Page 87]
Although the book focuses on Bowling Green, Ohio, it does provide a limited national perspective in order to locate the BGSU protests within the larger history of student protest (1950s‒1970s). Instead of contextualizing the event historiographically, the authors rely heavily on sociological theory and provide a unique explanation of how the societal constructs developed in the 1940s and 1950s conflicted with the societal changes of the 1960s. Although it is interesting and worthy of further study, the authors’ argument connecting the oppression of women and the subsequent feminist movement to the BGSU student protest is less successful.
Unfortunately, the book as a whole is very disjointed and difficult to read. The text is very repetitive as entire paragraphs appear almost word for word at multiple locations in the book (30, 61). Even the unnumbered page of photographs is printed in two locations (4‒5, 94‒95). The authors take their audience on a wild ride, repeatedly traveling forward and backward in time both locally and nationally, all the while drifting in and out of discursive sociological theorizing. In spite of...