“The University and Tolerance”

In deciding which topic to write about for this blog, I’ll admit, I struggled to find inspiration. I knew I wanted it to be a topic that related back to the 1960s and that it should have some connection with current events. I checked the usual sources that were readily available to me such as the Iowa State yearbook, the ISU history timeline on our website, and previous posts that appeared on this blog.

And then the thought occurred to me to skim the finding aid for the papers of President W. Robert Parks and explore some of the events that were taking place on campus 50 years ago. One folder title caught my attention, “Speech – commencement address: ‘The University and Tolerance'” from 1967.

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This portrait of W. Robert Parks was taken in 1965, just one year before he was named Iowa State’s 11th President. (University Photograph Collection, RS 2/11/A, box 67)

Parks delivered this speech on tolerance on February 25, 1967, at the graduation ceremony denoting the end of the winter quarter (Iowa State would not move to the semester system until 1981). The speech touches on the challenges of living in a modern and changing world and explores how tolerance is a necessary part of our system of government and our civil society. Parks believed that it was the university’s responsibility to develop educated minds that understood the meaning of and the need for tolerance. It was also his expectation that these people, so educated, would become leaders in developing a climate of tolerance in all aspects of national society.

“The tolerant mind, then, is a tough mind, which does not require the psychological security of absolutes. It does not need to find single causes, or to have single answers. Rather, it can live with the free interplay of differing opinions, differing goals, differing ways of life. It is, in short, tough enough to accept the psychological frustrations which accompany the rich diversities of a pluralistic society.” — “The University and Tolerance” commencement address, February 25, 1967, by W. Robert Parks, President, Iowa State University

Full text of Parks’ commencement address “The University and Tolerance”

Though there may be more eloquent passages in Parks’ speech, the above definition of what Parks believed a tolerant mind to be struck a chord with me. As I read this speech I started to wonder why Parks felt that this message of tolerance was necessary at this point in time in the University’s history. I knew that generational changes were taking place on the Iowa State campus. Female students were starting to demand greater equality with regards to curfews and visitation rules in the residence halls. The civil rights movement was gaining strength nationally, but it would be another year before the black students at Iowa State would truly make their voices heard. These issues were all certainly present at the time, but I believe the impetus for this speech was the result of the student body election that took place just weeks earlier. The campus was unprepared for the ensuing uproar when a nonconformist by the name of Don Smith became president of the Government of the Student Body–but that is a story for a future blog post!

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Spring commencement in 1967 was held in the Armory.  Unfortunately, our collections do not contain any photos of the winter commencement ceremony. (University Photograph Collection, RS 7/2/E, Box 452)

Although the election of Don Smith may have been at the forefront of Parks’ mind when he presented this speech, I also think that the president, in his own way, was preparing the Iowa State community for the challenging years he knew were coming. The next several years of Parks’ presidency saw him navigate the university through the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War protests. He may not have moved the university at the speed some students preferred or responded to student agitation as firmly as some legislators would have wanted, but by most accounts Parks approached many of the significant issues of his time with care, thoughtfulness, and, of course, tolerance.

The W. Robert Parks papers, RS 2/11, are rich in correspondence, news clippings, and administrative files that document how university leaders approached some of these often contentious issues. To learn more about how President Parks responded to events and addressed the Iowa State community during these times of change, stop in and visit us!

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