Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Illinois Institute of Technology, 1970

Challenging Order on Campus

An administration's response to a student anti-war protest reflects a distinctly modern vision of a university.

IN THE POSTWAR PERIOD, THE ILLINOIS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (IIT) EXEMPLIFIED MODERNIST IDEALS. The university gained national attention for its research and engineering programs and boasted a campus designed by none other than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Although African Americans (like elsewhere) pushed the predominantly-white institution to engage with the needs of black students and the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, the campus remained relatively free of protest through the 1960s. That ended on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on anti-war student protestors at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine more. Outrage swept campuses across the nation, including IIT.
ON MAY 7, IIT STUDENTS BEGAN OCCUPYING the hallway in front of President John Rettaliata's office, urging the university to take a definitive stand in opposition to the Vietnam War and the violence at Kent State. Rettaliata spoke with students but refused to issue a statement. The following day, students continued staging protests against the modernist backdrop of Perlstein Hall. Rettaliata agreed to an open meeting that afternoon in the building's auditorium, where he answered student questions and upheld his refusal to deliver a political statement on behalf of IIT. Afterward, Rettaliata secured an injunction against protest leaders, even alleging that some of them were outside agitators. The protests quickly dissipated.
RETTALIATA RECEIVED PRAISE from trustees, faculty, parents, and newspapers for maintaining order. The Chicago Tribune contrasted the peaceful IIT campus with the student unrest happening across the country. The article reflected a continuing narrative of chaos that conflated strategic and reactive protests and attributed disruptive efforts to undisciplined youth or professional agitators. The discord of protest did not belong in the rational, modern world envisioned by the leadership of IIT.

"Elsewhere, student strikes and demonstrations, often accompanied by vandalism and arson, spread thru scores of university and college campuses…but not I.I.T.'s modern complex." Chicago Tribune, "Rettaliata's 'No' Saved I.I.T.'s Peace,” July 5, 1970.


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