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In Event: Places of Privilege, Places of Struggle: Oral Histories of Activism and Movement Building in the University
In 1965, when the SUNY Board of Trustees proposed an experimental college on a former Long Island Gold Coast estate, the Board could not know that the experiment would result in one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the nation. Trustees sought to outflank youth activism propelled by the civil rights and anti-war movements by accommodating student interests, “end[ing] the lock-step march in which one semester follows on another until four of youth’s most energetic years have been consumed.” The College at Old Westbury opened inauspiciously, in 1968.
A year later, the college was forced to close; student rejection of their experimental curricula led to strikes, sit-ins, and the departure of the first president. Soon afterwards however the college returned with a new mission to offer an interdisciplinary curriculum to those traditionally bypassed by colleges—a key student demand. Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History Project, a digital history, combines oral histories of early faculty, administrators and students, along with photographs and primary sources, to tell the story of the college’s first years.
Oral history was crucial to getting at the college’s past. Tempers still flare over events that transpired nearly fifty years ago; oral histories allowed divergent views to be articulated. Old Westbury has retained its extraordinary racial, ethnic, and economic diversity, but over time the college has become more traditional—largely shedding interdisciplinary programs and committing to more vocationally-focused degrees. A campus often mired in tumult has been exceedingly quiet over the past decade. The project’s digitization allows current students and faculty the opportunity to learn and confront the College’s past, provoking dialogue about the meaning of the college’s articulated commitment to social justice. At a time when public higher education is under siege, the project also documents the value of higher education for those historically excluded.