Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Of The Students, By The Students, For The Students …

Student government at the University of Kansas has a long and variegated history. The first representative bodies were organized as early as 1909 – more than a decade before universal women’s suffrage – but the sexes remained separated (politically speaking, that is), into a Men’s Student Council and a Woman’s Student Government Association. Spurred by a desire to exert more influence over University administrators, however, KU men and women voted overwhelmingly in 1943 to unite themselves in an All Student Council.

Decades later, calls for even more impact, more representation on University committees and authority over student affairs led finally, on September 18, 1969, to the first sitting of the KU Student Senate, the body that continues to represent students to this day.

It may seem more than a little ironic, but among the first serious discussions of extending some degree of self-government to KU students occurred in a turn-of-the-century campus atmosphere characterized by class brawls, including the almost annual Maypole Scrap between male members of the Freshman and Sophomore classes, and attendant property damage.

“By the early twentieth century,” as KU historian Clifford Griffin has noted, “the classes were liable to fight on any occasion: at least once there was a freshman-sophomore clash in chapel in which the faculty members who tried to intervene got black eyes for their efforts.” Owing in large part to a meteoric rise in class pride, this upsurge of student violence naturally worried University administrators, who scarcely wanted to stifle school spirit, but also were not about to let the inmates run the asylum.

Beginning in September of 1905, KU Chancellor Frank Strong made the first peace overtures to the freshmen and sophomore classes, members of which had long been the most devoted practitioners of inter-class violence. He brokered something of a cease fire and began discussing with students at large the possibility of resolving disputes in a mature and civilized manner, even the prospect of forming representative bodies to channel students’ energy into safer and more worthwhile problem-solving techniques.

“Negotiating with students and letting them negotiate with each other before the battle was joined,” Griffin explained, “rather than merely forbidding the conflict or letting it occur and then punishing the offenders, was a new way of treating them. During the next three years, both Strong and the undergraduates grew increasingly enthusiastic about the idea that students had a legitimate role to play in their own government.”

The first seeds of student government were sown, however, by the campus sororities, which in 1905 formed the Pan-Hellenic Association as a means of establishing uniform rules concerning pledging and rushing. Two years later, KU fraternities set up a similar organization called the Pan-Hellenic Council. Yet, according to Griffin, this move was more a cynical ploy to “stave off administrative wrath,” following a raucous, alcohol-drenched Theta Nu Epsilon party than it was any sincere effort at self-government.

Nevertheless, on March 28, 1908, the news broke in the Kansan that there was to be a mass meeting of the student body sponsored by the Pan-Hellenic organizations that would discuss the possibility of “student representation on all University committees,” the establishment of a student council, and, in short, “government by the governed.” According to a faculty committee charged with investigating similar student government programs at other colleges and universities, “no radical changes were desirable, but the movement was a good beginning” inasmuch as it would grant students some limited autonomy over their own affairs.

Due to lack of student interest, however, the drive to self-government languished for another year until the spring of 1909 when Chancellor Strong convened two student committees – one of males, the other of females – for the purpose of drafting constitutions. A charter establishing the Men’s Student Council (MSC) was adopted “by a decided majority” on April 27, which led to elections on May 6. This balloting, proclaimed the Kansan, “is the most important event at the University this year.” Apparently, KU men did not completely share this sentiment. Out of an eligible electorate of over 1600, only 450 votes were cast.

Though the MSC had no authority to make rules that conflicted with University policies, it did nonetheless exercise a good deal of authority over day-to-day student affairs. According to Griffin, “the Council had power to enact conduct regulations, voice student opinion to the University’s faculty and officers, and act as a board of arbitration and settlement in case of trouble between groups of students.” During the Council’s first meeting on May 13, for instance, attended by president Dan Nevinger and his 12 fellow councilmen, members discussed the propriety of allowing Canoe Club members to wear “K’s” in their yearbook picture “which they had not won in open contest.”

Simultaneously, KU women were working to establish their own self-governing organization – with much greater degrees of interest and effectiveness than their male counterparts. Their efforts culminated on May 19, 1909, with the election of the seven-member Women’s Student Government Association (WSGA), including its president, Maybeth Parker. Turnout was much higher among the women: Of the approximately 400 female students on campus, an astounding 370 votes were cast using the Australian (or secret) ballot system, “considered a very progressive method of election” at the time, according to KU historian Robert Taft.

The WSGA constitution stated that, “The purpose of the Association shall be to foster among the women a feeling of mutual responsibility and a high regard for both liberty and order, to maintain high standards of living and scholarship, and to promote loyalty to the University.” As Griffin has noted, however, the WSGA “was organized somewhat differently” than the MSC, given that “all women students, in plenary session, rather than representatives, were to pass legislation.” Among the WSGA’s responsibilities were to mandate nightly closing hours for rooming houses (10:30 p.m.) and to ensure that student parties took place only on non-school-nights.

Student government, at least where the MSC was concerned, did get off to a somewhat rocky start. Griffin points out that not until the 1911-1912 school year did the Board of Regents get over their “suspicions of the men” and formally approve their constitution. It seems that the Regents’ reluctance stemmed from a perceived unwillingness on the part of the MSC to faithfully discharge their disciplinary duties, especially on the issue of freshman hazing.

For example, a mere six months after the MSC’s first meeting, on October 26, 1909, a letter to the Kansan asked, “Has the University a Student Council any more? If it is still in existence, why on earth doesn’t it do what is expected of it and what it was established for?” The MSC had abrogated their responsibilities and failed to act “as judge and jury in disciplining the student body” over hazing violations.

Indeed, after roughly a year of student government at KU, the Kansan concluded on March 8, 1910, that, “there is little doubt that the women have far outstripped the men.” While the MSC “as yet has no such really important achievement to its credit,” the WSGA had already taken important steps to “break down harmful barriers of caste and clique and to put the relations of the women of the University on a more democratic basis.” Not only that, but they had even established a scholarship fund to help one “deserving student” each year, which helped “bind the members of the association together in the pursuit of a worthy purpose.” Perhaps the only significant action of the MSC in its first year was a decree mandating the wearing of beanie-style freshman caps and a self-appointed license to punish those students who refused to comply.

On May 28, 1939, the University Daily Kansan looked back upon 30 years of student government at KU and recalled that, when the idea was first proposed, “the council was attacked by some of the state newspapers, some going so far as to declare that the council would bring anarchy to the hill and would force the staff of the University to resign.” Nothing of the sort had, of course, happened. Yet there had been threats.

One student, for example, an aspiring politician named Frank McClelland, ran for the MSC in 1932 upon a platform that declared, “To hell with the administration … To hell with the deans … To hell with prohibition. If elected, I promise to install a completely equipped speakeasy in the Union Building. To hell with prudery. If elected, I promise to decapitate all house mothers and to make the fraternities and sororities pair off and move in together. I also promise to install either a maternity ward or a birth control clinic in the hospital.” His platform, Griffin wryly noted, “was nothing if not inclusive.”

During these first three decades of student government, though, there was evidence to suggest that these organizations were much more than sometime fonts of blustering, anti-establishment rhetoric. The MSC, working in conjunction with the WSGA, was largely responsible for publishing a regular student directory, conducting student forums to discuss campus problems, and conducting housing inspections in the surrounding area to better inform students about the best (and worst) local establishments. Using monies allocated to it from student activity fees, the MSC also made contributions to a wide variety of activities, from the debating council to the band and glee clubs.

“One of the foremost policies of the council,” noted the University Daily Kansan, “has been the upholding of tradition,” which included, naturally, the wearing of freshman caps, but also homecoming festivities, the nightshirt parade and Hobo Day. And although the University periodically limited or redefined the MSC’s disciplinary powers, especially those pertaining to punishing alcohol-related offences, it did exercise jurisdiction over “such conduct as painting the campus at Kansas State or minor infringements of the law such as violating the parking regulations.” These and other responsibilities the MSC shared with the WSGA, both of which sent three members to a student disciplinary board when cases arose.

Despite these apparent successes, Griffin points out that “student democracy, like American democracy, had its seamy side. In the 1920s and 1930s, the students often seemed far more interested in winning elections for the sake of prestige and power rather than accomplishing any intelligible objective.”

The Society of Pachacamac, a men’s honor society, usually dominated MSC elections. Typically, Pachamac would combine with the fraternities to stifle opposition parties and candidates, even subjecting some “to violent counterattack.” According to the University Daily Kansan, “cutting telephone wires and filling automobile tanks with water” were not uncommon tactics, nor was vandalism of fraternity houses whose members refused to back the Pachacamacs. Perhaps in consequence, “during the 1930s the students became increasingly cynical about student government,” Griffin notes dryly. .

What acted as a catalyst, though, in reviving interest in student government was a perceived threat in the early 1940s by KU Chancellor Deane W. Malott to curtail some of the rights and responsibilities long enjoyed by the MSC. Bold headlines in the December 1, 1942, edition of the University Daily Kansan proclaimed, “MSC Starts Fight to Regain Power” and “‘Rights or Resign’ is Council Resolve.”

The controversy began when Malott and other University administrators decided to shorten Christmas break without consulting the Council, but the men were also aggravated by other slights. In a resolution, the MSC condemned Malott for, among other things, “taking from the students control over their activity fee; denying students freedom of the press; [and] violating the publishing bills of the Men’s Student Council with reference to parking on the campus.” If an equitable solution could not be reached soon, the Council vowed “to resign en masse with no provision for its replacement.” The WSGA showed its solidarity with the men by passing a resolution on December 8 supporting the MSC.

Chancellor Malott responded by impaneling a “peace committee” of faculty, administrators and students to discuss contentious issues and possible changes to how student government was organized at KU. The committee reported back in the spring of 1943 and recommended quite a remarkable change: the formal union of the Men’s Student Council and the Women’s Student Government Association into a single representative body, an All Student Council (ASC).

Not only would such an arrangement be more efficient, it would also, said the committee, “discourage the evils of petty politics while preserving the benefits of proportional representation and provide for an effective liaison between the students and the administration.” More specifically, it would grant students advisory membership on many University committees from which they had been previously excluded, and increase student representation on others.

Students went to the polls on April 1, 1943, to vote yea or nay on whether they wanted the MSC and the WSGA to combine into a single governing unit. And while the voting was overwhelmingly in favor (92 percent), turnout, again, was rather paltry: Only 522 cast votes out of a total student population of roughly 4,000. The following fall, the 30-member All Student Council met for the first time. Its president was a woman named Peggy Davis, described by the September 1943 Graduate Magazine as an “all-around girl, top-ranking student, one of the best in women’s sports, president of her sorority and popular with all her fellow students.” And while the chancellor retained an absolute veto over their laws, the ASC did enjoy an unprecedented degree of representation and participation in University affairs.

That is not to say, however, that Council members ignored their more mundane responsibilities. The Women’s Executive Committee, for instance, an arm of the ASC which dealt with women’s issues, published its “House Rules” in the fall of 1943, among which mandated that “Serenading is subject to the following rules: Each organized house or group of women may be allowed one serenade each semester upon registering such serenade with the Advisor of Women…. Groups upon being serenaded may sing one song in return, clap, but may not converse with the serenaders. Groups violating the serenading rules shall forfeit their privilege to serenade for the ensuing two semesters.”

According to Griffin, “With the creation of the All Student Council and the end of the Second World War, student government became somewhat more important and responsible,” due in no small part to the rise of several new political parties to challenge the Pachacamacs. The ASC regime appeared adequate to the needs of student governance until the mid-to-late 1960s, when rising student unrest led a number of KU student government leaders to insist on more political concessions from the administration.

Chief among these was the demand that students compose 50 percent of the membership of all University committees related to student affairs. According to a September 20, 1968, story in the University Daily Kansan, “a committee of six students and six faculty members” convened to study this and related issues recommended the dissolution of the 35-member All Student Council and the creation of a 95-member Student Senate “whose members would sit on the University Senate.” (The student-faculty committee also issued a minority report that contained a slew of additional demands, including abolishing credit for all ROTC programs on campus, the “free distribution of birth control information and materials,” and the “immediate creation of a Department of African Studies.”)

Five months later, on February 20, 1969, KU students voted in favor of a new Senate Code that abolished the ASC and created the Student Senate. The turnout was lackadaisical, however; with 14.6 percent of the student body participating, there were 2,296 votes in favor, 148 opposed. ASC members were nonetheless elated. “The adoption of the Code has been a very sophisticated effort from the beginning on the part of students, faculty and administration,” said Student Body President Cliff Conrad, “and it will provide the University of Kansas with a good basis on which to build more viable student-faculty communication.”

To fill Senate seats, elections were scheduled to take place the following month, and for once students seemed actually energetic about their new representative body. A record 4,970 turned out to vote on April 24-25, 1969. (Admittedly only 30 percent of all students, but it was a significant upsurge from earlier elections.) “The students seem more concerned with having able personnel to initiate the new Senate Code, said ASC member Chuck Loveland to the University Daily Kansan. “I think, in general, the student body is getting more caught up in their own government and politics.”

As it turned out, the Independent Student Party won the day, taking a plurality of seats on the Senate and winning the presidency and vice-presidency for David Awbrey and Marilyn Bowman respectively, albeit by a narrow margin. “Our first action will be to convene the Student Senate as soon as possible,” Awbrey said. “We want to deal with the disturbances and demonstrators in Strong Hall – we want to get the University together.”

The victors and their supporters, “flashing peace signs and waving flowers,” noted the University Daily Kansan, were then greeted by newly elected KU chancellor Laurence Chalmers, who had stopped in Lawrence for a brief visit. “A University such as this should welcome peaceful demonstrations,” he assured them, “but it is really a challenge to keep a small segment from pushing over the whole apple cart.”

Finally, on September 18, 1969, the KU Student Senate met for the first time, although their deliberations were not without a certain degree of drama. That previous May, an unruly group of anti-Vietnam War protesters forced the cancellation of the Chancellor’s ROTC review, and as a result several dozen students were suspended or otherwise punished.

One of the offenders was none other than Student Body Vice President Marilyn Bowman who thus became incapable of discharging her duties in the fall. As a result, the Senate’s first order of business was to elect an interim vice-president. The winner was St. Louis senior Frank Zilm, who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the office the previous spring.

Student Senate has now been the representative body on campus for more than 30 years and has taken on an increasing number of diverse responsibilities. Today, it hardly resembles its turn-of-the-century predecessors. “We allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars in student fees to groups across campus,” said 2001-02 Student Body President Justin Mills. “This includes not only student groups, but also funding for educational, cultural and social programs throughout campus and Lawrence.”

The nearly 75 groups and projects funded by Senate in 2001-02 academic year, for example, range all the way from the KU College Republicans to the Proponents of Animal Liberation. (A Student Senate grant of $15,000 also funded the creation of the first 10 themed panels of the KU History Galleries at the Kansas Union, a sister project to This Week In KU History.) Among Senate’s primary functions are operating KU on Wheels, reputed to be “the country’s first and only student-run bus system”; the Center for Community Outreach, which helps match up students with community volunteer opportunities; and the Student Legislative Awareness Board (SLAB), intended to give students a more effective voice on local and state political issues.

Indeed, student government at KU has come quite a long way from the days when it merely allowed students to settle inter-class disputes with negotiations rather than fisticuffs

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Sources Notes: A wealth of materials dealing with the history of student government at KU can be found in the Student Senate papers housed in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Among the most helpful are the following: The Kansan, March 28, 1908, p. 1; April 20, 1909, p. 1; April 29, 1909. p. 1; May 4, 1909, p. 2; May 8, 1909, p. 1; May 13, 1909, pp. 1, 4; May 18, 1909, p. 1; May 20, 1909, p. 1; October 26, 1909, p. 3; March 8, 1910, p. 2. University Daily Kansan, May 28, 1939, Section C; December 1, 1942, pp. 1-2; December 10, 1942, pp. 1-2; March 28, 1943, pp. 1-2; March 30, 1942, pp. 1, 5; April 2, 1943, pp. 1,5; September 20, 1968, pp. 1, 16; February 21, 1969, p. 1; April 24, 1969, p. 1; April 25, 1969, p. 1; September 18, 1969, p. 1. See also, the Graduate Magazine (September 1943), p. 10. Very useful as well is Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 216-219, 384, 386, 465, 636-640, and Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 92-94, 202.]