Iconic images of student activism on U-M’s campus from the 1960s include photos of JFK outlining what would become the Peace Corps to more than 10,000 students on the steps of the Michigan Union, impassioned protests against the Vietnam War, and a rally on Hatcher Library’s steps the morning after the nation’s first teach-in, which had been held in Angell Hall. Even a casual glance through these images makes one thing clear—the students at U-M, including the activists, were overwhelmingly white.

The lack of diversity at U-M at the time did not go unnoticed. In 1962, after a federal investigation found evidence of a substantial racial bias, the University was urged to improve integration throughout its programs. In response, President Harlan Hatcher created and charged a committee to find ways to accomplish this goal, and the committee proposed the Opportunity Award Program (OAP), which launched in 1964.

OAP aimed to increase diversity at U-M by actively recruiting and admitting underrepresented students, offering financial aid, and providing support services such as advising and tutoring. In its first year, OAP admitted 70 students. By 1969, the number had climbed to 229.

The executive director of the Center for Educational Outreach at U-M, William (Nick) Collins (A.B. 1970, M.A. ’72, Ph.D. ’75), was one of 86 students OAP admitted in its third year. Collins’s was the first generation with access to TV, so, as a sophomore in high school, he’d watched the backlash to integration efforts in the South from his living room. Before he graduated from high school, both Malcolm X and JFK had been assassinated, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Collins and his cohort arrived on campus in 1966.

“There were very few black students on campus,” Collins recalls. “We pretty much stuck together because there weren’t many of us. I would guess there might have been around 300 black students on the entire campus.”

In the fall of 1967, Arthur Thurnau Professor of Psychology J. Frank Yates (M.A. 1969, Ph.D. ’71) came to U-M as a graduate student in the Department of Psychology. That summer, there had been race riots in cities across the country, including Detroit. In addition to his classes and research, Yates wanted to get involved. He joined the Black Student Union (BSU), which was one of the black student organizations active on campus.

On March 20, 1970, approximately 200 protesters marched outside of Hill Auditorium during the U-M Honors Convocation. Photo by Jay Cassidy/Bentley Historical Library

Black studies programs were becoming popular on college campuses, and the BSU wanted to bring one to U-M.

“As is common with organizations — especially student organizations — and particularly in that era where there was a lot of talk, you just don’t have a lot of time to waste,” Yates explains. “Out of desperation I took on the responsibility of writing a draft of a proposal. And once we had a document, we decided we might as well use it. In the language of the day I suppose we probably said, ‘We demand a black studies program.’ And, surprisingly, LSA said OK.”

Other campus proposals that focused on black student admissions, enrollment, and financial aid were not embraced as readily. Between 1964 and 1969, black student enrollment had climbed from 2 percent to 3.4 percent of the total student body. The BSU argued the target should be 10 percent, which was proportional to the state of Michigan.

“The University’s answers to our proposals were always no,” Yates said. “Their argument in almost every case was, ‘We can’t afford it.’ Things hit a wall at the end of 1969, and we decided we should march and protest.”

“You’re Admitted—Good Luck”

In January 1970, U-M’s black student organizations combined forces and became the Black Action Movement (BAM), a coalition of black students from the Medical School, the Department of Psychology, the BSU, the Association of Black Social Work Students, and — importantly — the Black Law Students Association. The groups combined their proposals into a single set of demands, including two proposals Yates had written: one for a black studies center on campus and the other for services to improve black student academic success. The black studies center became the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and then evolved into DAAS, today’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.

There was a need for these services, says Cynthia Stephens (A.B. 1971), a judge on the Michigan First District Court of Appeals who was the vice president of the BSU in 1970. Students were arriving on campus from under-resourced schools, she explains, and many were also first-generation college students. The students OAP was enrolling were more diverse, but the OAP lacked the resources to offer real assistance once they arrived. “It was like, ‘You’re admitted,’” Stephens recalls. “‘Good luck.’” BAM also wanted to make sure those students could succeed.

In February, BAM sent representatives to the regents meeting and presented their demands in person. The regents requested President Robben Fleming develop a counterproposal, and the students, enraged by the regents’ deferral, left. Some went to the Shapiro Library and removed books from the shelves in protest.

BAM’s law students were essential to the effort. In 2010, Ida Short (A.B. 1971) recalled, “The [BAM] legal team would meet with us and tell us what we could do and what we could not do. One of our strategies was to go to the undergraduate library and take every single book off the shelves. And [the law students] told us, ‘Remember, the books cannot be on the floor. If they’re on the floor, you could go to jail.’”

The students were committed to protesting for their cause, but they were not without apprehension. They worried about what would happen to them if they skipped class or blocked entrance to a building. Collins remembers one woman whose father warned her, “You’d better go to class. I am paying the tuition and you are about to graduate. There had better not be anything that happens at this point.”

The students were not just worried about themselves, Collins says. “We felt we were representing ourselves and our communities. It was important we achieve some measure of success. You didn’t want to come here and not succeed. You didn’t want to come here and get kicked out because you were protesting, for example. That was an extra weight I think many of us carried at that time.”

During the strike, more than 300 professors canceled classes to show their support. Some departments completely closed down. (Left) Photo by Andrew Sacks; (right) Bentley Historical Library

Negotiations continued without progress. Outside of the March regents meeting, BAM declared black students were going on strike. They vowed to close down the University until their demands were met. By then, BAM had gotten more strategic, asking members of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees not to cross their picket line and appealing to white student activists to join them. There still weren’t enough black students on campus to close the place down by themselves.

The strike began Friday, March 20. By Wednesday, attendance in LSA classes had dropped by 60 percent. By Thursday, it was down 75 percent, and the College considered shutting down. On Friday, BAM and President Fleming met to negotiate BAM’s demands. On April 1, they reached a settlement.

Excellence, Not Sufficiency

The University agreed to Yates’s proposals for a black studies center on campus, and for a program to improve academic success known as the Coalition for the Use of Learning Skills (CULS). CULS was to launch that September — only four months away.

Yates became director of CULS, a position he held until 1973. Yates, Collins, and a fellow psychology student, Wade Boykin (M.A. 1970, Ph.D. ’72), led the effort to develop the program. They relied on their academic training and sought out people across campus who could offer practical expertise, such as note-taking techniques and strategies to improve test-taking proficiency. They also used their own experiences as a guide.

“We reflected back on our time and tried to identify what we’d needed to be successful here,” Collins says. “Many black students came from inner city schools, which did not have the same resources as suburban schools. So that was one thing. But what also became clear was that many of us felt isolated in the classroom.

“If we could cluster black students in writing classes, for example, they could talk about material that was relevant to their existence and internalize the concepts better,” Collins continues. “Today we’d call it active learning. They could reinforce each other, elaborate on the material, and relate it to their own lives.

“I remember my first assignment, to read ‘The Joys of Sport at Oxford,’” Collins recalls. “I could read about it, but it didn’t mean much to me.”

Study groups were the core of the CULS model. Stephens directed a peer-advising program. CULS placed a premium on students teaching one another.

“We worked with departments to create special sections — ‘Power Sections,’ we called them — for calculus or chemistry or whatever,” Yates explains. “If the other sections of the course were meeting for four hours a week, we’d go six.” CULS did not favor tutoring because its members believed tutoring meant playing catch-up.

Throughout the negotiations, protests, and strikes, OAP had continued its work. Beginning in September 1970, CULS ran right alongside it. The units didn’t have an official relationship, and they had different structures, but they informally worked together. Because OAP’s advisors were staff, for example, they could officially approve course changes. “If we needed our students to get into a course,” Yates explains, “we would ask OAP advisors to help out.”

Alumnus Victor Marsh (A.B. 1970; center) is among the many alumni who have participated in CSP mentoring programs. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

CULS and OAP continued to operate as separate units until 1983, when two review committees recommended that the programs be combined. Yates and the other CULS leaders agreed, and together the two units became LSA’s Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP).

Decades later, CSP continues to offer instruction, advising, and support services to underrepresented students. To Yates, such programs continue to address the same needs. “There is no reason to think that potential differs by ethnicity, so it is our mission to get people where they should be,” he says. “We’ve always envisioned that people will use whatever they learn at the University to do good in all kinds of areas. That’s why we have always approached the idea of excellence, not sufficiency.”

Collins, who directed CSP from 1992 to 2008, agrees. “My entire career has been devoted to this work. From this vantage point, I have developed some different ideas, but the enthusiasm and commitment to the principle are the same: wanting to be a social change agent, wanting to do something that makes a difference, wanting to examine my life and what I do with it — those remain part of my core.”

Stephens says that they were also thinking of the students who would come after them as they negotiated and protested to make campus more inclusive. “We understood we were transient,” Stephens says. “We needed to leave a strong structure behind.”