IMPACT at Vanderbilt 1964-1969

About the IMPACT Symposium Dean’s Fellow Project

The IMPACT Symposium project began as a Library Dean’s Fellow project in the 2014­2015 school year. The Deans Fellow Program provides students the ability to complete an in­ depth project of a particular focus. With the help of an assigned mentor, these projects aim to produce a final product that will benefit library patrons in some form. Akailah Jenkins (College of Arts and Sciences, senior) served as the initial IMPACT symposium project Dean’s Fellow from 2014­2015, with Kathleen Smith, Associate Director of Special Collections, as her mentor. The goals of the project in its beginning year were tri­fold: 1) research primary source documents associated with IMPACT 1964 from the Special Collections Library; 2) scan the documents and compile metadata; 3) organize and select specific documents to be used on a library website about IMPACT. Following Akailah’s assignment to IMPACT, it is anticipated that new Dean’s Fellows will be selected to add additional years of the symposium to the established website (1970­present).

IMPACT: A Brief History

(As summarized from Professor Paul Conkin’s Gone With the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University)

The 1960s were unequivocally a time of civil disobedience, calls­to­action, and deep reflection in the United States. Protesters were speaking out against what they deemed unjust in relation to civil rights and the Vietnam war. On campuses around the country, university students were drawing attention to national issues through organized protest. While students at Vanderbilt University tended to be more conservative than some of the more radical protesters, they would eventually join in the debate.

Among the most publicized protests was the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. The violence at Berkeley raised concerns at Vanderbilt that students would soon begin participating in the same types of activities. In order to address student opinion and take an active role in campus unrest, then­Chancellor Alexander Heard began working with student deans to provide a platform for students to have their voices heard (though students had already begun such programming). With Heard’s support planning for a new initiative, the IMPACT symposium began in 1964. The program sought to bring controversial figures selected by the students to campus. It allowed the students the opportunity to be heard and gave the university a vehicle for dialogue between world leaders on both sides of the issues and the campus community a, a win­win situation. According to historian Paul K. Conkin, Vanderbilt students were especially likely protesters because of their largely affluent background (low­ income students fighting for middle class status often steered clear of protesting). Furthermore, Vanderbilt undergraduate students were slightly more liberal in comparison to faculty and graduate students at the time. This deeply concerned conservative members of the community, especially those in administration.

Heard enacted a number of policies to build trust between the university administration and the students. His first challenge was to get the conservative Vanderbilt Board of Trust to support his agenda. The Board was largely comprised of Republican, affluent men who saw the IMPACT symposium as a dangerously liberal entity. In Nashville, many considered even small protests and slight liberalism to be radical, and Heard soon learned that the greatest concern was not necessarily rioting students, but the opinions of members of the community.

In the spring of 1964, the first IMPACT symposium took place. It was titled ‘The South in Transition’ and featured George Wallace, Roy Wilkins, and Robert Wagner as the feature speakers. These men and the other invitees had ranging political views and provided a forum for a lively discussion of current events in the South. The mid­1960s was a time of turmoil at the University, as some students openly held anti­war sentiments. In 1965, students attended an anti­war teach­in, a broadcast by the recently­formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter to the campus. The conservative afternoon newspaper, the Nashville Banner, condemned the students for such action. That same year, a group known as ‘Students for the Support of the Soldiers in Vietnam,’ distributed petitions signed in solidarity with men who were at war. In 1966, members of the Student Political Education and Action Committee (SPEAC) released the first politically radical publication at Vanderbilt, a news sheet, Prometheus.

IMPACT 1966 bore the title ‘America’s New Global Challenge’ and hosted Barry Goldwater, Alexander Kerensky, and John Seigenthaler as speakers. There were no on­campus riots between 1966­1967, but students grew increasingly engaged in liberal issues of the time, particularly women’s rights and alcohol use on campus. Even still, Conkin notes that most students at Vanderbilt in the late 1960s were largely apolitical. Only a few examples of outwardly liberal or conservative activism appeared via underground newspapers such as The Dirty We’Jun and the formation of Marxist and conservative groups. Because of the largely apolitical nature of the University, many students (both right and left wing) felt it critical to raise awareness through the IMPACT symposium, which had a strong presence after its initial years (1965­1966). IMPACT 1967 ushered in a lineup that was more diverse than the campus had ever seen, arguably creating the most controversial symposium in IMPACT history.

The title of IMPACT 1967 was ‘The Individual in American Society.’ The list of speakers included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Allen Ginsberg, Strom Thurmond and Stokely Carmichael. Strom Thurmond represented the only truly conservative voice at this symposium. Stokely Carmichael in particular caused nothing short of outrage in the Nashville community and precipitated a slew of correspondence from Vanderbilt alumni condemning the University for permitting his appearance. Board of Trust members (particularly James G. Stahlman, editor of the Nashville Banner, who wrote articles opposing Carmichael) disapproved of Carmichael’s attendance, but Heard fought relentlessly for the right of the students to have him speak. Heard knew that if he did not allow Carmichael to speak, he would be violating the “open forum principle” that he established with the students, potentially leading to riots on campus. Heard went so far as to visit the Board of Trust president, Harold S. Vanderbilt, to sway his opinion in favor of the Carmichael’s visit and stood his ground even as the Tennessee State Senate passed a resolution against Carmichael’s views. Vanderbilt’s IMPACT chair and other members of the Vanderbilt community released statements in support of Heard despite the opposition.

The national coverage of Carmichael’s radical speeches on March 23, 1967, and his recruitment for members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Nashville on March 24, 1967, made the situation even more tense. Riots at Fisk University and Tennessee State University (then Tennessee A&I) after Carmichael’s speech were met with police force and many were arrested. Some argued that Carmichael’s IMPACT speech did not incite this riot. Students of Tennessee State University and Fisk University claimed that the riots occurred because of the massive police response, while police blamed the riots on Carmichael.

Following the riots, James Stahlman wrote a letter to the University administration blaming Chancellor Heard for the riots. This letter garnered massive media attention and sparked public debate surrounding Heard’s open forum policy. The Nashville Tennessean denied that the speech was linked to the riots . At the next Vanderbilt board meeting, despite Stahlman’s protest, the Board upheld Heard’s choice and he remained in place as the Chancellor. While the Administration did not shut down the open forum policy, from that point forward it gave itself licensure to monitor speaker invitations more closely. Heard’s liberalism was heralded around the United States, and he received offers from universities to come work for them, though he turned them down.

Following IMPACT 1967, the IMPACT symposium became less of a national news item. In 1968, the topic of the symposium was ‘The Destiny of Dissent,’ with speakers Julian Bond, Robert F. Kennedy, and William F. Buckley. The symposium drew a meager crowd. In 1969, the topic was ‘The Emerging Generation’ and speakers included McGeorge Bundy, Nathan Hare, Allan Lowenstein, and Edmund Muskie. That year, IMPACT showcased academics and politicians, which hurt its budget. In 1970, the title was ‘The Struggle to Communicate’, with speakers James Kilpatrick and William Kuntsler. In 1971, IMPACT lost $8000 when speakers George McGovern, Sam Ervin, and Bella Abzug didn’t draw enough attention. IMPACT 1972 was even worse, and led to a suspension of the program (because of monetary issues) until 1977, when it returned in a modified version.

Today, the IMPACT symposium remains on the list of news­topping occurrences at Vanderbilt. It broke ground in the South in many ways, especially at a private, largely white institution. IMPACT and Alexander Heard were pioneers in the fight for political activism on college campuses. See below a list of all IMPACT symposium topics following its re­launch in 1977: