Metanoia event dates back to Vietnam War

A flyer for a Metanoia event on October 10, 1979. (Via together.uconn.edu)

The University of Connecticut will hold a campus-wide day of metanoia today—a designated time for reflection with a long history at the university.

“The university community has designated Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, as a day of reflection, learning, sharing and transformation focused on confronting racism in our society,” UConn President Susan Herbst wrote in an email to students.

The tradition of holding a day of “metanoia”—a Greek word meaning a transformative change of opinion—can be traced back to 1970, during the height of the Vietnam War.

“1968 through 1970 was a really unique period in the university’s history,” Nick Hurley, a research services assistant at the university archives, said. “We’d had periods of unrest before that, but there were a couple of things that really reached a fever pitch.”

Hurley said one issue was that several major corporations involved in the war effort, including the DOW Chemical Company that manufactured napalm, were conducting recruitment interviews on campus.

“Many ([students) were very, very strongly opposed to these companies coming on campus,” Hurley said.

In the fall of 1969, then-university president Homer Babbidge had to call in the state police because protests against recruitment interviews taking place in a house on Gilbert Road got out of hand.

“A group of students and faculty gathered and they were yelling and protesting and getting in shouting matches with people who were on the porch of the house, so the cops were called in,” Hurley said.

Hurley said the well-liked Babbidge didn’t want to have to call in the police and called it the “saddest day of (his) life.”

Fortunately, Hurley said, violence at UConn never grew to the level seen in other war protests across the country. But that doesn’t mean UConn was immune from their impacts.

“In the spring of ‘70 these tensions were still there, they were still prevalent, and the Kent State shooting really brought that back to the fore,” Hurley said.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of protestors at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others.

According to book “Red Brick in the Land of Steady Habits,” by emeritus history professor and UConn historian Bruce M. Stave, colleges across the country, including Princeton and Boston University, responded to the killings by canceling classes and final exams.

On May 6—two days after the Kent State shootings—UConn held its first day of metanoia, canceling all classes for the day and encouraging students to reflect on race and the war, according to Stave.

The event had been planned before the Kent State shooting but took on new significance as students advocated for canceling the remainder of the semester.

Ultimately, final exams were made optional—students could choose not to take them and receive a grade of “S” for “satisfactory,” according to Stave.

Still, that was not the end of unrest on campus.

“This feeling didn’t just go away,” Hurley said.” “It kind of festered beneath the surface for quite a while.”

A week later, more than 1,500 students occupied an ROTC building while a few hundred repainted the inside to look like a daycare.

“They completely repainted it, they drew peace signs and flowers and all sorts of graffiti on it,” Hurley said. “Their intent was to turn it into a free daycare for university students and faculty.”

Even after the end of the Vietnam War and a return to normalcy at UConn, the practice of active reflection through a day of metanoia did not go away.

Stave wrote that UConn president Philip E. Austin called for one following the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to UConn President Susan Herbst, today’s metanoia was inspired by recent incidents of racial violence.

“This topic was proposed in direct response to the recent outbursts of violent white supremacy epitomized by the events in Charlottesville,” she wrote. “A review of the history of prior metanoia at UConn reveals that the subject of race and racism has been a perennial one at our university, as it has been in our nation.”


Charlie Smart is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at charles.smart@uconn.edu.