Former Kent State admins retell tragedy

by Alice Gomstyn | 11/13/00 6:00am

In a historically-based lecture, David Ambler, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Kansas, and Ronald Beers, the former Vice President for Student Affairs at Oklahoma State University, recounted the story of the Kent State tragedy of 1970, which resulted in four student deaths.

The Thursday afternoon talk attracted a small group of students and faculty, who listened attentively as the two men described the chaotic events and their first hand experiences.

The Kent State tragedy stemmed from President Nixon's April 30 announcement that the United States would commence bombing in Cambodia -- expanding the ongoing war in Southeast Asia. The announcement enraged student anti-war activists across the nation, including those at Kent State University, in Ohio.

The following day, Kent State students staged two anti-war demonstrations. During the second, students leaving local bars gathered together in the streets of Kent and set fire to several dumpsters.

The nature of the second protest prompted the mayor of Kent to declare a city-wide curfew. State Gov. Tom Rhodes sent the National Guard into Kent to help enforce the new curfew.

The day after the "trash fire" protest, student activists held another demonstration -- this time, campus-based -- during which the crowd torched an ROTC building. After several students assaulted fire-fighters arriving at the scene, the National Guard arrived on campus to quell the situation and protect the fire-fighters.

The National Guard proceeded to "take over" the university, Ambler said, with armed personnel carriers moving onto the campus and National Guard leaders occupying the university's administrative office building.

On May 4, 1970, several thousand Kent State students gathered in an area on campus known as "The Commons" for another anti-war rally, despite admonitions from the National Guard that they would not allow the protest to take place.

Troops attempting to break up the protest were pelted with rocks. In response, the Guard fired tear gas at the demonstrators. When this failed to disperse students, one squadron of National Guardsmen opened fire.

Minutes later, nine students were wounded and four lay slain.

Shortly after the shooting, the president of Kent State announced the immediate closing of the university and advised all students to quickly pack only necessary belongings and vacate the premises. Within a span of five hours, the on-campus population shrank from over 21,000 to under 1,000.

Although the university reopened with a summer session in June, Kent State never recovered from the incident, Ambler said.

According to Ambler, the infamous May 4 shooting demoralized faculty, traumatized students and prevented Kent State from becoming one of the more prominent research institutions in Ohio.

Investigations of the shooting continued for years afterward but were largely inconclusive, serving only to exonerate university officials and members of the state government, Ambler explained.

In 1978, students injured in the incident and the families of those killed received monetary compensation for their suffering in a $1 million out-of-court settlement by the State of Ohio.

The settlement also cleared university officials of any blame regarding the shooting. Effectively, this held members of the state government accountable for the tragedy, Ambler said.

Having had years to analyze the events of that fateful spring, both Ambler and Beers now agree that better communication between students and administrators may have ameliorated relations between the two parties and precluded the tragedy altogether.

Ambler also added that college students, in general, should be regarded with higher esteem.

"Students have to be considered as citizens of the university and [should] share the same kinds of rights that those of us who receive a paycheck from the institute enjoy," he said.

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