Activism or Terrorism?: The Chace Firebombing, Twenty Years On

Later today, University Archivist Suzy Taraba ’77 and Assistant Archivist Valerie Gillispie will lead a presentation highlighting A History of Wesleyan Activism. It’ll be a fascinating account, I’m sure, and from the two people more qualified than anyone to wax historical about Wes.

But conspicuously missing, at least from the Wesleying pitch, is one of the most fascinating, controversial, and utterly bizarre activist episodes in Wesleyan history: the 1990 firebombing of President William M. Chace’s office in South College. This month marks the twentieth anniversary of that incident and Wesleyan’s turbulent activist spring. Let’s look back.

The president’s office was firebombed at 4:00 AM on Saturday, April 7, 1990. The culprit(s) used two Molotov Cocktails fashioned sloppily from beer bottles filled with explosive liquid. The explosion damaged a carpet and desk in the president’s office and destroyed some documents. The fire was put out within minutes; no one was harmed. The mess was cleaned up by Monday morning. The social unrest that plagued Wesleyan’s campus in early 1990, however—of which the bombing was both a product and cause—was not.

Leads were slim; the university offered a $10,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bombers. Here’s an Argus article detailing the incident and its immediate reactions in a special edition the following day. Chace’s words, painting the crime as an incomprehensible and inexcusable act of violence—”an outrageous and saddening attack on the entire Wesleyan community”—reflected the reactions of most. “There is no excuse for violence on this or any campus,” the president insisted:

This is a violation of the integrity and the well-being of this campus. I see this as a criminal act—and it certainly is—and a profoundly vicious one. I associate it with a deep confusion and a sense of cowardice vis-à-vis the entire university. I dissociate it from anything that is based in rational, well-reasoned dialogue.

Of the vandal, Chace added: “No such person belongs at this university. This person is poison. This is not a political act, this is a criminal act.

Yes, the act was violent. Yes, it was criminal, vicious, irrational, all that and more. But it was not, as Chace seemed to imply, an isolated incident or freak occurrence. Rather, the firebombing reflected the bitter spirit of social unrest and student/administration tension that hung like a dark cloud over the long spring of 1990. Here’s a summary, with much help from the Hermes‘ Wesleyan Activism Timeline:

  • February: Five black professors leave Wesleyan throughout the school year. A sixth is denied tenure. Regarding this as evidence of institutional racism, 85 students occupy the Admissions office in protest of university treatment of minority students and faculty. President Chace had refused to allow them to present a “letter of concern and demands” to the Board of Trustees.
  • March: Several students are arrested for entering Dean Beckham’s office dressed wearing Groucho Marx masks and squirting him with water guns. (Yes, really.) Beckham had been quoted as saying that “undergraduates are not as much fun.”
  • April: Four shots are fired towards South College from the bushes of Van Vleck Observatory. A letter from a group calling itself DAGGER (Direct Action Group Generating Educational Reforms) claims responsibility.
  • May: Racial tensions further flare when hateful graffiti is spray painted in the basement of Malcolm X House. Over 500 march through campus against racism the following day.
  • May: Students hold a hunger strike for over a week, demanding that the administration commit “to a broad range of policy changes.”
  • July: Nicholas Haddad ’92 is shot in the head and killed by the son of an adjunct professor of Music. Haddad was later determined by the state of Connecticut to be a conspirator in the firebombing that damaged President Chace’s office on that April morning. (Further details in a fascinating New York Times portrait.) [A note from 2012: My 2010 claim that Haddad was determined guilty by the state of Connecticut was informed by this Argus piece, which states as much in the third paragraph. In recent weeks I've been in touch with President Chace himeslf, who disputes this claim, writing, "I don't believe Connecticut authorities ever took a position about his involvement." Regard that Argus claim with skepticism.]

And so it’s out of this spirit of general social unrest that certain students viewed the bombing as an understandable if not legitimate response to administrative disregard of widespread student concerns, including treatment of minority students and faculty and university investments in South African businesses (an ongoing issue of protest since the early 1980s). Philippa Rizopoulos ’92, member of the Southern Africa Action Group, typifies this view in an April 9 Hour article:

My understanding is this kind of thing is a direct response to the administration’s policies. . . . The administration has been completely unresponsive to student needs and demands. It seems to me that the logical level, the next step, is this kind of thing. It might be terrorism, but when there’s no other option, it seems to me that this is the next step.

Suspicion that the firebombing could be connected to a larger, pervasive sense of anger at university policies was confirmed on April 11, when a history professor found a letter taking responsibility from a group calling itself STRIKE (Students Rebuilding Institutions for Knowledge and Education). The bombing was not an act against President Chace in particular, claimed the letter, but “against the academic principles of this university and others.” Meanwhile, students alleged that investigations dealing with the firebombing were treating black students differently than white students and violating civil liberties in the process.

“I am sure that all of you share with me the sense that Wesleyan has endured a crisis of identity and spirit in the past several months,” wrote President Chace in a letter to students, faculty, and staff shortly after the semester ended. Two decades later, at a school where institutional memory is sorely limited by the four-year student turnover, Wes’s so-called identity crisis remains relegated to Argus archives and faculty memories. If this degree of turbulence and unrest seems unfathomable at our Wesleyan of 2010, that’s because it is. Whether that’s due to far improved administrative transparency and communication or simply widespread student apathy is another question entirely.

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Research and links:

  • ’95

    Good post. Something just reminded me of this incident, though it occurred before I arrived on campus. I googled and your piece came up. I’d be curious to learn if and how Admissions changed its practices after this went down.

  • class ’08

    how bout a shout out to Mike Chandler’s senior thesis film on this episode in Wes history?

  • ’13

    that was really interesting, thanks for sharing that

  • ’13

    that was really interesting, thanks for sharing that

  • ’11

    not all political acts are activism.

  • ’11

    not all political acts are activism.

  • anonymous

    great post

  • anonymous

    great post

  • Check it

    Awesome as in, ‘awesome that I got to read about it’ not ‘awesome a student was killed and that there was a bombing’.

  • Check it

    Awesome as in, ‘awesome that I got to read about it’ not ‘awesome a student was killed and that there was a bombing’.

  • Check it

    Very well written article.

    I never knew that this happened. Awesome.

  • Check it

    Very well written article.

    I never knew that this happened. Awesome.

  • verdict

    terrorism

  • verdict

    terrorism

  • anonymous

    excellent post. well done.

  • anonymous

    excellent post. well done.