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Former protexter returns to campus as scholar
STANFORD -- What a difference two decades make.
When Peter Knutson left Stanford University in 1972, it was under suspension. As an undergraduate, he took part in a demonstration that disrupted recruiting at the Stanford Placement Center and was suspended for three quarters. A month later he spoke, unauthorized, at a meeting of the faculty Academic Council and was suspended indefinitely.
When he came back in 1991, it was with an invitation to be a fellow for a year at the Stanford Humanities Center. Now 39, Knutson is an anthropologist with a doctorate from the University of Washington.
But Knutson's is not a story of "hippie-protester-turned- upwardly-mobile-professional." His path back to the Stanford campus has been as unconventional as his departure from it.
After his suspension from the university, he went to work on a commercial fishing boat in southeast Alaska, and what started as an interim job became his livelihood. In 1979, he bought his own boat and began marketing his catch to retailers.
The seasonal nature of the work allowed him to support a family (he and his wife, Hing Lau Ng, have two sons) and to pursue an academic career.
He earned a bachelor's degree at the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1974 and worked 10 years to finish a Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation, "Systematically Distorted Communication Aboard Fishing Boats," examined the way power and authority operate in the small-group work setting.
At the Humanities Center, he is writing a book based on material in his thesis that dramatizes a conflict between captain and crew aboard a fishing vessel in Alaskan waters. Leading up to the conflict was "a gradual breakdown of community in a dangerous situation. We worked with little sleep, under tremendous pressure. Communication became strained to the breaking point."
He is also writing an autobiographical narrative that starts with him at 7, growing up in the mill town of Everett, Wash., then jumps to Stanford and the anti-war movement. He then moves to the 1991 Gulf War and recalls attending a Fourth of July parade last year in Ketchikan, Alaska, "with 7-year-old kids in their Desert Storm outfits, carrying their toy M-16s. There were people holding up banners saying 'Vietnam Was a Just Cause.' "
Knutson has mixed feelings about being back on campus. The Stanford Humanities Center, he said, is "fantastic, with a real collegial atmosphere." He is enjoying the opportunity to concentrate on his writing, and the temporary freedom from his normal daily responsibilities, which include teaching at Seattle-area community colleges.
But sometimes, he said, when he walks around at night, he recalls scenes from 20 years ago - police charging up the library steps, or 200 demonstrators swept off El Camino Real and arrested.
While he has applied for full-time university teaching posts, the traditional academic life may not be for him, he said. "Academic culture tends to mute the voice."
One thing Knutson has sought to avoid is being muted.
"Getting kicked out of this place was a major turning point in my life, but it was not the end of the world for me," he said. "It complicated my life, but I came out with my integrity intact."
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