Cause For Concern
Perhaps the most powerful, vivid and enduring images of Vietnam-era college campuses are of the students themselves, sometimes seen as idealistic crusaders for peace and social justice, other times as hapless victims, martyrs even, of a cruel establishment bent upon suppressing dissent in the Kent State model.
Less often exposed is the nasty, nihilistic underside of the “peace and love” generation, a subculture that often seemed to practice the violence it denounced, and cheered or simply shrugged when buildings were burned down or bombed. KU was no stranger to these negative side effects: In 1970, the Kansas Union fell victim to an arsonist and an explosion rocked the Summerfield Hall Computer Center.
Added to these incidents were serious racial tensions on Mount Oread, an undeniably slackening commitment from state legislators to fully support higher education, and a generally radicalized atmosphere that seemed an enemy of rational thought and a friend of noisy posturing and empty bombast.
Into this fray leaped KU law student Russell C. “Rusty” Leffel and fellow students through their group, Students Concerned About Higher Education in Kansas. On November 18, 1971, the Concerned Students provoked much public debate by running full-page ads in the University Daily Kansan and several other papers across the state that asked: “WOULD YOU VOTE TO ABOLISH THE UNIVERSITY?”
No motley collection of unkempt campus radicals, Leffel’s group advocated sober, conscientious and responsible student involvement in promoting the cause of higher education, which, at the time, was suffering from deep state budget cuts, loss of prominent faculty, and perilously low morale. Concerned Students, then, sought not to burn it all down, but rather, to build it all up. Their story makes for a useful counterpoint to the standard view of that era’s activism.
Reflecting in 1973 to the Kansas City Star, Leffel, now a practicing attorney in Johnson County, said, “I saw a lot of false prophets during the period” of the early Seventies at KU. “Whether they were interested in issues or their own self-aggrandizement, some of the people who were making daily speeches in front of Strong Hall weren’t there when arrests were made. They were just saying down with everything.” As a spoof, he even had his own sign: “Down with Apple Pie.”
Leffel viewed the year 1970 as when everything seemed to change for the worse. “It had been pretty exciting until then,” he said, “but now it was violent, dangerous, fearful. Not only across the country, but right here in Lawrence, Kansas. We had seen protest go to violence. Marijuana had gone to heroin. A student-faculty reaction had set in.” It seemed no opportunity existed for “balanced, responsible” solutions to immediate problems and no serious means to address long-term concerns about the viability of higher education in Kansas. The University administration was paralyzed, students “were polarized between the far right and the far left,” and the student government had continually failed to inspire confidence in those they purported to represent.
As a first-year law student in 1970, Leffel had organized a group that November with four other concerned students (all of whom had had experience in various student governing bodies), to form the “Phantom Five.” Their hope was to influence the upcoming spring Student Senate elections.
On February 15, 1971, they published an editorial anonymously in the University Daily Kansan that sought to refocus student activism on campus towards more productive endeavors and away from rhetorical (let alone, actual) bomb-throwing and purposeful divisiveness. Calling previous Student Senate elections exercises in “propaganda and meaningless promises,” the Phantom Five – which also included junior Mary Ward, first-year law student Paul Hess, and seniors Kathy Hoefer and Dave Steen – came out for “representative student government as the result of intelligent, issue-oriented campaigns.”
They counseled fellow students and campus leaders that the Senate “could well be the most effective agency in stabilizing a campus polarized within itself, from its legislature, from its Regents, and from the citizens of its state.” At a time when the University’s “stature as a nationally respected institution is trembling,” students can no longer mire in petty bickering and stew in perpetual cynicism, especially when many state legislators had Kansas colleges and universities in their budget-trimming crosshairs.
“Following several years of turmoil on college campuses,” Leffel wrote in 1973, “public support for higher education was dwindling around the nation. Kansas was no exception.” In the spring of 1971, the state legislature planned to cut KU’s budget by $130,000, making it increasingly difficult to retain top faculty members (some of whom had already resigned) and impossible to undertake much-needed construction projects to alleviate serious overcrowding problems on campus.
The Phantom Five advocated using student fee monies to help offset the legislature’s budget cutting; and although this measure was narrowly defeated by a campus referendum, Kansas Governor Robert Docking used his line item veto to restore the funding to the University. That minor victory aside, the group, which had grown to 17 members by this time, was still determined to revive the low standing in which higher education had sunk in the minds of the public.
As to the shroud of mystery that appeared to surround the Phantom Five, Leffel recalled to the Office of University Relations on February 18, 1999, that “we weren’t a secret organization. We just worked behind the scenes. We focused on issues,” not personalities. But all this became moot in October 1971, when Leffel and his group orchestrated a mass leafleting at the KU-K-State football game announcing the creation of a new organization called Students Concerned About Higher Education in Kansas, which now boasted some 100 members.
It was hardly a “catchy title,” admitted Leffel, but the goals were essentially the same: alert students to the financial crisis in higher education and encourage them to contact legislators, write letters, submit editorials and the like, to convince the public that Kansas colleges and universities were worth saving and supporting. “We did not want to bankrupt the State for higher education, simply as our ‘pet project,’” wrote Leffel. “We were trying to promote a broader view among all people as to what was the role of higher education and how it could be improved both from within and without.”
Perhaps the organization’s boldest stroke, and that which brought them the most public attention, was an advertisement published in the University Daily Kansan on November 18, 1971, which cried, “WOULD YOU VOTE TO ABOLISH THE UNIVERSITY? – A CAUSE FOR CONCERN.” “Of course no one would,” Leffel later explained, “but we suggested that that could be the result of neglect where our schools had fallen comparatively as related to other schools across the nation, especially in regard to faculty salary.”
It was a dramatic call for action among University students, who, by their complacency, were tacitly allowing “a slow erosion of quality in our programs and personnel that may destroy us.” The ad cited alarming statistics showing a precipitous decline in the state’s national rank in per capita spending on higher education; a current year appropriation of “$00.00” from the state legislature for building construction; and a “0% faculty salary increase in Kansas when all bordering states granted increases of from 2.5% to 7.1%.” In short, the broadside concluded, “Our university is in trouble.”
The full-page ad also listed “WHAT YOU CAN DO,” and encouraged students to talk to their parents, friends and KU alumni; speak before civic clubs and church groups to tout the University; and use their natural ability, enthusiasm and expertise (from being a student) to rally the people of Kansas to their cause. “Kansans have a long tradition of support for higher education,” the ad said; they simply “don’t realize the problem and it’s our job to make them aware…. Don’t ask for sympathy from people. Get their support.”
It was essential, the Concerned Students maintained, that Kansans contemplate the long-term impact of a higher education system continually run on the cheap, and have the foresight to understand that choices made now will determine the state’s educational solvency (or lack thereof) 10 and 20 years hence.
Indeed, according to a November 22 editorial submitted to the Lawrence Journal-World by Concerned Student member John Mize, “Today, higher education in Kansas, its heritage as well as its future, is losing ground because of a lack of financial support from the state. Our losses are not to be recognized immediately, but are to be felt over a longer period.” If something is not done, he argued, Kansas will soon lose its most promising young people, who will move away to attend university; and, eventually, the state as a whole will suffer “because of the failure of its native citizens to provide new approaches to new problems.”
Shortly before semester’s end, in December 1971, the Concerned Student group distributed a letter calling for each student, while home during Christmas break, to form his or her own “People’s Lobby” to “tell the facts as to the importance of higher education on a personal level and what it means to the state.” While the funding issue was paramount, Leffel wrote, “Our actual underlying purpose was to rebuild state confidence and participation in a higher educational system….” A strong university system does not merely benefit the individual student, but immeasurably enriches the state as a whole, he argued.
Leffel and his group encouraged students to be careful in their conversations and informal lobbying efforts to always “avoid polarizing the state colleges and universities against the people of the state.” He acknowledged that oftentimes student behavior had deserved the public’s scorn, “but rather than sit in judgment, we asked all to join with us to help correct these problems and create the type of university we all wanted.”
Central to the organization was an unfeigned sense of humility; that is, unlike many other student groups or individual activists, it claimed not to possess all the answers and affirmed no monopoly on wisdom. It did not seek to buck the system, nor did it deal contemptuously with politicians and University administrators. “We don’t want to blame anyone for creating the problem,” Leffel once said. “We don’t want to digress into name-calling. Instead we want to look for a solution with an eye toward a future of quality in higher education.” Members of Concerned Students took time to educate themselves about the state’s budgetary processes and sponsored serious forums with elected officials to discuss educational issues in a calm and rational manner. “People have been upset over campus disturbances and are glad to see a new attitude at KU,” Leffel told the University Daily Kansan on January 25, 1972.
Evidence that this approach was highly appreciated can be seen in the voluminous correspondence the group had with prominent state officials. Just one example is a letter sent to Leffel by Kansas State Senator Tom R. Van Sickle, thanking him for being invited to participate in one of these educational forums on campus. “As I mentioned that evening,” the senator wrote on November 26, 1971, “the attitude of the students at the meeting is much more conducive to success than the attitude I encountered at the K.U. campus eight months ago. Your group can be effective in changing State policy and I believe you are approaching the subject in a proper manner.” KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers seemed to approve of their approach as well. In an interview with the Hutchinson News on December 3, 1971, he expressed hope that Concerned Students, along with vocal alumni, could convince the public that the year’s budget appeal is not “an annual circus or sideshow. It’s a genuine crisis.”
Looking back on 1971, Leffel wrote “the responses to our efforts that year were quite positive,” although, he admitted, “the effect of Concerned Students cannot really be measured.” Nonetheless, “there was a turn upward in the legislative budget, some citizens exhibited a renewed interest and confidence in the university, and students running for class offices … at KU emphasized support for Concerned Students About Higher Education in Kansas.” What was most satisfying for Leffel was the role his organization played in convincing students not to rely passively upon so-called “campus leaders” to fight the necessary battles; students were asked to look to themselves, to each think of what he or she could do as an individual, working with others, to induce action and communicate with maximum effectiveness.
Nearing graduation from the KU Law School, Leffel resigned his “never-official role as coordinator” of Concerned Students in January 1973, although the organization carried on without him for several more years. And while its life was relatively short, its legacy endures in the realm of student leadership at KU in the form of the Student Senate’s official higher education lobby, called the Student Legislative Awareness Board (SLAB). Indeed, Leffel’s legacy endures, too, as in 1973 two of his friends, Casey Eike and Jeanne Gorman, helped establish a fund in his name through the KU Endowment Association to honor outstanding student leaders who champion the cause of higher education. The first annual Rusty Leffel Concerned Student award went to junior Nancy E. Archer in 1973; the prize was $25. Since then, more than 35 students have received awards that in 2002 were worth $1,000.
“I’m not sure another generation of students since that time has had the same sense of challenge that we experienced,” said Leffel in a May 2002 interview. “We were forced to test our beliefs – what we wanted for ourselves, for our university, for our world.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas