Jerry Lewis Lecture Series Begins 53rd May 4 Commemoration
As someone who studied higher education administration, Kent State University Assistant Professor Erica Eckert, Ph.D., had always wondered what it would have been like to experience the May 4, 1970, Kent State shootings as a student affairs administrator.
The research she conducted to answer this question was selected as the presentation for this year’s annual Jerry M. Lewis May 4 Lecture Series and Luncheon.
The lecture, held Tuesday, May 3, in the Kent Student Center Ballroom, opened two days of commemoration events marking the 53rd anniversary of the day Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War on the Kent Campus, killing four students and wounding nine others.
Eckert presented her lecture, “Where Were the Administrators? A Student Affairs Perspective on May 4, 1970,” to a crowd of several hundred students, faculty, staff, invited guests and members of the public.
Eckert said that while she had always pondered the question about university administrators, it wasn’t until after meeting Ron Beer, Ph.D., in December 2019, that she decided to begin researching the topic. At the time of the shootings, Beer was assistant to then-Kent State President Robert White.
“That was the start of this three-year data collection odyssey,” she said.
Beer, who later went on to serve at several other universities, including as vice president for student affairs at Oklahoma State University, attended the luncheon along with Richard “Dick” Bredemeier, who was Kent State’s director of Student Activities in 1970, and later became vice president for Student Affairs, and who was another of Eckert’s research sources.
Eckert focused her research on the Division of Student Affairs, conducted numerous in-person interviews with administrators from the time, and used oral histories, existing interviews, court testimony, historic documents and local and national journalism to prepare her study.
A key source was Robert Matson, vice president for Student Affairs in 1970. Eckert said she endeavored to view the situation through a 1970 lens, looking at what best practices were at the time in the areas of emergency management, disaster planning and contingency planning and what resources were available then.
“I positioned my inquiry to respond to a question posed by leading May 4 scholars Jerry Lewis and Thomas Hensley: `Did the Kent State University administration respond appropriately in their reactions to the demonstrations and with the Ohio political officials and the Guard officials?’,” Eckert said.
Eckert detailed how, after Ohio Gov. James Rhodes came to campus and called in the National Guard, Rhodes refused to allow President White to close the university on May 3, which was the desire of administrators for the safety of students.
Campus administrators felt that they had been relieved of their duties by Rhodes to the point where they had to leave campus to meet to discuss the matter and take steps to close the university as they wanted. It was during that off-campus lunch, however, that the shootings took place.
“Although student affairs administrators took Gov. Rhodes at his word and believed they were no longer in charge, they still continued to try to keep students informed and out of harm’s way. It simply ended up not being enough,” Eckert said. “They all felt and continue to feel a sense of sadness and frustration they could not prevent what happened on May 4.”
"I believe the student affairs administrators did as best they could for that period in time with the information, time and communication technology they had,” she concluded. “Unfortunately, even with these actions, they were not able to prevent the tragedy.”
Eckert’s presentation will be available for viewing through University Libraries Special Collections and Archives.
In addition to teaching courses on information technology, assessment and business administration in higher education, Eckert is the coordinator for Kent State’s Institutional Research and Assessment certificate. She is co-author of “Business Practices in Higher Education: A Guide for Today’s Administrators” and is a member of several higher education organizations. She serves on the leadership team of the NASPA Assessment, Evaluation and Research knowledge community.
The Lewis lecture series was created in 2022 to honor the legacy of Kent State Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jerry M. Lewis, Ph.D., and advance the scholarship of May 4, 1970, and the Vietnam War era.
Lewis taught at Kent State from 1966 until 2013, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1996. Serving as a faculty marshal in 1970, he witnessed the May 4, 1970, shootings firsthand and has since devoted time to researching, memorializing and lecturing on the events of May 4.
Lewis was on hand for the luncheon, and was recognized by President Todd Diacon, who told him: “Jerry, you have made us a better university.”
The 53rd Commemoration continues today with events that include the noon gathering on the Commons. For the latest information about the commemoration and a complete list of events to honor and remember May 4, 1970, visit www.kent.edu/may4.