Learning from a wise, courageous man / Joe Nathan’s Column

One of the blessings of my life has been to learn from some wise, courageous people. June 19 and 20, I had the opportunity to discuss one of them, the late John Nason. I knew him as the president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I graduated in 1970 and attended the recent 45th class reunion. The reunion included a seminar about him.

The 1966-1970 era was enormously contentious and controversial. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the draft, women’s liberation, the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago, the “conspiracy” trial of people who helped lead protests in Chicago – they were all part of the mix when the class of 1970 was going through college.

John Nason (Courtesy of Carleton College Archives)

Among my favorite memories of Nason is the way he worked with and listened to students during the spring of 1970. The U.S. had invaded Cambodia. Many college students were taking over buildings and destroying property to protest. While Carleton students also were frustrated and angry, we did not do either of those things – because of Nason.

A key part of spring 1970 was an attempt to convince college and university trustees to vote their shares of General Motors stock in favor of proposals developed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader and others. We had a huge debate about this at Carleton, with many (including me) urging that Carleton “take a stand” and side with Nader.

Some people pushed back, insisting that an education institution should be neutral. A campus poll showed most students and faculty thought the Nader proposals were reasonable and that Carleton should support them.

Nason attempted to work out a compromise between those who wanted the shares proposed by Nader, people who wanted Carleton to stay neutral and trustees who wanted Carleton to support General Motors management. He encouraged and helped arrange respectful, though passionate, debates on this controversy. He brought students to the trustees meeting, giving us an opportunity to share our suggestions. (This had rarely happened at Carleton or on many other campuses.)

Ultimately, Nason felt that he had convinced the trustees to stay neutral. But in a stunning vote, the trustees decided to vote with General Motors.

I still recall the sadness and regret Nason shared in his phone call to me, informing me of the trustees’ decision. He understood if we felt betrayed (we did).

Over the next 24 hours, students debated our response. Some of us urged that we not occupy a building or destroy property. We did not think either action would advance our cause. We also did not believe this would be fair to Nason, who planned to retire that summer. A friend of his, a president of another college, had died recently of a heart attack.

We felt Nason was a good, decent, fair man. He did not always agree with students. But he treated us with respect. So we rejected illegal actions and decided to picket the home of the Carleton Board of Trustees chairperson.

This was one of many stories shared during the reunion. Another came from a 1970 graduate, now University of Iowa professor, Connie Hoffman Berman. She recalled that she and several others met with Nason to discuss a protest on the lawn outside his office.

Apparently he misunderstood and thought they were occupying his office. He asked if they would please give him a few minutes to gather things he needed. Then he would leave the office to them! This, instead of calling the police, as some presidents did.

Bardwell Smith, former Carleton dean, and Bruce Colwell, senior associate dean of students at the college, are documenting “the Nason years” at Carleton. They spoke at the reunion and agreed that he was remarkable.

John Nason was a voice of reason, compassion and tolerance in a deeply disturbing, disruptive period of American history. His legacy and lessons remain, decades after his presidency and his death in 2001. More information about him is in this New York Times obituary: http://nyti.ms/1Iyp9os.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.