On the weekend of October 11, 1968, one year after ex-Harvard professor Timothy Leary commanded the crowd at the first “Human Be-in” in San Francisco to “tune in, turn on and drop out,” 250 tabs of MDA—a derivative of the psychoactive chemical compound typically referred to as ecstasy—found their way onto Kenyon’s campus. Soon after, a “mass trip” drove the College into a near state of emergency that threw the cultural divisions that defined the late 1960s into sharp relief.
“Because of the large numbers of people using the drug, because of the fact that some non-Kenyon people came to Gambier apparently to participate in using the drug, and because the drug seems to inspire a missionary-type zeal in its users, urging them to recruit others to take it,” wrote the Collegian on October 18, 1968, “many people in various areas of the College have become quite concerned.”
Kenyon President William G. Caples responded with a harsh warning to the students who took part in the revelry. “No one has any right or license to conduct himself as to destroy the good work or name of others or the community,” he said in an address to the student body given at Rosse Hall. “Yet here people have assumed it. This kind of behavior has to be stopped … Like it or not, the law establishes the morality or immorality of any act.” According to Caples, by the time of his speech, one student had withdrawn on his own accord, one was on probation and numerous others were under investigation. After his address, Caples threatened to involve the federal authorities if any further drug use was reported and left Rosse without taking any questions.
Student Council President David Hoster ’70 called Caples’ speech “dangerously extreme,” taking particular issue with the president’s equation of morality and legality and claiming that his statements were antithetical to a liberal arts education. “Like it or not there are no standards anywhere, and that includes the law, that are so perfect that they are beyond question or exclude violation out of hand,” Hoster said in a Student Council meeting, “and one who asserts that law is an absolute unto itself and in the same breath says there are no easy or final answers has involved himself in a massive contradiction.”
As much as the MDA debacle created a rift between Kenyon students and administrators, it also highlighted significant differences of opinion within the student body. In letters to the editor, Mark L. Denton ’71 called the incident a “blatant abuse of the freedom to which Kenyon students have been privileged,” while Robert Miller ’70 wrote that “it is inconsistent for the administration to follow a laissez-faire policy of allowing a large amount of personal freedom, within limits, with regard to drinking and dates, and to follow a strictly prescriptive policy with regard to drugs,” citing beat generation author and famous “junkie” William Burroughs and calling the newly enacted federal laws against recreational drug use “America’s first native gestapo.”
Reed Woodhouse ’70, on the other hand, understood why administration had cracked down so harshly on drug users. “[T]he College,” he said, “cannot afford to take the chance that with another MDA weekend a federal agent will ignore the rather startling sight of 200 collegians seeing God.”