E. Laurence Chalmers, 1969-1972
Biography of Edwin Laurence Chalmers (1928-2009)
E. Laurence ("Larry") Chalmers was born March 24, 1928 in Wildwood, New Jersey. He graduated from Princeton with an AB in 1948, an MA in 1950, and PhD in 1951. After earning his PhD, he stayed at Princeton as an instructor of psychology until 1952.
From 1952 to 1957, Chalmers served as a research psychologist at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado. He was a 1st Lieutenant in the Air Force from 1953-1956. From 1957 through 1964 he was a professor of psychology at Florida State University. In 1964 he was promoted to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and in 1966 he was promoted to Florida State's Vice President of Academic Affairs. He stayed there until 1969, when he was recruited as Chancellor for the University of Kansas.
Chalmers served as Chancellor during one of KU's most violent and turbulent periods. College campuses across the nation were seeing a surge of anti-war activism in response to the United States' involvement in Vietnam. On April 20th, 1970 a bomb exploded in KU's Memorial Student Union and set it ablaze. Chalmers was in Washington D.C. at the time, and when he returned the following day he found the National Guard had arrived to impose a curfew. Four days later a small fire ignited in the ROTC building. By the afternoon of May 4th, with news of the Kent State shooting, radical students were intent on shutting down the University. On Wednesday, May 6, Chalmers canceled the ROTC review scheduled for Friday, saying, "It would be sheer insanity to send those cadets into the stadium on Friday." That same night, a crowd of 300-500 anti-war protestors began pelting the military science building with rocks. Chalmers managed to ward off attempts by the Governor to send in the National Guard, convinced that the presence of uniformed authorities would quickly escalate the situation.
Faced with a deteriorating campus environment, Chalmers called an emergency convocation for Friday, May 8. He addressed over 15,000 students in Memorial Stadium and presented a plan that would allow the students to determine their own course for the remainder of the school year. Students could finish classes as scheduled or stop attending. If they stopped attending classes they could choose to take their current grade, the grade including the final, take the class as credit/no credit, or take an incomplete. Over 14,000 students stood in support of the plan. His decision to involve the students is regarded by many as a move that prevented the complete disintegration of the campus.
Despite his response to the protests, Chalmers was not universally well-received. He was seen as too friendly with the students by conservatives, especially those who knew of his personal opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He has been criticized for his response to the February Sisters protest, wherein he turned off the electricity and water for the women occupying the East Asian Studies building. He had enemies on the Board of Regents and narrowly escaped dismissal twice.
When his wife was granted an emergency divorce in 1972, Chalmers resigned, convinced that the scandal of the divorce would ensure his dismissal. He moved to Illinois, serving as president of the Art Institute of Chicago until 1986. He retired to Durango, Colorado and passed away in November 2009.
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