Mistry: Remembering our radical roots

Viral Mistry, Staff Columnist

It’s that time of year again.

Thousands of prospective students are visiting Case Western Reserve University with their families, deciding whether or not they will commit to being a part of the CWRU Class of 2023, which doesn’t sound like a real year to me, but maybe I’m just a crotchety old fourth year.

But with these visits comes the perennial rehashing of all the favorite stories CWRU likes to tell. I get some nostalgia when I get stuck behind a tour guide as they share the same stories we’ve all heard: CWRU’s ties to major corporations like Lubrizol, the Aluminum Company of America and Eaton Corporation, our connections with the Cleveland Clinic, our partnership with Microsoft to use the HoloLens and how the developers of craigslist and Gmail went here.

These stories aren’t random. Together, they weave a story of a historic polytechnical institute with a focus on specialized trade skills and of students who came here to advance its name in science and engineering. I suppose this helps reinforce the idea that CWRU is a “STEM” school, a school you should shy away from if you are interested in changing the world.

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know about CWRU’s bold and transformative past. These stories don’t see as much attention, but perhaps they should.

For instance, some of you may have seen the Historic Underground Railroad Site marker outside of the Ford Auditorium. Did you know that the Western Reserve College was involved in the fight to end slavery and had Frederick Douglass give a commencement address to their class of 1854?

You have almost certainly walked through Thwing Center, named after one of Western Reserve University’s Presidents: Charles Thwing. Did you know that Thwing was an active supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when it was founded in 1909?  

The fantastic archivists at the CWRU Archives of Kelvin Smith Library collected more evidence of this history of activism in their Fall 2018 edition of KSL Connects. In 1968, the women of Mather College protested the rule that they had to wear skirts to dinner by collectively arriving to the dining hall in slacks. The rule was dropped shortly thereafter.

Our African-American Society recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Did you know their first chair was none other than Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who became the first black woman congressperson from the state of Ohio and represented our U.S. Congressional district for almost a decade?

Even this newspaper, The Observer, has a storied history rooted in our campus’ response to the Vietnam War. During Homecoming Weekend, I was privileged enough to learn about it from one of the co-founders of the Observer. He told us how in 1969, he and his four friends received draft cards to fight in a war they didn’t believe in. They knew their voices weren’t being heard.

But they were also at the most prestigious university in one of the most politically influential states in the country, and knew that if they organized and drew attention to their cause, they could make a change.

That November, The Observer staff drove down to Washington D.C. to cover the anti-war demonstrations. Three months later, thanks to pressure from The Observer, University President Robert Morse allowed the Student Mobilization Committee, the main anti-war student group, to hold its national convention at CWRU. A few months after that, over a thousand students rallied outside of Yost Hall demanding the university shut down its ROTC office. After seven days of student protests, the university yielded, and the program was terminated.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because collectively, these stories weave a narrative of a campus community full of fighters. A community that not only achieves academically but understands its place in the world and its ability to affect change.

These alumni may seem obviously in the right with the benefit of hindsight, but in the moment, they were looked down upon and sneered. But they persevered because they knew the strength of the causes they fought for.

What kind of campus community could we build if we told these stories more often? Maybe we could channel some of that transformative spirit once again.

Viral Mistry is a fourth-year biology and cognitive science double major who is also minoring in chemistry, history and philosophy. He has strong feelings about politics, society and whether chicken wings are best bone-in or boneless.