Special Collections and Archives
Carol Cartwright, Oral History
Carol Cartwright, Oral History
Recorded on June 30, 2008
Interviewed and Transcribed by Craig Simpson
[Interviewer]: Good morning. The date is June 30, 2008. My name is Craig Simpson, and we are conducting an interview today for the Kent State Shootings Oral History Project, and could you please state your name?
[Carol Cartwright]: Yes. I'm Carol Cartwright, President Emeritus of Kent State University.
[Interviewer]: Dr. Cartwright, where were you born?
[Carol Cartwright]: In Sioux City, Iowa.
[Interviewer]: Where did you go to college?
[Carol Cartwright]: I went to school first at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and then after one year I transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater.
[Interviewer]: What was your major?
[Carol Cartwright]: It was Child Development, Early Education, as an undergraduate.
[Interviewer]: What did you get your PhD in?
[Carol Cartwright]: I went very quickly into graduate school and got my master's and my PhD in Special Education and in Educational Research at the University of Pittsburgh.
[Interviewer]: In terms of the protest movement in the 1960s, how familiar were you with it? In other words, were you more of an outsider or were you involved in any way?
[Carol Cartwright]: No, I guess I'm sort of, kind of in the middle, in the sense that both my husband and I were faculty members at Penn State at the time. We had recently been married and just joined the faculty there in 1967, and there was a lot of protest activity on that campus because there was a lot of military research being done there in the Engineering School, and there was a major wind tunnel where--I'm not sure what, actually, was being tested for the Navy, and there was a lot of protest around that. And it was very interesting because the university periodically deployed male faculty members to guard buildings at night, but never female members.
[Interviewer]: To actually guard the buildings themselves?
[Carol Cartwright]: Yes, because there were a lot of fire bombings and people's research was destroyed. When they threw a fire bomb in, they didn't know whether military research was going on or, as was often the case, it was a lot of AgResearch, and people's research was destroyed as a part of it. So there was a fair amount of that going on, and we were sort of in the middle of it because it was happening all around us, but we weren't actively protesting ourselves.
[Interviewer]: Do you remember where you were on May 4, 1970?
[Carol Cartwright]: Yes, I was in Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania. Our first child was born just a couple months later, so I was a pregnant faculty member trying to wrap up the semester and get on with the summer schedule and so forth.
[Interviewer]: What was your reaction?
[Carol Cartwright]: Oh, of course, I think like many people, it was horror at the loss of human life and just the tragedy of it. I know that there are others who felt differently, who thought, for example, that the students got what they deserved, et cetera. But I think most human beings, in a very human, emotional way, react first to the loss of life and the sense of tragedy, thinking about friends and parents, and just a kind of disbelief that anything like that could really happen.
[Interviewer]: Was there a sense of surprise in the sense that, for example, my parents lived in the Berkeley area at the time, and they always felt like many people have said, that if something like that--they weren't surprised that something like that happened, but--
[Carol Cartwright]: Not in Ohio, not at Kent State, exactly. Because the centers of protest were Ohio University in Athens and Ohio State, as far as I understand. Now that's all second-hand knowledge to me, but many people have told me that if you had picked a place in Ohio where something like the shootings might have happened, it would have been either OU or OSU, not at Kent State.
[Interviewer]: When did you first come to Kent State?
[Carol Cartwright]: Well, I began to get more deeply acquainted with Kent State when I was being recruited for the presidency in the fall of 1990, and actually had an on-campus interview for a period of a couple of days in November of 1990, and then I was named as president in December of 1990 and I arrived in March of 1991. And you'll recall that the Memorial was dedicated in May of 1990 on the 20th Anniversary. So there was a lot of conversation among trustees--and then as I was named, from reporters--about whether the dedication of the Memorial and the public apology of the governor had sort of a final healing effect. And many people expressed that it was over, that the healing had been accomplished. Of course it didn't take very long to find out that that was definitely not the case.
[Interviewer]: This kind of follows up on that, but what were your impressions of the university culture in terms of the general attitude toward the shootings?
[Carol Cartwright]: I really did not have an impression about the shootings from the general university culture during that interview process. I had a sense from the search committee, which included faculty and staff members and trustees, that the dedication of the Memorial had been emotional, it had been controversial, but it had also been a healing event. Maybe not the final healing event, but certainly there was a sense of closure about it from many people who had talked with me. It wasn't until I had been here for a while that I really came to understand how deeply into the culture the effects were. Sorry for that convoluted sentence.
We did in the mid-90s a deep cultural analysis of the university. We were really looking at the higher education environment in terms of how much change was coming at us and how fast it was coming at us, and we wanted to try to find from an organizational development--organizational culture point of view--what were the deep-seeded levers for change or barriers for change that existed at Kent State. Not the superficial kinds of things, but going deeper into the culture: What might we learn, if we really took a hard look at ourselves, that would help us understand better leading change and managing the change process?
One of the surprising results was the deep angst that was felt throughout the community about May 4th. People really kind of poured out their souls, and it was a very long, very complicated questionnaire; and the consultants that worked with us said they'd never seen anything quite like it, in terms of how much narrative the respondents provided. They turned pages over, wrote on the back, wrote in the margins; and basically they were saying that the university has been ambivalent. [May 4th is] not really owned by the university, and yet the university dares not reject it. The bottom line was, would somebody please make a decision one way or the other? Either embrace it or forget it, but don't leave us hanging in the middle, because we feel like we're responsible for carrying this burden because the university hasn't taken a stand.
And that, for me, was the defining moment in terms of thinking about what the university needed to do differently. And I wasn't here during the immediate years after the shootings; I have no idea how I might have reacted had I been in that role. But I know the situation that I inherited as I became president, and I know what I learned in the presidency after several years, and I felt that I had some responsiblity to deal with it differently. Now, mind you, that wasn't the first event that I'd had to deal with surrounding May 4th--
[Interviewer]: What was the first?
[Carol Cartwright]: --but it was a defining event.
Actually, the first event was the annual commemoration in May of 1991. Because I arrived in March, and then less than two months later, there it was. And I received some very good advice, I think, from Jerry Lewis, who took the initiative to ask if he could walk me around the site and talk with me about it. And then he indicated that no president had been a part of any commemoration events, and that I think about doing the midnight walk and vigil. The candlelight walk. Because it's done in silence and it's a very respectful event, it tends not to get politicized. And I decided that I would do that. And there was quite a lot of concern that I might become a symbol of protest activity.
But it worked beautifully. People were--first of all, they were very, very surprised. But everyone treated the event as it was supposed to be treated, with great respect and silence. And I walked the entire course and came back into the parking lot and participated briefly. And there were lots of photographers, there was lots of news interest in the fact that I was there, and that was true for the first couple of years when I walked. But after that it became more normal in the sense that people really expected to see me there, it wasn't a noteworthy kind of event; and it was something that I always felt was important to do, not just because of the symbolism of the president participating, because for me personally it was important to be there and to show that kind of respect.
[Interviewer]: Back to the questionnaire that you had mentioned, what year did you say that was?
[Carol Cartwright]: You know, I can't remember exactly, but we could look it up in the University Archives. I think it was '96, but after years memory fades just a little bit. It was a very open, transparent process. We produced reports that were widely available that were posted on the web. We had a committee that looked at the data that came forward and helped us think about what it meant and decide what to do with it. Larry Anders actually, the Dean of the Honors College, chaired that committee that helped us look at the data.
I'm not sure you'll get to it in your questions, but let me just mention that there was one year when I was asked to respond to a group of protesters at that vigil. And that was very disconcerting, because I was not unwilling to talk to a group, but I was very unwilling to talk to them in the middle of the silence and breaking the tradition of what that nighttime event was supposed to be about.
[Interviewer]: Protesters who were protesting the actual vigil?
[Carol Cartwright]: This was a group--and I'm not that they even should be labeled protesters--but it was a group of advocates for closing the spaces in the parking lot where the students had died. And this had been something that the university had offered immediately after the shootings. As far as I can understand it, from all the second-hand accounts, the parents rejected that idea at the time it was offered. And then it would come up from time to time, and I always maintained that if the parents wanted that to happen, then the university should try to accomplish it.
But this group came at me in a very aggressive and vocal way right after we had returned from the walk--and we were in the parking lot where people stand vigil all night, and it's still meant to be silent and very respectful--and insisting that I give them an answer about would I close off the parking spaces, et cetera. And I declined to get into the conversation with them because it was not the right place or the right time, and invited them to come to my office the next day. They were not willing to do that, and it went back and forth a little bit until eventually I left with some police support to leave without creating too big of a problem, and with the clear public invitation that they could come to see me the next day.
And they did. They brought a group, came and met in the library in the conference room, and I did agree. As I always said, if the parents wanted this, we would see how we could do it. And they were able over the next several months to produce evidence that the parents were all on board and that they now wanted this to happen.
And then of course it became a design challenge, in terms of trying to be sure that whatever we did was bold enough to assure that people didn't park on places that were marked off, and yet that they were appropriate and respectful of the human lives that were lost there. I guess people will have their opinions about whether or not we succeeded, but we certainly know that people don't park there. And I know from direct personal contact with the parents that they're very pleased. We had a very nice dedication which we did off-cycle in terms of not doing it around May 4th, when there would have been so much around it and so much other activity. We did it in the Fall. It was well-attended but it was somewhat more family, more private in feeling, and we dedicated them at that point. The parents were very pleased.
[Interviewer]: Do you remember what year that was?
[Carol Cartwright]: We'll have to go look that up [laughs].
[Interviewer]: [laughs] That's okay. This is a question that we get often in the Archives, and there's no--at least we haven't found any actual documentation about it, so I thought I would ask you. It concerns the actual logo change that may have occurred during your tenure; in other words, that there was a period before you arrived that "Kent State" went back to "Kent," whether you saw it on basketball uniforms or letterhead, and then at some point it went back to "Kent State." Did your administration have anything to do with that?
[Carol Cartwright]: Yes. When I came, it was "Kent." And I think that was relatively recent in relation to my arrival--I think maybe only a year or so before that--that President Schwartz at the time made that change. And I too have heard that it was trying to break the "Kent State," the first thing everyone thinks about, and then you have to talk about the shootings and so forth. But that was a time in marketing and advertising when a lot of companies were trying to go to a single, identifiable word. And it was probably a little of both, actually. But people always reacted to it: "What is this 'Kent'?" And it became very clear, the longer I was here, that we were perceived as kind of playing games with the name, and it would be much more appropriate to call ourselves Kent State as we had always done and get on with it.
In fact, it was very interesting, in the early 2000s--it might have been the year 2000 itself, I don't recall that exactly--the basketball team went to play in the NCAA tournament. This was the year before the big run to the "Elite Eight." But they went out to San Diego and the very first game they beat the University of Indiana, and of course we were real underdogs, nobody imagined. I actually got an email from someone saying: I see Kent beat Indiana; is that my alma mater, Kent State? And I thought, we really have to deal with this [laughs]. And then we did. We had some professional help in thinking about branding, and not just the name "Kent State" and "Kent State University," but the way we presented it visually, and what we worked around it to try to create a brand of the university.
By this time, remember also that we had instituted the Democracy Symposium.
[Interviewer]: You read my mind. I was just going to mention it. Would you like to talk about that?
[Carol Cartwright]: And that came directly from that culture study that I talked about and from thinking about all the commentary around May 4th, and owning or not owning and what the university was doing and not doing. And remember, right after the shootings in , the university chose not to do a public commemoration organized by the university, and the students of course moved into that vacuum and took up the role of being responsible for the commemoration. And I didn't think it was appropriate to try to interfere with that. That was a longstanding tradition. But mindful of those responses in the culture study and thinking about the turn to the new century and thinking about the fact that, very often, when there's been a tragic event, those associated with it try to do something at about thirty years. There's a kind of feeling of a generational shift. I know the Kennedy family, for example, on the 30th anniversary of the assassination [of John F. Kennedy], they announced that they were not going to come together as a family around his grave at the assassination anymore, that they were going to convene at his birthday, and that it was an appropriate time to begin to make that switch. That was an important understanding for me, and so was the fact that we were moving to the twenty-first century.
And I began to think that everything that was done around May 4th was, in a way, negative. It was looking back, never looking forward. It was always about protest, anger, shooting, dying, et cetera. And there was never really anything about the cost of being a democracy. Everyone focuses on rights and privileges and openness and freedom, but most people don't consider the alterative, which is the responsibilities of stepping up in challenging times, that are also part of democratic socieites. So I decided maybe there was something in this mix we could work with, and started asking people, "What would you think about...?" or "What if we did....?" Throwing those kinds of questions into discussions and listening to what came out. And I became convinced that we could do something that was much more in keeping with our academic mission, because we really had done very little. We had scholarships, and we had the Center for Conflict Resolution, which has had several names over time. But we hadn't really done anything bold in terms of trying to anchor all of this in the academic mission of the institution.
So I worked with--not just me--worked with people to think about whether or not we could do something that would be forward looking, that would be academic, and that would contribute to deepening thought about the challenges as well as the privileges of living in a democracy. And we inaugurated the Democracy Symposium in the year 2000, which was the 30th anniversary. And we did the most basic topic related to May 4th, 1970 at that May 4th, 2000 event. We did a symposium exploring the balance between freedom of expression and order in democratic societies. Had a faculty-led committee, major keynote speakers, produced a book, and launched the whole Symposium.
[Interviewer]: I was curious if there was a story behind--we have that presentation sketch of the George Segal sculpture, the "Abraham and Isaac," hanging in the Archives out there, it's in the Reading Room. I had heard that reportedly it had turned up in a closet in your office when you arrived on campus. Is that true? [laughs]
[Carol Cartwright]: If that's true I don't recall it, and I personally didn't participate in any of those activities. It may have been there and someone in organizing the office for me found it, but I don't recall personally dealing with that.
[Interviewer]: Okay. A colleague had mentioned that when she was working here that that--
[Carol Cartwright]: It came up?
[Interviewer]: From the office in general.
[Carol Cartwright]: It was likely someone who was organizing the office for my arrival.
[Interviewer]: Okay. Um--
[Carol Cartwright]: Are you going to talk to Mike Schwartz?
[Interviewer]: It's on my list.
[Carol Cartwright]: Because he was here during some very interesting times, would no doubt have quite a lot to offer.
[Interviewer]: Absolutely. Another thing that occurred during your tenure was the President's Medal. It was awarded, for example, to Nancy Birk. I assume that that went in part for her work with the May 4th Collection?
[Carol Cartwright]: Yes. And those kinds of activities really begin outside of the president's office. Those are more grassroots activities where a group of individuals believe someone is deserving. We send an annual call out for honorary degrees and president's medals, and then as the materials come forward we have a responsibility with a university-wide committee to review them and receive their recommendations, and then decide whether to take the recommendations forward to the trustees. It would be rare for the president or the president's office to start one of those nomination processes. Less so for honorary degrees, where you want--not everyone immediately understands about how to stand up and take ownership for that, but if we see someone who's really made remarkable contributions, we might suggest to a dean, You might want to look at this alum from your college; this might be an appropriate honorary degree candidate. But the nomination has to come bottoms-up.
[Interviewer]: Were you involved, either directly or indirectly, with the Historic Marker?
[Carol Cartwright]: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I'm very proud that we did that, as we began to think about the centennial and a number of other activities that were coming together and thinking about the transition to a new president and things that were still on our to-do list, et cetera, we decided to go forward with that. Now there are individuals who would like the entire area to be declared a historical site, and the university has always taken the position that that's too limiting, that one just never knows, a hundred years out, what you might need to be thinking about, and land of course is a very, very precious resource. And we've committed to protection and wanted to mark it appropriately.
[Interviewer]: You've touched on this a little bit, but during your tenure here, did your feelings about the May 4 event change at all? And if so, was it a gradual process or were there any specific events that you could pinpoint?
[Carol Cartwright]: That's a very difficult question, because it's not a linear kind of situation. I think I was very surprised early on about the intensity of questions from reporters about May 4th. I had been prepared, briefly, by University Communications staff when I was going to be announced as president, that May 4th would be of interest to the reporters; and of course I had learned about the 1990 dedication and some of the issues surrounding that. But I was surprised at how fast they got to that topic, and how intensely they wanted to probe. And I had a brother who served in Vietnam and a brother-in-law--both on active duty in Vietnam--and had a perspective from a variety of different sources: my own experience as a faculty member; a mother; sister; sister-in-law; et cetera. So I was puzzled, I guess would be the right word, by how much they wanted to make this an issue. Of course later I understood that it's always been a subject of deep interest by reporters, and they tend to come at it pretty aggressively in terms of, I guess, seeing what else they might be able to figure out that they haven't already reported about.
And then, of course, I watched the student-led commemorations. I do recall a very interesting kind of coming together moment at the 25th anniversary, when Peter, Paul & Mary came and gave a concert, and there was a huge attendance by townspeople; and this was one of the first times that the community, in terms of town and gown, had really come together around something that was related to May 4th. It was quite moving to see people who had been very angry with the university, blaming the university, stand with the students and applaud. And of course Peter, Paul & Mary made it very clear that there was nowhere on Earth they would have been that day except Kent State.
And then there was a lot surrounding the 30th anniversary. I think you get to those big marker anniversaries. I recall there the international press that was everywhere. I don't know how many parking lots we had to block off, or satellite trucks and special vans and so forth of people doing documentaries. Reporters from all over the world. It was really quite amazing.
I suppose I've already identified one of those defining moments, which is that sense from the culture study that the university needed to stand up and own this event as something that happened here, and that had some worth going forward as a teaching opportunity and an opportunity to help people understand each other better. The other thing that I gradually came to understand much better was that while we tend to think about this as something with this big focal point on Kent State, this was a time of unbelievable social churn in the United States. We tend to forget that. We live in our own world, we think about dealing with this or that issue and coming up on one more anniversary. But think of everything that was going on in terms of civil rights and, I mean, you name it. And many people have told me--historians who have looked into these issues very, very deeply--that the governor and the National Guard would not have focused on Kent State if they had not already been in northeast Ohio dealing with some labor strife. I think it was the Teamsters who were on strike, and there was what you might think of as dangerous activity on the highways. People were throwing boulders off of overpasses, I'm told, and there were guns, and the governor and the Guard were there initially to try to manage that situation; and then hearing there was a war protest at Kent State--just like there were war protests everywhere--they said, Well, we're going to Kent State. But had those events not been in that kind of juxtaposition, they might not have come.
[Interviewer]: Yes, some have called it the perfect storm, in terms of that and even the weather--the nice weather--and the election and a lot of just sort of unfortunate confluences of events.
[Carol Cartwright]: Right. But it did happen. And it happened here. And I think we've finally come to a place where we deal with it more effectively. But again, I would say quickly, I have no idea what I would have done had I been in the office at the time. I don't think any of us can or should second-guess those who were here before us, because we don't know, and we really can't imagine very effectively what we might have done.
[Interviewer]: Is there anything else that you think the university could do to improve how it reacts to this event?
[Carol Cartwright]: It seems to me that the university is open to new ideas as opportunities present themselves. The fact that there's going to be a Visitor's Center as Taylor [Hall] is renovated, for example--that would not have been a viable recommendation as long as we had the programs in Taylor that we had there. But once Journalism moved into new headquarters in Franklin [Hall]--there are lots of calls on that space, of course, and you have to do an analysis of what's the best use of the space. But that presented an opportunity and I think the university stepped forward to say, yes, let's do this.
The other opportunity was when we renovated--well, we didn't renovate, we actually demolished and rebuilt Stopher and Johnson [Halls], but we very deliberately rebuilt them in their same footprint, keeping the same rooflines, sightlines, et cetera, because of May 4th issues. And we had individuals associated with May 4th working with us throughout that process; in fact, Tom Grace, I believe, was pretty active with the group to ensure that in rebuilding those buildings we didn't do anything to interfere with the historical significance that was there.
[Interviewer]: Are there any other thoughts you would like to share?
[Carol Cartwright]: I think we've probably covered the area pretty well. I'm not sure it's all lined up in terms of the chronology. [laughs]
[Interviewer]: [laughs] Oral history rarely is. But, in any case, I wanted to thank you very much for taking the time to come in and speak with me.
[Carol Cartwright]: You're welcome.