In a tumultuous time, it was a relatively quiet reform, designed to channel students’ indignation towards constructive action within the system. But Princeton’s Fall Break stirred considerable controversy — and, as archival material recently unearthed at the Nixon Presidential Library reveals, it raised sharp concerns inside the Nixon White House.
As soon as Princeton announced its innovation, Pat Buchanan, a conservative speechwriter and adviser to President Nixon, wrote an alarmed memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. “If Princeton gets away with this,” Buchanan claimed, “so will other schools, and one need not imagine whom these kiddies will be out working against.” With an eye on the midterm elections the following November but more importantly on Nixon’s reelection bid two years later, Buchanan feared that, thanks to Princeton’s example, untold numbers of college students would hit the campaign trail to defeat Republican candidates.
Haldeman then raised the matter with Egil “Bud” Krogh, Jr., a Nixon staffer and a member of “the plumbers,” the secretive group that identified Nixon’s political enemies and, in time, orchestrated the Watergate break-in. Krogh, in turn, wrote to William Rehnquist, then an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, asking him to find legal justification to charge that Princeton’s encouragement of political activity constituted a “violation of a non-profit institution’s tax status.”
Outside Washington, outspoken supporters of Nixon’s policies also condemned Princeton for indulging in illegal political activity. Sidney Hook, for example, a prominent professor of philosophy at New York University, called administration officials and charged that “the proposed close-down by Princeton and several other universities this fall to enable students to campaign for certain selected peace candidates is, in effect, an anti-Administration operation.” Hook threatened to file suit against Princeton and the other universities that had followed its lead for violating their tax-exempt status.
The Internal Revenue Service ultimately sidestepped the issue and allowed Princeton’s Fall Break to become a reality, without threatening the institution’s tax-exempt status. In August 1970, Peter Rodman, an assistant to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and a staff member for the National Security Council, explained that as long as the University did not take a stand on any “substantive political issue,” the existing laws “allow university closedowns, as long as the time is made up at some point during the academic year.”
Even then, though, the fall recess remained in jeopardy. After the break’s inaugural year in 1970, political activity on campus faded, and no Fall Break was offered in 1971. University leaders also questioned the break’s effectiveness. The ‘Prince,’ for example, noted that only 24 percent of students participated in any kind of political campaign in 1970. An innovation intended to spur citizenly engagement had not done so — and in the winter of 1972, the faculty voted to permanently end Fall Break. Yet support for the idea did not disappear, and in March 1972, with the support of the “informal” UGA “Ad Hoc Fall Recess Committee” and again with the endorsement of the ‘Prince,’ the University revived Fall Break and made it a permanent feature of the Princeton academic calendar.
And it should continue to be permanent. Some students will head out on the campaign trail and engage in direct political activism next week. Most will not — especially as this is an “off” year, between the 2010 midterms and the 2012 presidential race. Still, the break affords students time for reflection and contemplation about the ever-shifting, unpredictable tides of political and social change, which, as we have seen recently all across the political spectrum, can become turbulent even in “off” years. Citizenship is formed not only in action and maneuvering, but also in quieter thought, discussion and debate. Born in a time of particularly severe tumult, Fall Break remains an opportunity for something more penetrating than the political heavies in the Nixon administration ever imagined — a chance to step back from the rigors of academic life and consider the wider world outside.
Dov Weinryb Grohsgal is a lecturer in the history department and a Faculty Fellow for Mathey College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.