Dick Lyman reflects on campus turmoil during era of student unrest

L.A. Cicero Richard Lyman

President Emeritus Richard Lyman works in his office in the School of Education building.

After sitting in a wooden library chair for a long interview, Richard W. "Dick" Lyman decided to take the stairs—not the elevator—to his office, treacherous though that might be for a man of 85.

"One of the things that one gets very concerned about in old age is falling," Lyman, a president emeritus of Stanford, said as he carefully made his way down the wide cement staircase in the School of Education Building.

"My great-grandfather, who lived to be almost 90, got up one night to get his wife a glass of water and fell and hit his head against the radiator," Lyman said in mid-staircase. "He went to the hospital and died of pneumonia. That was before the days of antibiotics, of course."

While the passage of time has slowed his stride and heightened his sense of mortality, it has not softened Lyman's perspective on the tumultuous period four decades ago when the university was roiled by waves of protest against the Vietnam War.

It is an era he has recounted in a new book, Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972, published earlier this year by Stanford University Press. Many people, including fellow President Emeritus Gerhard Casper, had urged him to write about that era, he said.

"Whether I got it published or not, I wanted my version of what happened in those years on record, so that anybody writing the history of Stanford would have to stumble over what I had to say about it," Lyman said during a March interview in the Cubberley Education Library.

Stanford alumni, including former student activists, came across Lyman's account when they read excerpts from the book in the January/February issue of Stanford magazine.

Recounting a tumultuous era

The excerpts described several watershed events, including the nine-day sit-in at the Applied Electronics Laboratory, the battle over classified research and the university's decision to summon the police to end the occupation—and vandalism—of Encina Hall, then the main administration building on campus.

The stories were illustrated with photographs from the Stanford News Service, including one of Lyman—neatly attired in a dress shirt, tie, corduroy jacket and his trademark horn-rimmed glasses—addressing a campus counterdemonstration in 1969.

The magazine also published a photo of two lines of police in gas masks—batons at the ready—facing an opaque wall of tear gas during a protest at the Stanford Research Institute.

The institute, which was then owned by Stanford and received about half of its funding from the Department of Defense, was targeted by students, in part, because researchers were conducting studies on chemical and biological warfare.

"People are surprised to hear that we had a half-dozen major cases of arson, suffered significant damage to campus buildings, principally in the form of broken windows, and during the notorious 'Cambodia Spring' of 1970 [after the U.S. invasion, protests erupted on college campuses across the country] had to summon police to the campus repeatedly to end sit-ins or deal with other disruptions; dozens of police and students were hurt," Lyman wrote in the introduction to his 236-page book.

Former student activists respond

The stories in Stanford magazine reignited an old debate and highlighted the philosophical differences that still separate Lyman and student activists; former students responded to the excerpts with letters. Here are quotes from three:

  • "As students, we learned that Stanford's scientific prowess was dependent on Defense Department contracts. Stanford, wholly owned SRI, and companies on Stanford land played a key role throughout Southeast Asia. The University's trustees were not an idealistic group of philanthropists, but a wealthy interlocking directorate that undemocratically ran Stanford and a good share of the military-industrial complex. Conflict between increasingly antiwar students and the University was inevitable."
  • "After all this time, we still have to defend the notion that throwing a rock is just not as evil as Agent Orange or B-52 carpet-bombing."
  • "We were unarmed kids, but the power of a police force using tear gas and nightsticks was unleashed against us. Stanford taught us the truth of what was going on around the world and gave us moral leadership from the pulpit, but attempted to stop us from acting on our consciences as human beings."

"Pretty negative, most of them," Lyman observed after reading letters in the March/April issue of Stanford magazine. "I'm tempted to write and say they remind me of the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1815 after Napoleon's fall, of whom it was said: 'They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.' They just don't see that the issue was whether the university was an appropriate target for their attacks."

Lyman, who served as the university's seventh president from 1970 to 1980, lives in Palo Alto with his wife, Jing, to whom the book is dedicated.

He arrived at Stanford in 1958 as a scholar of contemporary British history, a year after his Harvard dissertation was published as a book, The First Labour Government, 1924.

Lyman spent a total of 25 years on the Farm and served in many roles: history professor, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, provost, president, and founder of the center now known as the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

But it would be those turbulent years of the late 1960s and early 1970s—the civil rights and anti-war movements—that would, in large part, shape his legacy at Stanford.

Righting historic wrongs

After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Stanford organized a memorial colloquium in Memorial Auditorium. While Lyman was speaking, a group of students from the university's Black Student Union quietly took over the stage and the podium. Lyman, then provost, sat down. One student read from a list of demands, including calls to increase the number of minority students and faculty at Stanford.

When the students finished reading their demands, they walked out of the auditorium to a standing ovation. Lyman resumed his speech. Before the week ended, Lyman wrote, the administration had met most of the demands in spirit, if not in exact detail, and refused only one: to fire a top university official.

"When situations of this kind are analyzed, it is usually assumed that the establishment—in this case the Stanford administration—aims to yield as little ground as possible, just enough to avert disaster," Lyman wrote in Stanford in Turmoil.

"Applied to the hectic days of April 1968 the assumption is quite simply wrong. Our mood and attitude toward what we were doing were a strange mixture of fear and exhilaration: fear that big and unmanageable disruption might take place, of course, but also exhilaration that we were being compelled, by the force of history as much as by the pressure from the Black Student Union and East Palo Alto [some residents of the neighboring city had joined the Black Student Union on stage that day] and their on-campus allies, to do the best we could to begin the process of righting huge historic wrongs."

Lyman deplored the Vietnam War

Lyman opposed the war—he sent a personal telegram to President Richard Nixon deploring the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970—and was an ardent advocate of free speech. But he unequivocally opposed student violence and the sit-ins that disrupted campus life.

Asked if he understood the sense of powerlessness students felt about the Vietnam War, Lyman said: "I certainly understood the feelings of frustration and helplessness and fear among students, who were either worrying about [being drafted] themselves or about friends and relatives [serving in Vietnam], or just about the fact that they saw young people having their lives snuffed out for a cause they didn't believe in."

Four decades ago, Lyman used his Stanford connections to plead his case with an alumnus who was a member of Nixon's inner circle.

"I had an hour's conversation with John Erlichman, President Nixon's assistant, on this very kind of point, saying they were at risk of losing a whole generation of Americans whose loyalty to the country would be undermined by these—as I saw it—blunders of foreign policy," Lyman said. "Of course, I didn't get anywhere persuading him."

Lyman, who favors dress shirts, ties and suit jackets even in retirement, said the hostility toward him on campus back then was intense.

"Unless you've tried to speak to a crowd of several hundred people, all of whom hate your guts, you can't realize how difficult it is," he said. "In some way everyone's articulateness is decreased by that kind of circumstance."

Instead, Lyman held court on KZSU, the campus radio station.

"Any Stanford student journalist, from the radical papers as well as the Stanford Daily and the Stanford News Service person, would be able to come and ask any question they wanted and I'd answer," he said. "That made it impossible for the radicals to say: 'We can't find out what he thinks. We can't find out why he did what he did.' They were reduced to saying: 'He's afraid to face us.' Which was true. I didn't want to face a crowd of 500 if I could talk over the radio to a dozen reporters in my physical presence. It was much more constructive for me."

Vandals attack family home

Lyman said he and his wife never seriously considered leaving Stanford, even after their home was attacked in 1970. He recounted the incident in Stanford in Turmoil:

"That night I returned from a visit to the police station and was talking with my wife, Jing, in a bedroom at the back of the house when there was a loud crash. Someone had hurled a big Coca-Cola bottle full of red paint through our kitchen window, narrowly missing the head of a security guard who was taking an ill-timed coffee break in the kitchen, and smashing against the refrigerator. The resulting mess was spectacular; Holly [Lyman's daughter], coming downstairs next morning for breakfast, took one look and exclaimed, 'Wow! Would my art teacher love to see THIS!'

"Worse yet, in the morning we discovered two large rocks that had been thrown through an upstairs window; fortunately they fell harmless in the sewing room; Holly's bedroom, with Holly sleeping in it, was next door. No one throws rocks through upstairs windows in the middle of the night unless they intend to maim, if not kill, occupants of the house."

A stubborn president sticks to his convictions

Lyman attributed his decision to stay at Stanford, in part, to "combativeness" and to his conviction that the students were wrong about the methods they used to express their views.

"I thought the university was in danger and I wanted to protect it," he said. "I had committed myself and wanted to see it through. Those were always powerful motives. Life was not pleasant, heaven knows, but I was always a stubborn person. That's not always a good quality, but sometimes it comes in handy."

Now that he has finished Stanford in Turmoil, Lyman, who has four children and four grandchildren, has turned his attention to a new project—a family memoir.

But first, he'll be doing some traveling with Jing. The couple, who have been married for 61 years, recently left on a monthlong vacation to visit friends and family at home and abroad. Their first stop was London, a city where the couple had twice lived, including the time Lyman was a Fulbright Fellow at the London School of Economics. Then they'll head to their traditional summer retreat—the Vermont home that has been in Jing's family since 1837.