The BOOKPRESS May 1999

Cornell '69: A Retrospective

James McConkey

Though the severe racial disturbances that are the subject of Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University continued into the next year, Downs’ book focuses on the period of my own involvement in the central judicial questions. The crisis over judicial processes was foreshadowed, as Downs in his careful analysis points out, by earlier events; but the particular event that led to the black takeover of Willard Straight Hall and then to the downfall of the judicial system was what he refers to as a "toy gun spree." Seven black students stopped traffic and disrupted activities in a couple of buildings; in a third, Goldwin Smith Hall, "they overturned two candy machines, discharged a fire extinguisher, and ran down the hallways banging on doors of offices and classrooms." It so happened that I was leading a seminar of maybe five undergraduates in my basement office across from the Temple of Zeus when they knocked upon and then opened the door: "Oh, there’s a class going on," one of them said, and quietly closed the door. We then heard the crash as they toppled a candy machine at the end of the corridor.

Later, upon my appointment to the Faculty Committee on Student Affairs, I was a participant in the long and exhausting hours spent by the committee in trying to come to terms with the refusal of those blacks to acquiesce in any judgment upon their actions made in accordance with a code that to them was designed by whites in a university they accused of "institutional racial bias." Downs remarks, quite correctly, that the judicial code was based on the assumption that individuals are responsible for their actions, while the more militant members of the Afro-American Society were engaged in the politics of group identity and recognition.

Anybody’s memory of disturbing events thirty years in the past may be colored by later memories or by an attempt at self-justification. With as much objectivity as I’m capable of giving my earlier self, I can say that the response of the black students at my door, which to me acknowledged their respect for teaching, had something to do with my unsuccessful attempt to get the FCSA to dismiss the charges against them. I considered their actions to have taken on a symbolic import—simply because they were black—far beyond the trivial damage they were accused of. I was comparing the "spree" to the disturbances of past Dragon Days, when architecture students marched through Goldwin Smith, even entering classes to spew green-dyed liquids on professors unwary enough to leave their doors unlocked—a disruptive event, surely, but one that aroused no furor. Unlike such disruptions, this one had a calculated political motive; I was naive in assuming that dropping the charges would resolve anything. My committee’s refusal to drop them brought the takeover of Willard Straight Hall and the alarming introduction of weapons. But after the faculty itself nullified even more than the original charges, the black leadership was not content, refusing even to participate in a revision of the code they had objected to. They wanted an educational autonomy that disregarded not only state law but the Supreme Court ruling that made the doctrine of "separate but equal" a violation of Constitutional intent.

The compromise ultimately decided upon—an early form of the present program in Africana Studies—resulted in an absence of black students in most of the classes I taught in the following decades. In the pre-1969 years, this was not the case; some of the later black leaders were students of mine as well as of the faculty mentioned by Downs who supported academic freedom above all else. Today, I find it surprising—given all that was waiting to occur—to recall that once I accused Tom Jones, who became perhaps the most incendiary black leader, of using both his undeniable charm and the color of his skin to avoid dedicating himself enough to the work of my class. If my memory is correct, he accepted my accusation, but with a justification that would cheer the heart of conservatives today who decry affirmative action: the university itself had influenced him to be that way, for the color of his skin and not any financial need (his parents being well-off) had provided him with financial benefits and other dispensations.

Another black mentioned in the book was one with whom I felt a particular spiritual and intellectual affinity. Not only were his insights into the literature the class was reading unusually insightful—actually, I learned from them—but both of us were persuaded by Camus’ distinction between resentment and rebellion. (To Camus, resentment is an impotent envy for what one does not have or is not, while rebellion comes from an implicit assumption of equality with others: the rebel demands recognition of what he is, what he shares with them.) Still another black student would smile, wave her hands, and shout at me halfway across the whole Arts Quad, "Hello, Professor McConkey"—always a warning, for whenever it happened the AAS was planning some strategy to make even more difficult the decisions facing the committee of which she knew I was a member.

"The Cornell story," Downs tell us early on, "is about the failure of liberalism to protect intellectual freedom in the face of imperative social justice claims, thereby providing a blueprint for the severing of these principles that compromises higher education to this day." His greatest criticism is directed against President James Perkins for a liberal political bias at the expense of academic freedom—a bias that caused him to lose control; but Downs also condemns the faculty, particularly those who let their own desire for political justice in America take such precedence over academic freedom that they not only sympathized with Perkins but failed to support any corrective action themselves. (I think none of us, including those supporters of academic freedom who despised him, came as we should have to Perkins’ defense, on those occasions when he—who represented by virtue of his office the university itself—was humiliated or threatened.)

Near the end of his book, in discussing the "Barton Hall Community," Downs seems to be implying what those compromises in higher education today consist of: in his view, that assemblage of students and a scattering of faculty members "signified the beginning of the ‘political correctness’ that took off in the 1980s, when the activists of the 1960s—the heirs of Perkins—began to hold positions of power in universities." (To me, that "Community" was remarkably hopeful, receptive to all possible ideas perhaps because activists did not interfere.) His judgment here—simplistic for many reasons —is similar to that of many political conservatives, whose own righteousness is another, if related, subject; but the righteousness that then afflicted groups on the right as well as the left (and many individuals, though not to my knowledge Perkins himself) suggests the real difficulty in times of crisis of distinguishing between intellectual freedom and ideology.

Downs’ thesis, augmented as it is by those on the faculty he chose to interview, makes his judgment of Perkins too harsh for a tragic figure enmeshed within his own good intentions. Downs is unfair in contrasting Perkins to Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, who believed, in Downs’ paraphrase, "that the university can serve society only if it does not surrender its distinctive meaning and form to external forces." Hutchins, that proponent of Great Books and humanistic education, had the good fortune throughout his long career as university president and chancellor to exist in an America still confident in its own virtue and its role as inheritor of the Greek gift of democracy—though, ironically, Athenian democracy was limited to male citizens, its repose for philosophical inquiry dependent upon slavery. Hutchins never had to withstand the outer assaults and inner pressures, the growing sense of moral outrage, occasioned by the Vietnam War, that brought about a widespread disobedience (justified by the Nuremberg trials) to legislation and procedures considered unjust. The growing discontent toppled not only the president of Cornell but the President of the United States, undoing in the process Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty—much of it aimed, like Perkins’ more circumscribed efforts, at helping blacks overcome the discrimination they had been historically accorded.

Minor player though I was in the Cornell events of 1969, I was exhausted almost to the point of spiritual paralysis, and was glad to take a sabbatical leave. In Italy the following year, I wrote a novel I didn’t really want to write, a fictionalized account of the events I’d just lived through. Once I got started, I found myself writing more easily than I ever had, but without any sense of my conclusion. Every day, as I finished, I had a clear idea of no more than what I would write the following day. Only when I was at the end, and had killed off my protagonist, did I realize that I had just destroyed what I had come to disdain in myself—a posture of compromise based on the wish to be liked. Unconsciously I had felt the need to destroy that self, in order to construct a social identity I could better live with, one that could resist the blandishments of any peer group.

In experiencing that year at Cornell, but even more so in writing about it, I was aware of scheming on the part of a few blacks—the kind of behavior we refer to as machiavellian. But that they (or white activists, for that matter) would actually attempt to demoralize and divide a university by acts consciously intended not only to intimidate but to encourage white guilt while inciting racial hatred (the most obvious of the examples being their own burning of a cross before the residence of black women)—this struck me as so contemptible, so morally indefensible, that at the time I could not even imagine it, whatever the growing evidence. I find it likely that Perkins couldn’t imagine it, at least soon enough, either—though, on the basis of Downs’ book, it seems that some of the staunchest defenders of intellectual freedom could. Had Perkins been able to imagine it for the devious revolutionary strategy it was (or turned out to be: activists can increasingly get caught up in their own early rhetoric), he could have taken a firmer position capable of giving direction to ensuing policies. So even in our innocence, we humans can be judged guilty.

This may be as sound a conclusion as I can make, but I am not satisfied with it.

Democracy, like the freedom of intellectual expression that stems from it, is a concept as precious as it is fragile. Freedom of intellectual expression is a "good," but why is it so? Because it is the freedom to search for truth. In science, truth can be objective, made verifiable by factual evidence; but humanistic truth, whatever the factual buttressing, remains as subjective as the values through which we daily interpret the reality in which we live, and can limit or broaden the pursuit of even the purest of academic ideals. For reasons whose seed, if it is to be located at all, goes back at least a century and a half ago (some carry it much farther back) subjective truth has become a series of relative and seemingly disparate and frequently conflicting truths which in unstable times give ideologues an easy entrance.

It is clear (at least to me) that none of these fragmented truths—busily though each may be taught today, each important in itself—has any real meaning unless all are brought together under a truth large enough to encompass them all, and in so doing reflect our common human origin and fate. Without such spiritual insight, and the social reforms that can stem from it, we may be destined—particularly if the present boom turns to bust—to further separation and resentment in America, to a self-hatred expressed by hatred for others capable once again of eroding academic freedom, even if genetic cloning could resurrect enough copies of Robert Hutchins to preside over every one of our universities; with it, we can rebel against injustice while remaining part of the single human race each of us undeniably represents.

Cornell ’69 is a gripping, a necessary, cautionary tale; my reservations are no dismissal of its message.

James McConkey is a writer and the fiction editor of The Bookpress.

Return to Front Page