Originally published April 30, 2000
We look back to find what time has buried, and, remembering, we draw it forward.
Sharp as cut crystal, it hangs now before us -- sights and smells and sounds of days in May.
As it was.
But not quite. For memory is blended with perspective as it's sifted through the march of years. And as we turn memories to words, we begin to understand.
In the spring of 1970, I was a 28-year-old assistant professor at Penn State, pregnant with our first child, and, like people on college campuses everywhere, witnessing one of America's most vigorous periods of student activism.
It was a time of great social unrest; civil rights, women's rights, the environment and, of course, the war. I remember tension around nearly everything, and students constantly testing their freedoms.
I was being exposed to several perspectives on those issues. Both my brother and my husband Phil's brother served in Vietnam. My brother, who had been in the Air Force, was in college at Penn State. Phil's brother was an Army medic. At the same time, I was teaching both graduate and undergraduate students. Teaching put me in a mentoring role with the students, even though I was not much older than they were. We had long conversations about their thoughts on the issues and about what they wanted to accomplish.
That spring, there were protests everywhere. At Penn State, protests were frequent and emotionally charged; some destructive acts occurred on that campus. In fact, male faculty members were assigned by the university to patrol buildings at night and look for trouble. While no female faculty were pressed into that service, 30 years later a woman heads the university where the most serious confrontation took place.
Obviously, the Kent State experience magnified everything in the spring of 1970. The feeling among everyone was, with protests at hundreds of campuses, "Why Kent State?"
I, of course, had no idea I would be Kent State's president 30 years later. But like others who observed the unfolding tragedy of May 1970, I have carried the feeling that it should never have gone so far. That is a major reason why, as president, I have sought positive ways to use the lessons of May 4, 1970.
As a society, we still struggle with the balance between freedom of expression and civility and peaceful conflict resolution. Our purpose is not to keep Kent State focused on the 1960s and '70s, but to move the dialogue into the new century.
In recent years, several studies -- by our faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends -- have sought to define the university and to propose what we should be in the 21st century. We have learned that one of the things that will strengthen Kent State's role as a distinguished university is to accept our responsibility to help the nation and the world model a civil society. The continuing revolution in technology will change the way we interact with each other. The increasing mix of cultures in a global economy may add stress points in our schools, workplaces and communities, even as it creates exciting opportunities.
Who better than Kent State to lead the way in helping model this new world?
As many of you know, this spring Kent State's 30th commemoration of May 4, 1970, will be positive and forward-looking. We made a conscious decision to reflect on the future as well as the past. Along with the traditional remembrance, we are launching what will become an annual symposium on the larger issues of democratic values.
This year, Monday and Tuesday will feature a gathering of international scholars under the theme, "The Boundaries of Freedom of Expression and Order in a Democratic Society."
I believe deeply that our university has made the right decision in moving beyond the discussion of historical events to include reflections on the ongoing and future challenges that citizens face in a democracy.
The theme of the 30th commemoration is "Experiencing Democracy: Inquire, Learn, Reflect." That theme should help everyone keep in mind the overall goal of the 30th commemoration and of society in general: To find and teach ways to protect freedom of expression while preventing violent confrontation.
For many of us, May 4 is a time to remember. But it is also a time to look ahead. If we didn't learn the lessons of that day 30 years ago, we must learn them now.
Dr. Carol A. Cartwright, the first woman to head a public university in Ohio, was president of Kent State University from 1991-2006.