In the meantime at San Francisco State College, students in the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a coalition of African-American, Latino, and Asian-American student groups, began demanding reforms that addressed the concerns of students of color and the surrounding community. After more than a year of negotiating with the school and organizing students, they called a strike on November 6, 1968, that became the longest student strikein United States history. When it was finally settled in March 1969, many of the students’ demands were met, including the establishment of a School of Ethnic Studies.
The 1960s were turbulent years. The United States was unpopularly involved in the war in Vietnam, and political unrest ran high at colleges and universities across the country.
At the time, San Francisco State College had an enrollment of approximately 18,000 students. Characterized as an open campus, San Francisco State was known for its innovative approaches to teaching and the development of courses in conjunction with students.
Political turmoil on campus began in 1968 when a Black Panther member, George Murray, was dismissed from school, and student militants called a strike. Using terrorist tactics, these groups intimidated and physically threatened students and professors if they crossed the picket line. Some of their demands included the formulation of an autonomous black studies department, promotion to full professor of a faculty member who had one year’s experience, the firing of a white administrator, and the admission of all black students who applied for the next academic year.
While sympathetic to student needs, Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa felt a strike was detrimental to their cause and to the process of education. He urged student leaders to reopen the campus, but his plea fell on deaf ears.
Hayakawa, one of the few faculty members willing to go back to work, felt it was his duty to cross the picket line and continue the education of the students who desired it. He believed the faculty had forgotten their primary mission–teaching, conducting research, and pursuing academic excellence.
On November 28, 1968, Hayakawa was named acting president of San Francisco State College by California Governor Ronald Reagan and the trustees of the California state college system. With no previous administrative or political experience, his selection was an unpopular choice among faculty members and students. Prior to his appointment, Hayakawa had served on a five-person presidential- selection committee whose members had reportedly agreed not to seek the office. Hayakawa denied any agreement had been made and accepted the job under extreme opprobrium from committee members. Hayakawa was viewed as eccentric in appearance and style. Wearing Hawaiian carnation leis and an Irish tam-o’-shanter, his personal appearance was indicative of his personality.
His first priority as acting president was to reopen the campus following Thanksgiving break ending the strike. To achieve this objective, he yielded on some student demands and rejected others. This, however, was unsatisfactory to student leaders, who employed 1,000 protesters to close the campus on the first day following from Thanksgiving break. Taking a firm stance, Hayakawa countered by deploying police officers across the campus. Over 700 arrests were made, and campus casualties ran into the hundreds. Before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1969, Hayakawa reiterated his stance, “Student protesters said they would destroy this campus, and I said they would not.”
On the first day back, student protesters assembled around a truck with a loudspeaker on top. Hayakawa, at the age of 62, climbed atop the truck and ripped out the audio system. Captured on national television, Hayakawa was hailed by the public as a person who stood up to the extremists. A majority of students wanted to resume classes, but were reluctant to defy militant protesters for fear of retaliation. Following Hayakawa’s confrontation with student protesters, 80 percent of the student body returned to classes. However, peace did not last long.
In January 1969, one month after order had been restored on campus, the American Federation of Teachers declared a strike and halted instruction. This re-ignited student unrest and, as a precautionary measure, Hayakawa once again called on the San Francisco police department to maintain peace.
In March 1969, after two months of negotiations, an agreement was reached with the teacher’s union. Hayakawa again conceded some demands but held firm on others. At the same time, militant student leaders relinquished some of their original demands and worked out a settlement. The cooperation Hayakawa had sought was finally being realized.
With the media coverage of San Francisco State, Hayakawa launched himself into the public eye. A Gallup poll conducted during the student uprising found S. I. Hayakawa to be the most admired educator in the United States. Among civic clubs and the lay public, Hayakawa represented a no-nonsense position that people identified with. Invited to deliver speeches throughout the country, he used this opportunity to launch a political career that would eventually lead him to the U.S. Senate.