The civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s radically changed campuses across the nation, specifically by expanding students’ legal rights. Student demands for free speech, including free press rights; due process; the rights to protest, demonstrate, and organize; access to their own educational records; and taking an active role in institutional governance, led to a rights revolution at KU and across the country. In 1970, KU’s new Student Senate reflected this revolution.
In 1968, KU student demands to have a say in the university decisions affecting their lives led to 1,500 students protesting in front of Strong Hall. To forestall more protests, student body president Clif Conrad called for a Student Faculty Committee on Governance--composed of six students and six faculty members--to create a way to give students voting membership in the University Senate and more input on university affairs and issues. Their final report made sweeping recommendations that led to profound and long-lasting reform of the governance structure at the University of Kansas. They called for the creation of a Student Senate with representation based on the academic units of the College and Schools, as opposed to living groups. A new University Senate included all members of the Faculty Senate and the Student Senate, and the University Council, which functioned as the governing and policy-making unit, included 13 students. The Senate Executive Committee added three students, with a student to be named as vice chair. Importantly, students were added to most University Senate committees, including Academic Policies and Procedures. Shared governance was born at the University of Kansas, and in 1968 KU students wielded greater authority than at any other university in the United States. “This is a very radical thing--something which even Berkeley and Columbia don’t have,” explained student body vice president Joe Goering.
In the spring of 1969, ninety-four percent of students voting favored the new Senate Code, which soon won the approval of Chancellor Wescoe and the Board of Regents. The effect of the code was seen immediately when a student was named to the chancellor’s search committee for the first time, and schools and departments added students to their committees, based on the code’s policy of 20 percent student representation. The Senate Code laid the foundation for KU student activism for decades to come and even in the short term may have forestalled a more turbulent future for KU. “In my opinion, the reason K.U. ‘weathered’ the Vietnam era as well as it did was the opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to participate in the decision-making process,” wrote Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers more than a decade after he left KU. And a university press release extolled the “the most progressive University governmental innovation in the nation.” As the 1969 Jayhawker yearbook described it, “The new Senate Code is symbolic of a quiet revolution. [It] provides the mechanisms by which students may participate in deciding the goals, operations, and purposes of the university.”
Independent Student Party candidate David Awbrey won the Student Senate presidency and initiated the new governance structure. 1970 was a pivotal year for the Student Senate and was a resounding success on two fronts: the Student Senate gained financial control over the entire student fee (previously it had control over about 40 percent of the total), and it passed the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct. This code, which was largely a response to treatment of students in the 1969 ROTC protest, focused on confidentiality of student records and disciplining of students, especially related to nonacademic conduct. Chancellor Chalmers called it one of the finest statements of student rights and privileges ever passed.
In addition, student leaders played a key role in the Day of Alternatives proposal developed by the Senate Executive Committee that included three students. At the event, Student Body President Bill Ebert organized a petition backing Chancellor Chalmers to counter statements of Governor Docking about a “great agitation” to fire the Chancellor. The Chancellor got a standing ovation from the 12,000 students attending the unique convocation, and by the summer 7500 students and 169 faculty members signed petitions of support. The next year, Student Senate would further its support and show its maturity by allocating $130,000 of the student activity fee back to the KU general fund, cut by a suspicious Kansas Legislature, to support faculty salaries.
In the fall of 1970, student leaders fought back on a policy recission of the 20 percent student membership on policy-making committees. The rule still stands today; as the new University Core Committee policy states: “As student opinions and concerns are important in the development of the Core Curriculum, three students shall serve as voting members.”
The control of student fees, the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct, and student input on University policies continue to be the basis for a strong student voice at KU. But some observers question whether this voice is heard in the same way today as when the Senate Senate demonstrated its power in 1970.