50 Years Later: Miami University's 'Tipping Point,' Rowan Hall's Vietnam War Protest

Apr 15, 2020

It's been 50 years since students protesting the Vietnam War and Napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical occupied Miami University's Rowan Hall. That event, and those leading up to it and in the months following, changed the university in many ways.

On April 15, 1970, more than 170 students took over Rowan Hall, then Miami's ROTC building, and refused to leave. The move was a culmination of issues that had been percolating across campus for several years coming to a head.

"Students had had a big protest on the lawn of the administration building, Roudebush Hall, objecting in particular to the presence of Dow Chemical Company recruiting on campus - Dow made Napalm," explains Curt Ellison, emeritus professor of history and American studies at Miami University.

"At the end of that rally, one enterprising young man said 'We're just talking and talking. We're not doing anything.' He led a group over and they broke into the door of the ROTC building, Rowan Hall, went inside, sat down, ordered pizza and a band came in. They started talking about their objections to ROTC on campus and to the Vietnam War and to university policies."

They were protesting the war in Vietnam and the draft; calling on the school to hire more African American faculty, recruit more African American students and teach black studies; asking for more campus freedoms; and advocating for women's rights.

When the students refused to leave, 17 local law enforcement agencies responded to campus. There was no coordination between agencies, Ellison points out. Students were arrested. Objects were reportedly thrown. Police dogs, Mace and tear gas were used against students as the chaos spread across campus toward Uptown.

Police removing students from Rowan Hall.
Credit Recensio, 1970 / Courtesy of Curt Ellison

Students called for a strike in the following days and encouraged students and staff to boycott classes. On April 21, students held a "flush in," flushing toilets and opening the water taps in the residence halls, draining the town's water tower, leading to fear (in the event of a fire, the town had no water) and anger among Oxford residents.

"That turned public sentiment against students in a way that had not been true prior to the 'flush in,' " Ellison explains.

The governor at the time, James Rhodes, sent 700 National Guard troops to Miami. The soldiers, however, stayed on the nearby Nike missile base (now home to WMUB's transmitter) and never came on campus.

"They did not come onto campus," remembers Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Rick Momeyer in the book Miami University 1809 - 2009: Bicentennial Perspectives. "Presumably President (Phillip) Shriver drew the line here. Had the Ohio National Guard come onto campus, however, what happened at Kent State on May 4 might rather have happened at Miami soon after April 15."

Following the deaths at Kent State, several thousand students marched nonviolently on campus. President Shriver closed the campus the next day, May 7.

Shaping The Future

Shriver stayed on campus during that time, Ellison recalls, negotiating with student leaders.

"The university re-opened after 10 days and soon thereafter there began to be changes."

Those changes led to widespread reform, making the university what it is today, he says. That included:

  • Major governance changes, residence hall visitation and the lifting of Miami's role as the parent to its students
  • The creation of Western College, embracing "the national experimental college movement"
  • Funding The Lilly Foundation teaching reform project, which evolved into numerous programs
  • Creating the Miami Plan for Liberal Education, establishing curriculum for all students, which became a model for other universities.

"In 1985 Richard Moll came along and called Miami one of the 'public ivys,' that is, a high quality education at a reasonable cost." Moll's book, Ellison says, "put a name on the changes that had occurred in the aftermath of Rowan Hall in curriculum and interaction of students, and positioned the university pretty well in the 20th century education marketplace.

"I think that we should think of the Rowan Hall events of April 15 as a tipping point in a long series of events that led to the kind of university we have today."

For an in-depth conversation about the events leading up to and following the Rowan Hall protest, listen to the interview above with Professor Emeritus Curt Ellison. For more images, click the image at the top of the page.