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This Week in MIT History

By Aaron Mihalik

Associate Features Editor

During the second week of January 1970, tensions caused by the expulsion of Mike Albert ’69, an undergrad student involved in a radical political campaign against war research at MIT, lead to an unprecedented level of student protests at MIT.

Mike Albert was elected UA president in March 1969 as a write-in candidate. From the beginning Albert was surrounded by controversy. Although he won the election in the actual voting, he could not initially take office because there was some confusion on whether he was officially registered as an undergraduate student. Former UAP Maria Kivisild ’69 had to step in and decided that Albert was a registered undergraduate and could therefore take the position.

One of several points on Albert's platform was “an end to war related research at MIT and the discontinuation of co-operative war research programs with other corporations.” Albert was heavily involved with the Science Action Coordinating Committee and other student groups that protested MIT involvement in war related research. Among the groups demands were that MIT discontinue work on MIRV’s, all-weather helicopters, and the ABM’s that were to be used in the Vietnam War.

Eventually, Albert lead several protests that caused the Committee on Discipline to recommend that he be “required to withdraw for disciplinary reasons.” On January 8th, 1970, Albert received a letter from President Howard Johnson that effectively terminated his status as an undergraduate at MIT. More protests began to ensue after the expulsion of Albert. The campus was littered with graffiti that called for “Amnesty for Mike” and a length of pipe with an undisclosed message was thrown through one of Johnson’s windows.

Also, protesters forcefully took control of President Howard Johnson’s office. Using a battering ram to break through locked doors, students stormed into Johnson’s office and occupied it for 34 hours. What eventually lead to the occupation of Johnson’s office began as a rally in Lobby Seven on Thursday afternoon. Approximately 250 people participated in the rally. During the rally, Paul Sullivan ’71 gave a speech and used the Albert as an example of the suppression of “the Movement” by the MIT administration. Sullivan told the rally audience that the way to fight oppression is “by throwing it off now.”

Shortly afterwards Sullivan called for a march up the stairs to the second floor to Johnson’s office. The group of demonstrators that followed Sullivan, numbering somewhere between 70 and 100, were met at the locked door to the Corporation Conference Room by presidential assistant Constantine Simonides and three Campus Police Officers. While Sullivan distracted Simonides, four hooded men picked up a battering ram and broke down the unguarded door to Johnson’s office.

The demonstrators were at first hesitant about entering the off-ice, but the number of students in President Johnson’s and Corporation Chairman James Killian’s offices swelled to 100 within fifteen minutes.

The faculty, meeting in an emergency session shortly after the office takeover, overwhelmingly passed a motion condemning the forcible occupation of Johnson’s office and called for disciplinary action against those involved. A motion to set up a group to negotiate with the occupiers was defeated. The faculty also discussed the demands made by the occupiers. These included reinstating Mike Albert, rescinding all past discipline and abolishing the Committee on Discipline.

Provost Jerome B. Wiesner, who presented this ultimatum from the occupiers, concluded by saying that he told the radical groups that he had neither the authority nor the inclination to grant the demands. At the faculty meeting President Johnson, responded to the radicals’ actions by saying: “One thing I will not do is negotiate on the basis of an ultimatum or the occupation of an office.”

The occupiers left voluntarily at 10 p.m. Friday night. No police were called. The occupiers left chanting and singing. The revolutionaries, now numbering 75, marched to the student center to plot their next move. Associate Provost Paul Gray delivered the following statement to the press on behalf of Johnson: “The group of students and non-students who battered their way into my office have gone. They went in with an ultimatum of non-negotiable demands. They left with nothing.” He also noted that “MIT’s faculty and students refused to support threats and violence as a way to accomplish change in this Institution” and that “had the occupation continued, we were ready to call in the civil authorities.”

By midnight, the group of protesters had reconvened and marched towards Johnson’s house. Although there was a minor scuffle between the protesters and campus police, nothing noteworthy came of that evening. The following week, MIT applied to the Third District Court of Eastern Middlesex for the issuance of complaints against 31 persons involved in the office occupation.