Stanford’s rebels

Opinion by Anna-Sofia Lesiv
Nov. 15, 2017, 3:00 a.m.

Editor’s note: This column references a 1972 New York Times article, “In the Matter of H. Bruce Franklin,” which was not linked or attributed in the text below. It also erroneously dates H. Bruce’s Franklin’s receiving tenure to 1970 and names Alan Dershowitz as having represented Franklin; Franklin received tenure in 1965, and Dershowitz prepared a brief on the case but did not represent Franklin. The Daily regrets these errors.

This is the story of H. Bruce Franklin. It’s the story of M-1 carbines, Alan Dershowitz and Mao Zedong. The story of a literary-critic-cum-guerrilla-warrior, the story of the first tenured professor to be fired from Stanford University.

It all began in France, where Franklin had moved to lecture at the Free University of Paris. Before the move, Franklin was mostly known for his published books on Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and science fiction. Safe to say, France changed all that. He and his wife Jane only stayed for a year, but a year was all it took for the pair to be infected by the revolutionary spirit sweeping through the French capital in the late ’60s.

The Franklins returned to Stanford eager and angry. Franklin saw comfortable, conservative California as too complacent in the face of the United States’ prolonged war in Vietnam. “When we came back to this country we were Marxist Leninists, and we saw the need for a revolutionary force in the United States,” noted Franklin in an interview with The New York Times.

In a few years, Franklin would be hanging a Remington 12-gauge automatic shotgun on his front door, arming himself whenever the police came knocking. Ultimately, it’s not surprising that they did. After initiating a Maoist student group called the Peninsula Red Guards, then merging and promptly breaking with the Revolutionary Union, Franklin joined and helped write the manifesto for an insurgent guerrilla group called Venceremos. Franklin’s awkward predicament – active in groups opposing the Vietnam War while receiving paychecks from a university industriously churning out weapons research to fight the National Liberation Front – increased his zeal, cementing his militant, radical convictions.

Interestingly, Venceremos saw violent, guerrilla tactics as essential to the emancipation of oppressed peoples. “There’s the myth, you know, that violence begets violence,” Franklin once said. “The oppressor feeds on nonviolence.” The importance of the Second Amendment was particularly emphasized by the group’s followers, who were advised to always have at least one weapon available to them. According to a member of the group interviewed in 1972, members of Venceremos drew their weapons on police “at least once every two weeks.” Franklin, too, had been arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Rumors followed him. Some believed Franklin was actively involved in training militias in the Palo Alto hills. Others accused him of providing explosives to the Black Panthers. William Chace, assistant professor of English, recalled, “He was truly like a man from Mars for most of the people here. He had a hard time making them believe he’s even part of the human race.”

In 1970, Franklin was granted tenure by Stanford University, but it only took a year before the administration began sorely regretting that. After allegedly disrupting a guest speaker on campus and speaking at an antiwar rally, which shut down the Computation Center at Stanford, Franklin was suspended and issued a restraining order. By the next month, a panel of seven faculty members were charged with determining whether the professor should remain employed by the University or be terminated on charges of disrupting speech and intentionally inciting violent, disobedient behavior.

Stanford would not provide Franklin with legal defense. But it just so happened that young up-and-coming Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz, today Julian Assange’s legal counsel, was visiting the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Dershowitz found Franklin’s conduct appalling but was even more disturbed by what seemed to him to be an ideologically motivated attempt to terminate the tenure of a professor.

In conjunction with the ACLU, Dershowitz eventually agreed to represent Franklin and argued that the professor was protected by the First Amendment, even in his disputation with a police officer’s orders. The defense failed, and the the panel of professors voted 5-2 to end Franklin’s employment, effective immediately. After the verdict, Franklin promptly called a televised press conference at Venceremos headquarters, busying himself with organizing the group’s next move. His wife was caught in the frame, smiling while holding an M-1. No longer employed, it seemed Franklin was still, very much occupied.

Franklin’s era was the peak of Stanford’s radicalism. Clashes with riot police and fire bombings that followed the shutdown of the Computation Center made our manicured campus seem almost “Berkeley-esque.” Franklin’s appetite for violence definitely crossed a line, especially given his role in the academy. By removing him, Stanford’s faculty was rightly showing an “intolerance for intolerance” – in the face of which Alan Dershowitz’ calls to preserve Franklin’s free speech and academic freedom were unconvincing. After all, Franklin himself acted in complete contradiction to the spirit of academic freedom by threatening the speech of those he disagreed with.

Nonetheless, H. Bruce Franklin had a serious influence on his students. He taught them to be vocal about their grievances with the establishment and offered a clear vision of a society to which they should aspire. It was Stanford students that were most aggrieved to see their professor go. Fred Mann, the editor of The Stanford Daily in 1972, wrote, “He’s probably been one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting, professors on campus.”

Today, student activism is again on the upswing, but something about contemporary movements seems qualitatively different from those in the past. Faculty firebrands like Franklin are tough to come by, and without firm leaders, student groups seem marked by a general absence of vision.

The closest thing to vision that came from Stanford faculty recently was probably the “Occupy the Future” anthology of essays published by professors Debra Satz, Rob Reich, David B. Grusky and Doug McAdam. Their outward support for the Occupy movement gained a lot of traction but fizzled after the frenzy buoying Occupy died out. They themselves recognized the flaw with the movement, writing in 2011, “We understood … what Occupy was against, but what was it for?”

Instead of channeling efforts into fabricating constructive directions for the future, our era’s activism is highly dependent on negation. Rather than work together to construct clearly oriented platforms, right- and left-wing campus groups seem to peg their identities to mere opposition of their ideological rivals. The result is the situation today, where left and right fall into an endless cycle of provocation and reaction, as if stuck in an endless game of cat and mouse. If our era’s activism is to have impact, perhaps remembering the legacy of leaders like H. Bruce Franklin can challenge us to engage with challenging ideas and work to construct answers to social injustices, instead of falling back on our era’s lethargic, easy, “no.”


Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’

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