Not quite riots: hallway mazes, school myths, and a short history of student protests at Colby

If you know one Hillside hallway, you do not necessarily know them all. Anyone who has ever attempted to navigate the narrow hallways in Hillside can relate—the dorm appears to have been built to function as a human- sized maze. Rumors have circulated about the point of the twisting, irregular layout of the Hillside dormitories. One rumor suggests that they were built to be riot-proof after the Colby riots of the 1960s.

A quick search in the Echo archives for Colby riots returns exactly zero hits. It appears that the student protests regarding the Vietnam War and a few concerns about the Colby administration have been exaggerated through the years. Former dean of students and dean of the College, Earl Smith commented on these protests. His book, Mayflower Hill, contains details of all of the protests that occurred during this tumultuous time in Colby history.

College students have always been known as a progressive group. This could be due to their age, recent education on new ideas about the world, and close quarters with many others who share these characteristics. During the Vietnam War, this combination became particularly explosive on many college campuses around the United States, including Colby. It’s hard to imagine walking through the Spa and being solicited by military recruiters at the same time as a man sells jewelry and flags. However, the draft was a reality when Earl Smith was employed at Colby. In 1966, Colby sent its students’ test scores to local draft boards, as those with the lowest test scores were prime candidates for the draft. In 1967, the draft protocol changed to solicit the youngest eligible men first.

Views on the war were split among the Colby community. Not all were proponents of peace. A poll in November 1967 showed that 27 percent of students wanted “unequivocal withdrawal” of troops and another 27 percent wanted a six-month ceasefire. Half of the faculty signed a statement in opposition to the war. January of that same school year, students protested the war outside of Eustis while inside, students interviewed for jobs with Dow Chemical Company, makers of flammable liquid used in warfare. In March, students and faculty staged a sit-in at an army recruiting booth in Bobs. Bars of soap were dropped on their heads by counter-demonstrators, calling the war protestors “unwashed.”

Waterville administrators were well aware of the unrest among the community, and Mayor Donald Marden ordered riot gear for the Waterville police force during the presidential election in 1968. Dean of Students Rosenthal had protocols in place to prepare campus for more protests, clarifying that outside authorities should only be called as a last resort.

The campus environment was definitely more volatile in the late 1960s than it is today. This combative atmosphere during the Vietnam War caused students to demand immediate change on campus as well. Students had administrative concerns surrounding policies like the rule that students on financial aid had to maintain a GPA of C+ or higher. “The chapel group” of 1969 staged a sitin in the Lorimer Chapel for 16 days, demanding that their proposals to allow students to live and eat off campus and for clinics on birth control and mental health be met immediately. This dramatic protest eventually led to students gaining a seat on the board.

So, was Hillside built to avoid uprisings? Nothing so extreme has ever occurred in Colby’s history, and it doesn’t appear that the administration feared riots, even during the unstable years of the late 1960s. A 1969 Echo article extols the new Hillside dorm, which had been finished in 1967, citing its contemporary architecture and stylish furnishings. Hillside was built to break the monotony of all of the Georgianstyle buildings on campus and whitewashed to stand out from the dark trees surrounding it. In 2008, the ideas behind the style of Hillside were revisited in another Echo article, which claimed there was no available evidence that the dorms were built in response to riots.

Life at Colby in the 1960s was intense, reflecting America in the trying political climate of those years. Colby students still protest injustices on campus and in the world, but generally, students are less explosive, and the narrow hallways of Hillside only contain riotous dance parties.

Leave a Reply