The BOOKPRESS May 1999

Cornell '69: A Retrospective

Glenn Altschuler

Just about every Cornell graduate knows that on April 20, 1969, about eighty members of the Afro-American Society marched out of Willard Straight Hall, brandishing guns and raising clenched fists in the Black Power salute. At the rear of the procession, looking exhausted and forlorn, walked Vice-President Steven Muller and Vice-Provost Keith Kennedy, who had represented the university in the negotiations that ended the occupation. When he saw on the front page of The New York Times "The Picture" of the exit from The Straight, accompanied by an article about the "capitulation" of Cornell to militant students, President James Perkins realized "we had one hell of a public relations problem on our hands."

To others, including Donald Alexander Downs, Cornell ’69 revealed a "problem" more profound and permanent: a great university, paralyzed by racial confrontation, and intimidated by the threat of physical violence, had abandoned academic freedom and ceased applying its rules to all members of the campus community. The takeover of The Straight epitomized the "crisis of the American University."

Based on extensive archival research and interviews with many of the participants, Cornell ’69 examines this crisis through a narrative of the most troubled academic year in the history of the institution. Despite clumsy organization and prose, a nearly useless index, and, apparently, a failure by Cornell University Press to engage the services of a copy editor, Downs manages to tell a compelling, if depressing, story. The book’s strength lies in the accumulation of details that help those of us who weren’t there understand the "time of troubles." Downs also sees in the university’s return, albeit temporarily, to a Hobbesian state of nature, and the response of administrators and faculty to the takeover, and the events that preceded and followed it, a failure of liberalism. When Cornell ceased "to protect individual freedom in the face of imperative social justice claims," when it allowed power to prevail over persuasion, it lost its soul and "dissolved under the force of pressures arising from within."

It is difficult to imagine an armed occupation of a campus building at any time before the 1960s, when demands for racial justice and an end to the war in Vietnam reached hundreds of colleges and universities. Less than a decade removed from panty raids and parietal hours, institutions of higher learning were ill-equipped to handle challenges to their authority and legitimacy. Their task was complicated by the sympathy of many in the academic community with the goals, if not always the tactics, of the protesters. Accommodation, moreover, did not immunize a campus from turmoil, a lesson that many faculty and administrators were slow to learn. Indeed, Downs argues, it may have emboldened student radicals and their allies to up the ante.

Administrators and faculty at Cornell struggled with these very issues. When James Perkins became president in 1963 he moved immediately to make equal educational opportunity a reality for blacks. He acted out of a sincere conviction that the "integrated school and the integrated campus represent our best hopes for future understanding between black and white." To more effectively recruit and retain black undergraduates, Perkins established the Committee on Special Education Projects (COSEP). Enrollment increased from a pitifully small eight African-American students in 1963 to 250 in 1968-1969. Although the SAT scores of these students were considerably lower than those of others offered admission, retention rates remained high.

By the second half of the decade, however, some black students were contemptuous of Perkins’ "tokenism." In 1966 they formed the Afro-American Society (AAS), barring whites from membership, except by special permission. Incidents of racism, including a confrontation in the dorms over the playing of soul music, and Phi Delta Theta’s decision to charge blacks (and not whites) admission to a social event, contributed to demands that the Elmhirst Room in The Straight be used exclusively by blacks at mealtime, a black therapist be hired by the university, and residence halls be set aside for blacks. Perkins agreed to hire a black psychiatrist and Wari House, a dormitory for black women, joined Elmwood House, which had already been set up for black men. In the spring of 1968, racial tensions exploded.

In a course on Economic Development, Father Michael McPhelin, a visiting professor, claimed that the urban poor lacked the ambition to rise through their own efforts, preferring instead to play "sick and perverted games" and teach their children "cunning for survival, as in the jungle." Black students in the class charged that Phelin was a racist, who should be fired. When they got no satisfaction from chair Tom Davis, several dozen students took over the department office after a scuffle that sent two security officers to the infirmary. The occupation ended when Provost Dale Corson promised to appoint an additional instructor, approved by the AAS. A few hours later, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In the ensuing days, blacks took over a radio station and several fires broke out. At a memorial service for King at Bailey Hall, black students entered en masse and sat in a separate section, roped off by the administration. In his "eulogy" AAS member Larry Dickson predicted that non-violence had died with King, warned his "brothers and sisters" that their lives were in danger in Ithaca, asked them to prepare to "shoot back and you shoot to kill," and challenged whites: "If you honkies think you had enough to fuck with us, just try it!"

A commission subsequently investigated the McPhelin affair. No action was taken against McPhelin or the students. Indeed, Provost Corson thanked members of the Afro-American Society for making the community aware of the problem of institutional racism. By failing to endorse academic freedom, Downs believes, "the administration ended up siding with the students." In any event, in the wake of the incident, demands for a black studies program grew.

AAS members told Perkins that Cornell must establish a degree-granting black studies program or college, run for and by blacks, (the AAS rejected the student-faculty Advisory Committee appointed by Perkins to establish the program), with an annual budget of $250,000 and a director chosen by AAS. When the president promised to make 320 Wait Avenue available to the Program, AAS students refused to wait, evicting the faculty and staff who resided there, and commandeering thirty lounge cushions from the residence hall in Donlon.

Although Perkins refused to meet the deadline set by the AAS to implement their demands, his response seemed to demonstrate that much could be achieved by "threatening the honky." He cited legal obstacles to an autonomous college, rejecting advice that he point out that a separatist college was incompatible with the mission and values of the university. Suggesting at first a willingness to discuss "greater autonomy," the president later indicated that he was "finally not opposed" to a black college, though "It would involve a rearranging of my whole personality."

To keep the pressure on, seven blacks went on a "toy gun spree," in December, 1968, threatening bystanders, disrupting traffic, and knocking over candy machines. A larger number of students dumped thousands of library books, which "had no relevance to them" on the floor and upset card catalogues. President Perkins himself was a target. At a meeting in his office, one student ostentatiously carried a knife while another put his arm, menacingly, around the president’s shoulder. At a symposium on South Africa, in February, 1969, as Perkins explained Cornell’s investment policies, one black student grabbed him by the collar while another warned off security officers with a two-by-four. Perkins was shaken, the campus was tense, and Edward Whitfield, president of the AAS, insisted that his organization, not the judicial boards of the university, discipline its members.

Beset as well by anti-war protests, including an SDS-sponsored disruption of Chase Manhattan recruiters at Malott Hall, Cornell administrators decided that attempts to discipline students for destroying property, injuring security officers, or interfering with free speech might increase anti-establishment sentiment on campus. Thus they watched with dismay as the judicial bodies on campus voted to hear charges against AAS members for the toy gun and Donlon lounge cushion incidents. The committee insisted that the absence of blacks on the board (AAS member Tom Jones had resigned from the student-faculty committee and no other black had run for office) was not relevant because each adjudicator was charged to apply his/her judgments on the merits of the case at hand. After a protracted tragedy of errors, including mis-scheduled appointments, misunderstandings about the rules of the process, and efforts to convince the AAS to accept a slap on the wrist for the defendants, the Student-Faculty Board on Student Conduct voted to reprimand the students in the toy gun spree and take no action in the Donlon case (because the cushions had been returned to Donlon an hour after they had been seized). The board’s deliberations and decision came against a backdrop of violence: in mid-March in three separate incidents, white students were assaulted by blacks; one of them was severely beaten.

Although AAS members claimed that The Straight was taken over in response to the judicial board’s decision, the occupation had been planned for weeks. Downs makes a strong, if circumstantial case, that black students themselves set off fire alarms and burned a cross on the doorstep of Wari House to build sympathy on campus for their action. After a fight with Straight employees and the eviction of adults spending Parents' Weekend in the student union, about fifty students partied, studied, telephoned their friends, seized food, and damaged about $30,000 of property, while SDS members formed a protective ring around the building. Because Security officers were told not to impede or arrest "unless absolutely necessary" and blacks were allowed to enter the building at will, the university, Downs points out, was "helpless to defend itself and others." Although it is difficult to see how administrators could have, "in a thoughtful manner," made known their suspicions about who burned the cross, they almost certainly should have, as he suggests, sought an injunction against the students in a local court, to make clear that their actions would have consequences.

An attempt to liberate The Straight by twenty-five brothers of Delta Upsilon clearly changed the character of the occupation. Convinced that another attack might be imminent (some believed, with SDS-member David Burak, that authorities in New York State were stockpiling "super weapons" to commit genocide against blacks), the AAS smuggled guns into The Straight. When this new reality became public knowledge, anxiety turned to fear and panic, amidst rumors of violence: a rifleman was "spotted" in Uris Tower; a fire at Chi Psi "must be arson"; sirens signaled an assault on The Straight.

Perkins dispatched Kennedy and Muller to The Straight to promise that if the students left peacefully, the administration would ask the faculty to nullify the reprimands. In return, the president insisted only that the AAS join efforts to create a new judicial system. Once inside, the vice provost and vice president agreed to amnesty for the occupiers, legal action against Delta Upsilon (and delivery to the AAS of the names of the fraternity brothers who entered The Straight), and no action for damages incurred during the takeover. Provost Dale Corson, according to Downs, was appalled, but he agreed, as did President Perkins, who was not much in evidence during the negotiations. The Provost acquiesced as well in an AAS demand that they leave the building with their guns because Muller and Kennedy indicated (perhaps mistakenly, Kennedy now believes) that they would not depart unarmed. When the occupation ended, Perkins banned guns and disruptive demonstrations from campus, but his edict was ignored.

The final act of this drama was the saddest of all. After deciding not to repudiate an agreement entered into under duress, President Perkins wasted several opportunities to build support among students and faculty for the judicial system and the preservation of law and order on campus. At a convocation at Barton Hall, he delivered a vapid speech about the future of the university. Downs speculates that he might have feared that militants would seize the microphone or harm him if he addressed the relevant issues. SDS filled the vacuum with mass rallies at Barton Hall, transforming the anti-establishment sentiments of many students into a fervent advocacy of faculty nullification. When the faculty voted that the presence of arms on campus made it "impossible" to dismiss the penalties (the body left the door open for a different decision on all the "issues behind the Afro-American complaints" under more "secure and non-pressured circumstances"), 2,500 students, with only ten nays, vowed to support the AAS demands and voted no confidence in their professors. A day later, only the timely intervention of Professor Eldon Kenworthy of Government and Burak kept 6,000 students from taking over another building.

Some faculty maintained that the passion and near-unanimity of the students, as well as the lobbying of the administration (in what many still think Perkins’ most Machiavellian moment), convinced them to change their votes. But clearly fear of bloodshed gripped many. In an interview on WHCU, and again at Barton Hall, Tom Jones promised, "Before this is over, James Perkins, [Government Professors] Allan Sindler, and Clinton Rossiter are going to die in the gutter like dogs. . . [and] Cornell has three hours to live." In mortal fear for their personal safety, scores of faculty and their families filled Ithaca’s hotels and motels; others left town. Eleven hundred faculty, by a margin of three to one, hastened to nullify the reprimands imposed by the judicial board. In a pathetic coda, the body then resolved to join the students in an "occupation" of Barton Hall. At Barton, President Perkins announced nullification, acknowledged that martial law remained in effect, then confessed that "there is nothing I have said or will say which will not be modified by changing circumstances."

With its newfound power, the "Barton Hall community" established as its legacy a Constituent Assembly with some governing powers, a role for students in the hiring and tenure of faculty, and a residence hall, Ujamaa, based on identity politics. The decision to establish a relatively autonomous Center for Afro-American Studies, albeit without power to grant degrees, it is important to remember, predated the takeover of The Straight. With these far- from-revolutionary accomplishments, the revolution stalled and a counter-revolution began. Amidst resignations of prominent and popular faculty, including Sindler, History Professor Walter LaFeber’s threat to leave, a devastating article in the Alumni News, entitled "Blood-Free Campus, But What Really Happened?", and an eloquent speech by Professor of Government George Kahin at a teach-in on academic freedom, students began to have second thoughts. As reporter Homer Bigart excoriated the Cornell administration in the pages of The New York Times, a group of professors in History and Government lobbied members of the Board of Trustees to ask for Perkins’ resignation. When fifteen Law School professors, including Perkins’ personal friend Rudolph Schlesinger, joined the critics, the president departed.

Cornell ’69 provides abundant evidence for the proposition that weak, inept, intimidated administrators and a faculty that, with notable exceptions, was disengaged until it was too late (and then subject to pressure and threat) contributed to the "crisis of the American university." The book reminds us as well that Steven Muller’s claim, "We aren’t sacrificing any principle if we save lives" qualifies as a fallacy of the false dichotomy. By dint of the positions they held, Cornell’s administrators were at a disadvantage in a struggle with those less inclined to weigh the impact of their actions on others. They did not have the luxury, as Allan Sindler advised, to hold to principles "and what happens... is not our concern." Nonetheless, they could have and should have explored alternative courses of action and refused to succumb to force. These assessments are familiar ones, of course, but they remain salutary at a time when disruption and violence continue to accompany demands for academic programs and residence halls based on ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation.

But what of Downs’ attempt to explain the crisis as "a twist of fate from which liberalism is still reeling?" Curiously, although he sometimes refers to tenets of liberalism, Downs never really defines the term. Indeed, in a final chapter entitled "Cornell and the Failure of Liberalism," Downs celebrates a liberal education that teaches all Americans to respect "the rights of others and the integrity of the democratic-constitutional process." These values, which Allan Sindler and Walter LaFeber cherished, remind us that the faculty members who opposed the capitulation to militancy stood on solid liberal ground.

At times, Downs connects the crisis to interest-group liberalism, as embodied in the value-free behavioralism of Steven Muller. Guided by a process of accommodation rather than by an authoritative vision of the public interest, interest-group liberals gravitate to the agenda of the most powerful or committed group. In Downs’ own account, however, neither James Perkins nor Dale Corson were interest-group liberals. Perkins’ passion for racial justice, rooted in his mother’s social activism and his Quaker education, was a "genuine part of his educational philosophy." And one colleague described Corson as "an abolitionist born one hundred years too late." Their liberalism was not empty or value free, nor did they placate just any faction to maintain balance and order.

If they were not interest-group liberals why, then, did these men give way? To their credit, liberals were acutely aware of the legacy of slavery, exploitation, and discrimination in the United States. Prodded by black activists, imbued with a sense of special obligation to black Americans, their generation had used what Allan Sindler called "white racial guilt and empathy" to good purposes. These very qualities, however, led some liberals by the mid-’60s to defer to blacks in designing solutions and controlling institutions. The legacy of black power is decidedly mixed, but it certainly left many liberals dazed. For some, soft spots became blind spots. Determined not to be paternalistic, they became in some instances, patronizing, acquiescing in and explaining away behavior they otherwise would deem misguided or wrong. I suspect that liberals did not think that racial pride would "harden" into a separatism that manifested itself in intimidation. The goal, they believed, was the eradication of racism. When that happened, racial differences would be revealed as culturally constructed and separatism an aberration unnecessary and misguided. But when toy guns turned into rifles, with live ammunition, when reason and accommodation failed, they lacked the will to use the means at their disposal to insist, as Peter Gomes (Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard) now does, that diversity is not an institutional or social goal in itself, but "a means to include a diversified population in shaping shared goals to enhance the quality of our common life both in college and in the wider world."

Gomes’ view, of course, is quintessentially liberal. It implies that if some liberals faltered in the 1960s, liberalism did not. It remains the best philosophy for the challenges of a multicultural nation. Liberalism mandates that procedural due process and the rule of law, backed if necessary by force, protect individual freedom and accountability while promoting social justice. Liberalism can provide the creative tension to help foster what historian David Hollinger called "a rooted cosmopolitanism," emphasizing the dynamic character of groups, multiple affiliation and the potential to create new cultural combinations—in short, it gives us the tools to mediate between species and ethnos, between individual and group identity, to include "in the range of us" people quite different from ourselves.

If liberals were traumatized by Cornell ’69 and events like it, and many were, it is time, as we approach a new millennium, to engage racial issues on campuses and throughout American society. The University, ILR Professor James Gross wrote to James Perkins thirty years ago, "will not be destroyed by fire, it will be destroyed by fear....[It] is no less prostituted because it satisfied the desires of the poor than the rich." We must begin by rededicating ourselves to racial justice while acknowledging that many administrators and faculty continue to censor themselves for fear of being branded racists or becoming targets of attack. Members of university communities are custodians of an environment, James Gross reminds us, where the truth can be spoken to the privileged and the exploited. When they speak out, when they hold to their principles, liberals become part of the solution and not the problem.

Glenn C. Altschuler teaches American Studies at Cornell University.

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