The New University Conference

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"A national organization of radicals who work in, around, and in spite of institutions of higher education."

One of the least-appreciated but most fantastic resources on campus is the Special Collections Research Center in the Reg. Among its many resources are thousands of documents, rare manuscripts, letters, photographs, and ephemera that have been collected since the University's founding in 1892. Presidents' papers, students' notes, yearbooks, student publications, and assorted RSO paraphernalia are all easily accessible, and can provide more nuance to history than a secondary account ever could. The archivists and librarians in Special Collections are tremendously knowledgeable and helpful in turning the myriad resources into usable material, making primary research an absolute pleasure.

Last winter, I was enrolled in the Chicago 1968 course, which involved a good deal of archival research. I focused on student activist groups in the late sixties, and turned up a surprising number of parallels to current activist RSOs. The New University Conference organized a walkout at Billings Hospital that was uncannily similar to the battle SOUL (Students Organizing United with Labor) and campus and hospital staff waged last year to secure a fair contract. The Chicago Women's Liberation Union and Chicago Women's Union held a conference with workshops that prefigured several of the Feminist Majority's events from spring quarter 2008.

Below I've summarized some of my findings about one student group, including citations to the relevant archives in Special Collections. Check out the finding aids to see if the RSOs you're involved in have precursors. Were they working for the same things your group is today? Was membership similar? Were their hairstyles particularly ridiculous? All good questions.

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The New University Conference was a national organization of radical graduate students, staff, and faculty that opened a chapter on the University of Chicago campus in the spring of 1968. The group was intended to serve as a collective organizing body to support and promote the entire range of contemporaneous leftist movements. During its five years of activity, it partnered with groups on and off campus to sponsor events, protests, teach-ins, lectures, and publications. Its members and caucuses were particularly active in the anti-war, women's liberation, black power, labor, third world, and student autonomy movements.

The membership at the University of Chicago was diverse, including at its inception 40 members, 30 of whom were graduate students, 8 of whom were faculty, and 2 who were staff members. The New University Conference (NUC) was intended to provide faculties and graduate students with a means of political expression similar to, but not identical to, that offered to undergraduates by SDS. [1] (In fact one of the founders of NUC on the UChicago campus was Dick Flacks, one of the founding generation of Students for a Democratic Society.) Many radicals who had previously felt disconnected from campus activism supported NUC's community-building efforts, and were eager to participate in critical and self-critical discussion of academic and political activity.

This self-critical attitude no doubt contributed to NUC's effectiveness as an organizing force. It was founded on principles of collectivity and radicalism in a milieu of splinter-prone revolutionary groups and a mainstream culture still feeling the strain of McCarthyism--that it survived and flourished as long as it did is a testament to the participants' abilities to negotiate the complexities of both academia and activism. The initial meeting of the New University Conference in the city of Chicago included about 350 radical academics from 85 campuses in the region, and produced the following as a statement of the radical community's expectations and needs:

  1. The formation of a radical community of action and discourse which will relieve the isolation experienced by many faculty and graduate students on campuses and in departments which are not presently hubs of the new radical activity
  2. The need for sustained self-critical discussion which scholars and intellectuals on the left need to orient their intellectual as well as their political activity
  3. The organization and leadership of local coalitions and campaigns to confront the university issues which sear the conscience and touch the interests of students and faculty alike--the growing influence of military priorities and national security rhetoric in both natural and social science, the increase of power accruing to administrative structures with "multiversity" orientations, the lack of democratic procedure and humane content in all spheres of university life
  4. The need for self-protection through collective action and/or public exposure against politically inspired dismissals or harassment which many radicals view as increasing and increasingly likely.[2]
The University of Chicago chapter of NUC was established after this initial regional meeting, in May of 1968. Campus organizers first applied for and were granted official status as a registered student organization in Autumn Quarter of 1968. Its stated purpose was "Revolutionary Transformation of American Society--Radical Transformation of the University." [3] A hefty goal, no doubt, but on par with peer organizations working on related projects. For example, the Student Organization Registration form of the Women's Radical Action Project (with whom NUC partnered for several events) in Winter Quarter of 1968 stated as its organizational purpose, "to talk and take action which is directed towards woman's liberation within a revolutionary context." [4] The qualifications for membership in NUC, as stated in their Autumn 1969 renewal of status as a registered student organization, were likewise confidently and plainly stated. "Membership Qualifications: Anti-male-supremacist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist." [5] The projects that the New University Conference signed on to definitely spanned the range of these qualifications and held true to its foundations as an intellectually-rooted collective of radicals.

[1]Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. "Radical Action Group Looks Forward."
[2]Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. New University Conference Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1. 24 May, 1968.
[3] Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. Student Organization Registration Form Autumn 1968.
[4]Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 34, Folder 10. Student Organization Registration Form.
[5]Office of Student Activities. Records. Box 24, Folder 14. Student Organization Registration Form Autumn 1969.


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