Cornell '69

Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University

Donald Alexander Downs
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.cttq432t
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Cornell '69
    Book Description:

    In April 1969, one of America's premier universities was celebrating parents' weekend-and the student union was an armed camp, occupied by over eighty defiant members of the campus's Afro-American Society. Marching out Sunday night, the protesters brandished rifles, their maxim: "If we die, you are going to die." Cornell '69 is an electrifying account of that weekend which probes the origins of the drama and describes how it was played out not only at Cornell but on campuses across the nation during the heyday of American liberalism.Donald Alexander Downs tells the story of how Cornell University became the battleground for the clashing forces of racial justice, intellectual freedom, and the rule of law.

    Eyewitness accounts and retrospective interviews depict the explosive events of the day and bring the key participants into sharp focus: the Afro-American Society, outraged at a cross-burning incident on campus and demanding amnesty for its members implicated in other protests; University President James A. Perkins, long committed to addressing the legacies of racism, seeing his policies backfire and his career collapse; the faculty, indignant at the university's surrender, rejecting the administration's concessions, then reversing itself as the crisis wore on. The weekend's traumatic turn of events is shown by Downs to be a harbinger of the debates raging today over the meaning of the university in American society. He explores the fundamental questions it posed, questions Americans on and off campus are still struggling to answer: What is the relationship between racial justice and intellectual freedom? What are the limits in teaching identity politics? And what is the proper meaning of the university in a democratic polity?

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6615-1
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the 2012 Paperback Edition
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Donald Downs
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xv)
    D.A.D.
  5. Cornell University Map
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  6. CHAPTER ONE OVERVIEW OF THE CRISIS
    (pp. 1-22)

    Sunday, April 20, 1969, was perhaps the most infamous day in the history of Cornell University and a watershed day in American higher education. At 4:10 p.m. over eighty members of the Afro-American Society (AAS) marched in solidarity out of the student union, Willard Straight Hall, fists clenched in Black Power salutes. The march stood apart from all other upheavals of that era for one conspicuous reason: the protesters brandished rifles and other weapons. Never before had students introduced guns into a campus conflict.¹ The AAS did not take the guns into the Straight when they took it over; they...

  7. THE ROAD TO THE STRAIGHT

    • CHAPTER TWO STUDENT MILITANCY
      (pp. 25-45)

      To gain perspective on racial politics and the events of 1969, we need to look at pertinent aspects of student militancy in the 1950s and ’60s. I will focus on two areas: student political movements, and student conduct and adjudicatory policies.

      From one viewpoint, the clash between social justice and academic freedom in 1969 reflected a tension built into Cornell’s institutional fabric. The New York State Legislature established the Cornell Agriculture School as a land grant public institution under the Morrill Act of 1862, but Cornell set up its College of Arts and Sciences as a private college. Ezra Cornell...

    • CHAPTER THREE THE RISE OF RACIAL POLITICS
      (pp. 46-67)

      The rise of racial politics at Cornell paved the road to the Straight. The key elements were the COSEP program and the Afro-American Society (AAS). But the origins go back to a scene that took place at Cornell in spring 1962, more than a year before James Perkins became president. Malcolm X, the outspoken Black Muslim and black nationalist, and James Farmer, the head of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), engaged in a debate titled “Separation versus Integration.” Farmer, an African American, made the classic case for integration based on the tenets of the burgeoning civil rights movement, which...

    • CHAPTER FOUR RACIAL JUSTICE VERSUS ACADEMIC FREEDOM
      (pp. 68-96)

      Like an omen, Martin Luther King’s murder occurred just hours after the Afro-American Society carried out the central act of the McPhelin affair, a quasi-violent takeover of the Economics Department offices. These two events galvanized the militant AAS faction; the McPhelin incident also pitted claims of academic freedom against claims of racial justice in the starkest manner possible. This was the first time that the conflict had erupted onto the public stage at Cornell, and the administration’s response set a precedent of avoidance that would come to haunt the university. In short, the McPhelin affair was a trial run for...

    • CHAPTER FIVE SEPARATION OR INTEGRATION?
      (pp. 97-123)

      The McPhelin incident made the development of a black studies program all the more imperative in the eyes of all concerned. It also legitimated more student input than most participants had been inclined to accept.

      But two tracks were emerging: a program more consistent with the established principles of liberal education versus one based on Black Power, student power, and the politics of recognition. As seen in Chapter Three, institutions of higher learning were starting to wrestle with this tension by 1968. A similar debate had also been raging in the famous battle over “community control” in the Ocean Hills-Brownsville...

    • CHAPTER SIX PROGRESS OR IMPASSE?
      (pp. 124-144)

      The December actions led to a decline of the radicals’ fortunes. In early April John Garner left school to work in the ghetto and Gary Patton and Larry Dickson left for other reasons. During the second semester outsiders such as Michael Thelwell and Cleveland Sellers came to Cornell as lecturers and convinced the AAS that the militants were hurting the revolutionary movement as much as they were helping it. Consequently, a coalition or conglomerate of the AAS’s factions shared power, moving the leadership toward the center.

      At a meeting in late January, Garner announced that he was going to resign,...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN LIBERAL JUSTICE OR RACISM?
      (pp. 145-162)

      The judicial cases precipitated the takeover of the Straight. Given past experience, the judicial system’s status was ambiguous. The decline of student government and the conflicts between faculty and students in previous cases meant the new system would have to earn its reputation. Unfortunately, the very first cases it had to deal with were the most explosive in Cornell’s history. By the time of the Straight crisis, most students knew little about the boards and eventually accepted the SDS and AAS contentions that they were illegitimate.

      The controversy over the judicial cases reflected the deeper debate over the purpose of...

  8. THE STRAIGHT CRISIS

    • CHAPTER EIGHT DAY 1: THE TAKEOVER AND THE ARMING OF THE CAMPUS
      (pp. 165-191)

      Allan Sindler’s premonition, matched by authorities downtown, proved correct. Something was brewing for Parents Weekend, when several hundred parents would come to Cornell.

      The AAS claimed that certain events triggered the takeover of the Straight, but the evidence suggests it was carefully planned. Students had started coming to the office of Dana Payne, associate dean of the Arts College, two weeks before the takeover, asking to drop courses because the time they should have spent studying they had instead used to participate in marathon AAS meetings (by this time the AAS was meeting virtually every night). An assistant dean, Pearl...

    • CHAPTER NINE DAY 2: THE DEAL
      (pp. 192-210)

      The executive war council met at 9 o’clock the next morning at the Law School. By now the national media were on their way. President Perkins arrived with notes laying out the university’s options under different scenarios. He did not mention the guns, but they haunted every thought. One concern overrode everything. In Stuart Brown’s words, "We were convinced that we should try and get the blacks out of Willard Straight that day and not let them go through another night, and the problems that would be associated with having armed individuals in that building when classes resumed on Monday...

    • CHAPTER TEN DAY 3: A “REVOLUTIONARY SITUATION”
      (pp. 211-230)

      Monday morning broke with the world’s press carrying front-page stories of the agreement and pictures of the AAS exit with guns. TheNew York Timescarried “The Picture” on page 1, under the headline “Armed Negroes End Seizure; Cornell Yields” (the headline on an inside page read “Armed Negro Students End 36-Hour Occupation after Cornell Capitulates”). John Kifner’s report described the agreement matter-of-factly as a “capitulation.”¹ It was in the context of this widespread interpretation that the administration began meeting again early that morning.

      Students were still basically in the dark about what was going on. Most were shocked by...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN DAY 4: STUDENT POWER
      (pp. 231-252)

      Tuesday began in symbolic fashion. Stuart Brown recalled “how dark and threatening the weather was.” Cushing Strout had “a nightmare day.” By midafternoon much of the faculty was giving in to collective fear.

      It was a day of countless meetings among faculty, administrators, and students. Hoping that talk would heal, the administration had urged professors to use their classes to discuss the crisis. Law Professor Norman Penny recalled the dismay that his colleagues in the school felt “at the turn of events, particularly in reference to the leadership and how things were disintegrating, and here we were being asked to...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE DAY 5: A NEW ORDER
      (pp. 253-266)

      Barton Hall came back to life around 7:30 a.m., and the assembly discussed what students could do to affect the upcoming faculty vote. Students were urged to attend classes that were meeting (many were not) and to encourage professors to nullify. At 9:20 the gathering issued another “official release” that urged students to join the Barton Hall Community in the name of student power. “We will continue to hold Barton Hall until such time as the faculty and the administration of Cornell appropriately reconsiders the black demands....Allconcerned students are welcome to join us in this seizure and engage...

  9. THE AFTERMATH

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN REFORM, REACTION, RESIGNATION
      (pp. 269-296)

      In this chapter we will look at the immediate and short-term aftermath of the Cornell crisis. The key issue was the fate of President James A. Perkins, though other issues, such as restructuring, were also important. The most significant events took place in three broadly defined realms. First, activists used the crisis to reform Cornell or to further their own objectives. More moderate reformers pushed for democratization of departments and the establishment of a constituent assembly that would devise a governing body based on proportional representation of various campus groups. The assembly was led by professors appointed to the reorganization...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN CORNELL AND THE FAILURE OF LIBERALISM
      (pp. 297-308)

      Dale Corson’s ascension reassured most Cornellians. He had kept the coolest head during the crisis, and he was an institutional man who had spent almost all his time on the campus for the past twenty years. But the Straight crisis left indelible marks on Cornell for better and for worse. In this chapter we will look at some of the most salient effects.

      Within a year of the crisis. Tom Jones began to harbor second thoughts about what he and his colleagues had wrought. During the summer of 1969, however, he continued his attack on the university. Meanwhile, James Turner...

  10. CHRONOLOGY
    (pp. 309-315)
  11. PARTICIPANTS
    (pp. 316-323)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 324-354)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 355-359)
  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)