Opinions differ on whether C. Jerry Flora was a good president for Western Washington University (1967-1975). Many Western students felt Jerry shouldn't have pulled the plug on the strobe lights at the Jefferson Airplane concert. On the other hand, he and his secretary, Dolores Riley, spent a lot of quality time with students who were occupying his office during the sixties. Jerry says he enjoyed how engaged students were back then, including their electing a pig as homecoming queen. And Western’s College of Ethnic Studies was one of the first in the nation. But if you mention the riot…
According to Dr. Flora: It wasn’t a riot! Although I can't say I was thrilled when I received a call at four a.m. from Campus Security, telling me the students and faculty of the College of Ethnic Studies had taken over our administration building, Old Main. They had chained the doors shut and classes were set to start at 8 a.m. I leaped into my clothes and sped toward town hoping I could fix the situation before it became national news. There was no one on the road and I must have been doing 90 miles an hour until a cop saw me race by and took chase.
I pulled over, leaped out of the car and ran back to the officer.
"Young man!" I bellowed, "I’m president at Western and there’s a riot on campus! Follow me, I may need you!"
He took in my wrinkled clothes and looked at me like I might be a lunatic. He asked to see my driver's license.
"Tar and damnation! I left my wallet on the bedside table! You’ve got to listen to me: I’m Western’s president, there’s an emergency and I may need you. Put me in jail later!"
"How do I know you’re really Western’s president?" he asked suspiciously.
Thinking fast, I escorted him to the back of my car. "Do you see that official campus parking sticker?" I asked pointing at my back window.
"You see how it says ALL LOTS?" He nodded slowly. "Just how many of those stickers do you imagine they give out?" (Actually there were quite a few of us with those parking privileges.) But that did it—he let me go without a ticket! He didn't follow me though; he wanted nothing to do with a campus riot!
When I got to Old Main, they let me in, but were not at all polite. They called me a bloody racist! Holy hell, we were the only college in the region that even had an Ethnic Studies school back then and I was one of the main reasons for that! I was insulted, blazing furious in fact, but I finally herded everyone into a classroom to talk it out.
I asked them to list all their grievances on the blackboard. Most of the issues were general and vague, having more to do with the politics of the day than anything I could address. However, they had one very concrete complaint: they had not been allocated any new professors that term.
I knew there was a simple formula for deciding how many new professors any given program, department or school deserved. So I immediately called the relevant official, got him out of bed, and as soon as he arrived, had him calculate the formula on that blackboard with all the protesters watching. And they were right! They actually deserved two! They had been passed over, denied two new positions! They had a real complaint!
I know there are many closet bigots in this world. These individuals say all the right words and if they get caught they insist it was just a mistake. That was what had happened. There was this little 'mistake' that resulted in Ethnic Studies not getting their fair share of faculty. I looked at the blackboard and then at the protesters and said, "You deserve two faculty, how do you want them? Two immediately? Or one now and one next semester?"
They chose to take them both immediately. We shook hands, they released me, evacuated the building, and the riot was over, nice and easy. But when I walked outside, the media was there, along with the public outcry. People said I had given into the rioters, had buckled under pressure. I left the presidency shortly thereafter.
Being a college/university president had never been an aspiration for me and I pity those for whom it is. It was mostly an intellectually un-fulfilling pain in the posterior. The best part of my professional career was post-administrative, returning to the classroom; and the best part of that was teaching Coral Reef Biology on Maui, Hawaii for fourteen summers; and the greatest single teaching experience of my life was traveling to the central Pacific and studying living reefs. A teacher hasn’t lived until he/she has spent two hours sitting on a luggage cart while lecturing to a group of SCUBA weary students who struggle to take notes as they sit on the floor of the Rarotonga International Airport in torrid heat and humidity!