The New University Conference

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A national organization of radicals who work in, around, and in spite of institutions of higher education

The New University Conference was a national organization of radical graduate students, staff, and faculty that opened a chapter on the University of Chicago campus in the spring of 1968. The group was intended to serve as a collective organizing body to support and promote the entire range of contemporaneous leftist movements. During its five years of activity, it partnered with groups on and off campus to sponsor events, protests, teach-ins, lectures, and publications. Its members and caucuses were particularly active in the anti-war, women's liberation, black power, labor, third world, and student autonomy movements.

The membership at the University of Chicago was diverse, including at its inception 40 members, 30 of whom were graduate students, 8 of whom were faculty, and 2 who were staff members. The New University Conference (NUC) was intended to provide faculties and graduate students with a means of political expression similar to, but not identical to, that offered to undergraduates by SDS.

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. "Radical Action Group Looks Forward."

(In fact one of the founders of NUC on the UChicago campus was Dick Flacks, one of the founding generation of Students for a Democratic Society.) Many radicals who had previously felt disconnected from campus activism supported NUC's community-building efforts, and were eager to participate in critical and self-critical discussion of academic and political activity.

This self-critical attitude no doubt contributed to NUC's effectiveness as an organizing force. It was founded on principles of collectivity and radicalism in a milieu of splinter-prone revolutionary groups and a mainstream culture still feeling the strain of McCarthyism—that it survived and flourished as long as it did is a testament to the participants' abilities to negotiate the complexities of both academia and activism. The initial meeting of the New University Conference in the city of Chicago included about 350 radical academics from 85 campuses in the region, and produced the following as a statement of the radical community's expectations and needs:

  1. The formation of a radical community of action and discourse which will relieve the isolation experienced by many faculty and graduate students on campuses and in departments which are not presently hubs of the new radical activity
  2. The need for sustained self-critical discussion which scholars and intellectuals on the left need to orient their intellectual as well as their political activity
  3. The organization and leadership of local coalitions and campaigns to confront the university issues which sear the conscience and touch the interests of students and faculty alike—the growing influence of military priorities and national security rhetoric in both natural and social science, the increase of power accruing to administrative structures with "multiversity" orientations, the lack of democratic procedure and humane content in all spheres of university life
  4. The need for self-protection through collective action and/or public exposure against politically inspired dismissals or harassment which many radicals view as increasing and increasingly likely.
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    Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. New University Conference Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1. 24 May, 1968.

The University of Chicago chapter of NUC was established after this initial regional meeting, in May of 1968. Campus organizers first applied for and were granted official status as a registered student organization in Autumn Quarter of 1968. Its stated purpose was "Revolutionary Transformation of American Society—Radical Transformation of the University."

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. Student Organization Registration Form Autumn 1968.

A hefty goal, no doubt, but on par with peer organizations working on related projects. For example, the Student Organization Registration form of the Women's Radical Action Project (with whom NUC partnered for several events) in Winter Quarter of 1968 stated as its organizational purpose, "to talk and take action which is directed towards woman's liberation within a revolutionary context."

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 34, Folder 10. Student Organization Registration Form.

The qualifications for membership in NUC, as stated in their Autumn 1969 renewal of status as a registered student organization, were likewise confidently and plainly stated. "Membership Qualifications: Anti-male-supremacist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist."

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. Student Organization Registration Form Autumn 1969.

The projects that the New University Conference signed on to definitely spanned the range of these qualifications and held true to its foundations as an intellectually-rooted collective of radicals.

Events Sponsored, Hosted, or Co-organized by the New University Conference

The Billings Walk Out

In March of 1969, nearly 1000 of the staff, aides, assistants, maintenance, and clerical workers at the University of Chicago Hospitals walked out of their workplace in protest of the administration's repeated and prolonged refusal to contractually commit to increase wages (staff wages were, on average, between 15 and 25% lower than at comparable institutions) and practice fair hiring. NUC hosted a panel discussion with Clarence Nelson, the orderly at Billings who organized the walk out, several aides, concerned students, and professors, in order to spread awareness and build a coalition to work on negotiating with the administration.

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 41, Folder 15. Walk Out at Billings Hospital.

In minutes of a meeting, NUC discussed the issue and decided to wait until the workers had developed a specific plan for their next steps. Later, presumably after further action on the part of the hospital staff, NUC sent a letter to the Board of Trustees, advocating the workers' position and calling for the Board to take responsible action.

Teach-In
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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 41. Folder 15. Teach In, Of Interest to Third World Students.

The University of Chicago chapter of NUC co-sponsored a leftist teach-in with a group at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was advertised as being of particular interest to those involved in third world movements, but was left open to other activists who wanted to "do their own thing." The schedule of workshops and speakers for the day included:

  • Literature tables: American Committee on Africa, BPP, etc
  • Workshops
    • Anti-Colonialist Struggles in Black Africa
    • Popular Movements in the Middle East
      • Arab Students Association
      • Iranian Students Association
      • Ethiopian Students Union
    • Women in Third World Liberation Struggles
      • Anti-Imperialist Committee of CWLU
      • Circle Womens Liberation
      • Black women from Toronto Vietnamese womens conference
    • Black Panther Party
    • Cairo United Front
    • Young Lords
    • The Chicago Chicano movement
    • Indian Village
    • Welfare Rights Organizing
    • Indochina and Third World Movements
    • Genocide and ecocide in Vietnam
      • Alternatives to the war
      • Government manipulation of information on Indochina and elsewhere
  • Saturday afternoon features workshops, booths, and literature tables where groups will lay out their activities and get interested people involved. Groups are welcome to set up tables and do their own thing.

Women's Liberation

The Woman Question in Academia

Both [Marlene Dixon] (pre-denial of tenure) and Naomi Weisstein were involved in NUC organizing, and partnered with the Women's Union for a forum discussion on women in academia (a panel discussion still run on the UChicago campus by the Feminist Majority, an offshoot of the Women's Union).

Core Change

True to their academic roots, NUC turned a critical eye to the intellectual practices at the University. The NUC women's caucus in particular was concerned with the syllabi of the core social science classes, which were overwhelmingly male-dominated, heteronormative, and patriarchal, and not rarely imbued with a misogyny coated with a thin veneer of science. The caucus raised serious questions about the practice, and encouraged concerned undergraduates to contact NUC to help work toward improvement. In a flyer entitled "WOMEN!! Is Soc. II Relevant?"

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. WOMEN!!

they outline their concerns and plans for action.

Soc 2 is designed to give a broad overview of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. It was designed to deal with the "issues of the day" and our relation to them. It assumes that the proper study of mankind is the analysis of man, BUT does the course now really study man? Woman? Does it teach us about ourselves???

Will the course...

  • Examine how socialization creates a femininity and masculinity that warps human potential?
  • Analyze the problems with existing family and institutional structures?
  • Compare personal and institutional racism and male chauvinism?
  • Compare the functions, effects, and relationship between the above?
  • Present psychologies which respect women as independent beings?
  • Understand the destructive effect of Freudian-Eriksonian analysis on women?
  • Try to understand what cultural alternatives are possible and what conditions are necessary for the liberation of women and men?
  • Analyze the oppression of women?
  • Analyze the oppression of men?

OR WILL THE COURSE AVOID THESE CRUCIAL ISSUES????

To get your class to focus on these and related issues, YOU MIGHT ASK, DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF THE QUARTER, TO

  • Have a speaker on women's liberation. NUC women's caucus will be glad to help you.
  • Make changes to the bibliography to include relevant materials.
  • Discuss specifically how these issues affect students, faculty, and employees at THIS campus by raising the specific problems of abortion and child care needs

Publications

The New University Conference's publications, from flyers to leaflets to extended essays, evidence not only the members' intellectual abilities but also their ability to be effectively connected to the outside world. (One somewhat tongue-in-cheek leaflet encourages the student body to participate in a referendum vote on a number of leftist issues by printing in bold block letters "The University of Chicago Is Part of the Real World. Vote YES..."

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Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. The University of Chicago Is Part of the Real World.

) Two extended publications in particular, 1969's Disorientation and The Student Rebellion, present critically informed assessments of the University of Chicago in particular and academic institutions generally. _ Disorientation_ was written to provide an alternative perspective of the University to incoming students during their Orientation Week. The Student Rebellion was written as a manifesto of sorts for the student movement. Each publication appeared in President Levi's files with a note attached, suggesting that the papers might be of interest.

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Office of the President. Levi Administration. Records. Box 259, Folder 8. The Student Rebellion.

Disorientation

Distributed unofficially to incoming first-years during orientation week of Autumn, 1969, Disorientation provided a critical perspective on the University of Chicago's admissions process, corporate and military ties, systematic sexism, and neighborhood relations. In their introduction, the NUC writers make sure to indicate that they are not trying to simply teach the opposite of the University's position, but to ensure that the students are aware that dissent is possible.

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Office of the President. Levi Administration. Records. Box 259, Folder 8. Disorientation.

We call our booklet "Disorientation" because we are not trying to orient you towards our conception of what the university is and should be; we are trying to show some of the fallacies and myths in the picture of the University usually presented by those who rule here.

In a section entitled "White Studies Program at the University of Chicago," a writer criticizes the obviously biased admissions procedures for black and low-income students.

We look pretty much alike; we are mostly white, well-fed and well-dressed. How come? Isn't higher education a social right for all Americans? Hyde Park is bounded by three ghettoes and a lake. So there are plenty of black people around and in the University ( black man or woman probably washed the floor of the classroom you'll be I tomorrow) but they are not your classmates Presumably black students would like to come here—you did. Presumably they are somehow excluded.

First of all, in whose interest is it to exclude black students from the U. of C.? Certainly it's not in YOUR interest; most people agree that education is stimulating only when many different kinds of people are involved in it. Also it's not in the interest of black people to be excluded from the U. of C.

BUT it is in the interests of businessmen—like those on the Uiversity's Board of Trustees—to have a differentially educated labor force.
(...)

AND it is in the interest of a government that hides oppressiveness (from the war in Vietnam to illegalization of abortions) behind a veil of liberal ideology which is taught, perpetuated, ad lived out at the universities ad which could not be taught here if a significant number of the student body were from the working class.

Of the black students who are admitted (which is a number wildly disproportionate to the population at large) 75% are from very wealthy families, and very few indeed are from the Chicago area. Active recruiting of black high school students, the writer claims, was only done at southern schools—suggesting that the University attempted to recruit students who they considered less likely to be radical.

A section on urban renewal tells a sordid tale of Chicago politicking and the efforts of the University to push into Woodlawn, and a section called Dear Sisters (Brothers Too) explains the institutional discrimination faced by women at all levels of academia.

The section on the dismissal of Marlene Dixon, however, really lets NUC's politics and view of student organizing shine. "The Great U of C Sit In" leaves the reader with no doubt of the lack of transparency and institutional cooperation that the University of Chicago is capable of effecting.

Some of Marlene's students felt that the University couldn't afford to lose such a good teacher and formed the Committee of 85, which asked that she be rehired and that students be given a voice in hiring and firing decisions. There followed several weeks of unsuccessful attempts to discuss that issue and the basic ones of discrimination against women and radicals. The University responded with the classic gambit—a committee to look into the matter. (No students were included on the committee, which didn't exactly increase feelings of trust.) After three weeks of trying the normal channels and being put off, down and aside, several hundred students occupied the administration building.

That did it. The shit hit the fan. The liberal façade the University built up from Hutchins' days, and the liberal façade of many faculty members, disintegrated. Eminent faculty members yelled, "international communist conspiracy." "Nazi storm troopers," "they're all paranoids," and the whole world heard, since the Administration arranged for press conferences for disgruntled faculty and distributed widely copies of their statements of outrage. The more 'moderate' defenders of the life of the mid and rational discourse merely urged the Administration to talk, "with a gun to our heads,"" as they put it; the more pious ones said that the students' demand for amnesty showed that they weren't serious. ...

The Student Rebellion

This publication nicely sums up the work that the New University Conference consistently worked on throughout its active years at the University of Chicago. It is a 13 page manifesto, printed on half-sheets of paper, hand-illustrated in parts, and clearly meant to be distributed through generations and generations of ditto machines, it describes what the student movement broadly stands for. It makes three main claims as to the motivations of the movement.

  • Struggle by humanist and radical white youth to end the complicity of the university with war and imperialism, with racism and domestic suppression of black and other minorities, with bureaucratic values and corporate interests;
  • The struggle by black students for full cultural recognition and autonomy on white campuses, for an end to paternalistic control at black colleges, and for full community control at community colleges
  • The struggle by large groups of students for full citizenship in the university as a just end in itself, for recognition of their adult status, and for a curriculum which is useful to their search for personal meaning ad social relevance rather than one which is oriented toward the needs of the corporation and the state for trained manpower.

These motivations imply four just goals.

  • Support the right of protest of all members of the university
  • Support full citizenship for students in the government of the university
  • Oppose military and corporate intrusion on the campus
  • Oppose the class biases of the university

While some of these can never be reached from within the institutional framework, the writer suggests, it is at least instructive to make work on the issues—which, according to the writer, is the true goal of a University in any case.

Endnotes

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