May 4, 2009


By William A. Gordon

I have mixed feelings about the proposed May 4 Visitors Center at Kent. On one hand I think it is the best idea to memorialize the May 4, 1970 killings anyone has come up with to date. On the other, I keep asking myself: how can the university preserve history when, almost two generations after the fact, its own scholars still cannot find the debate?

The university's main problem is that it lacks a law school and professors capable of framing the various factual and constitutional issues involved. KSU has always relied on the judgment of social scientists who not only run away from any issue that is remotely controversial, but who never had much of a handle on what May 4 was about. Indeed, a few of these semi-retired social scientists have actually helped people forget precisely what should be remembered by pretending that all the important issues were not important at all.

One of the guiltiest offenders is now a member of the committee that will decide what the center should include. He is Tom Hensley, a retired political science professor who co-authored two sleep-inducing textbooks about May 4. Hensley, along with his booby buddy, professor emeritus Jerry Lewis, barely acknowledge and have nothing to say about the two central questions of May 4: Why did the Ohio National Guardsmen kill the students? And why, despite all the investigations and trials, was not anyone held accountable for the many crimes committed that weekend in May?

A student could read all the essays and books by Kent's faculty and still never know that the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable," That is what a presidential commission concluded in 1970. And that student would never know that there were serious questions about due process, equal justice, and the abject failure of the courts to hold anyone accountable. It could be argued that May 4, 1970, from start to finish, was one of the great injustices of modern times.

The '"sissyship" of these professors (you certainly cannot call it "scholarship") is compounded by the fact these professors have monopolized all conversation on campus and made sure that voices other than their own are never heard. Lewis and Hensley, who have headed most of the annual anniversary programs, consistently exclude and marginalize every journalist and scholar who is not on the university's payroll. In fact, Lewis has been sabotaging his competitors for years. Once he tried to suppress an article in American History Illustrated written by freelance writer and author Lesley Wischmann. Lewis, who contributed a separate article for the same issue, vehemently opposed the publication of Wischmann's article and tried to convince AHI's editor to kill the piece, insisting that Wischmann's article was riddled with errors. The editor then asked Lewis to specify what these alleged errors were, and Lewis, when his bluff was called, had to back down.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated inciden t. Lewis has made the same dishonest "error" accusation against several chroniclers of May 4, thereby tainting their reputations and elevating Lewis's. Since Kent State only honors its own, what is to prevent a May 4 Visitors Center from honoring this saboteur? Of course, it is not just a few professors who have helped people forget. To date, the entire university has never demonstrated any ability to look directly into the eye of May 4, 1970. As one observer noted, May 4 is like the sun: "You can look around it, but not directly at it, or you will be burned."

It is a shame because with a little creativity a Visitors Center could be a valuable learning experience for those who visit it. The committee's current plan is to tell the various stories of the tragedy through the use of photographs, videos, and interactive exhibits. I would like to see the university present a montage of newspaper headlines. That is one way KSU20could for the first time at least acknowledge the existence of the legal and factual issues, without taking sides.

Of course, the university has never been able to think outside its usually subdisciplinary academic box. Which brings us back to the main question. Why should anyone expect the center to tell the stories of May 4 when its own faculty remains essentially clueless as to what May 4 was about?

William A. Gordon (KSU 1973) is the author of four books, including Four Dead in Ohio. He can be reached at