So, it’s November 1974, I’m a sophomore, the elections are over. My guy Ramsey Clark has lost. But it was close, and hey, he lost to an actual proud and self-described liberal Republican, Jacob K. Javits. You cannot even find such people in endangered species parks anymore, but I tell you, Matt, they existed. And while Javits held on, we’d just elected a big Democratic “Watergate-Baby” majority in Congress. Including (right nearby on Long Island), Tom Downey — still the only 25-year-old to sit in the House of Representatives in nearly the last 50 years. Youth!**
By early December, things were not going swimmingly on campus, however.
Living conditions were increasingly rotten, or so we thought. And, with the recession rolling in, the university was making major cuts to its residence life programs. The dorms at Stony Brook had been named “residential colleges” because they were actually intended to be individual learning communities. By ’74 that idea was already pretty much gone, but the last vestiges were about to be wiped out. Even for those who couldn’t care less about abstract “learning communities,” it looked like student life was about to get even worse.
Plus, at this late date in the semester, freshmen were still being tripled. Three in a room! We considered this an absolute outrage. I was surprised to discover when we toured all those campuses a few years ago that students now take it in stride. (Funny thing: everyone in America seems to have their outrage meters set to maximum sensitivity nowadays, except for students. Are you guys more passive than the rest of us, or just more sensible?)
So… I went to this event:
When it was over the next morning, I went to volunteer over at the student government that organized it. There was an energy in the air that I’d pretty much never seen before, except maybe once or twice in political campaigns. People were rushing around, doing stuff that looked hugely urgent and important. There were charismatic leaders.
In other words, it didn’t feel at all like “student government.”
These people actually wanted to make stuff happen for the people they represented. And they seemed remarkably driven and creative about it.
For example, some of them had run a successful proxy war to take over the campus corporation responsible for contracting out food service, the bookstore, laundry, and so forth.
That kind of thing NEVER happened. Those “auxiliary service corporations” existed all over the country simply to limit university liability. But as a practical matter, the administrators always called the shots… until these snot-nosed kids at Stony Brook pulled out the not-for-profit corporate law books, secretly met with the faculty who had key votes on selecting board members, and ran their coup d’état.
This was hot stuff.
I was there pretty much nonstop afterwards. Within maybe two weeks, I met nearly all of my best, oldest friends — Al, Joel, Barry, David, Gerry, Mark, Stanley, names you know, and a few you don’t know yet. (Practically everyone but Saul.)
I did a lot of stuff — but mostly I wrote. Fliers, op-eds, research papers, you name it. Whatever was needed. Whatever I thought would help.
I learned a lot about research — and I learned in my bones that knowledge really was power. Even if you were 18 or 19 or 20, you could get to know your subject so well that you could beat the authorities.
You could research all their arguments, and come up with better counterarguments.
When they told there was only one way to do something — theirs — you could call up ten other universities and find someone with a better way.
You could build coalitions and find allies, on and off campus.
You could change the battlefield.
I also learned that if you were going to be involved in something, you ought to demand and earn a full role. If you were going to be a Democrat, be a Democrat, not a friggin’ “Young Democrat.” There was no reason on earth you couldn’t be, if you did the work.
I gradually found myself a specialized area of expertise: food service. In nine years, Stony Brook had had eight different food service vendors. The food was awful. Worse, people had to eat it.
Actually, only freshmen. There were electric stoves at the end of every hall, and once you became a sophomore, you were allowed off the meal plan. The authorities figured you were now “mature” enough not to burn down the dorm, or starve yourself. But those poor freshmen had to eat whatever swill they were handed.
We, again, in the great American revolutionary tradition, considered this oppression absolutely intolerable. We made what one would probably now call a libertarian argument. “People shouldn’t be forced to eat crap. And if the food service company had to compete for all its business instead of being handed 2,000 captive customers, the food would have to get better.” (As you and I have discussed, I’m amazed at how much of the argumentation seen as “left-wing” in that era now smells disconcertingly libertarian. But I digress…)
The university told us no food service company would ever come to campus without being guaranteed all those customers. So we found one that would.
I chaired the University Food Service Committee. We put in literally hundreds of hours. I mean, I was reading food service trade magazines the way other people read porn. Volume Feeding International. Pizza Today.
This is where I learned that obscure industries which nobody ever thinks about can be absolutely FASCINATING. They all have their own jargon, their own culture, their own business models, their own rock stars. I still love industry trade magazines and read them whenever I get the chance. And I think it’s helped me a lot in my work, which often involves doing business case studies.
And we finally won. In Spring of 1977, the meal plan would become voluntary for everyone.
You might be wondering at this point about my coursework. So were my professors.
I pretty much stopped going to class. And the longer I stopped, the harder it was to go back. Matt, my junior year, I earned — and I do mean earned — seven Fs.
And the inevitable happened: I was academically suspended. I mean, I was out.
There was an appeal process. I got down on my hands and knees. I mean, I groveled.
And I waited.
Every Friday morning, appeals like mine were decided. I knew pretty much the very moment my future was being voted on by five strangers.
It was not a pleasant feeling.
They voted 3-2 to let me back in. On probation.
Things were going to have to change. Were they ever.
**That would be the same Tom Downey who, after losing reelection, co-founded Downey McGrath, which now proudly lobbies on behalf of organizations such as Herbalife, Time Warner Cable, and Phibro Animal Health, a leading provider of antibiotics for chickens, pigs, and turkeys. (And, of course, “Taxpayers for Common Sense” — ably represented, presumably, in its epic battle to defeat “Taxpayers Against Common Sense” <grin>.) Mr. Downey is perhaps not quite so young anymore! But he helped teach me that it is easier to be pure before one is given the means and opportunity to be impure.