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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Cornell’s Straight Flush
Forty years after the student center was occupied, the destructive effects linger.
13 December 2009

In the fall of 1968, a recent Cornell University graduate named Nathan Tarcov wrote an essay in The Public Interest called “The Last Four Years at Cornell.” Rising student unrest, Tarcov wrote, presented a fundamental challenge to the university’s approach to liberal education. And Cornell’s inclination to accede to student demands could only make things worse: “Granting a host of peripheral demands cannot remedy a pervasive discontent with the fundamental characteristics of education in the arts college.” Cornell’s continuing failure to acknowledge the nature of the problem and stand up for itself represented a deep dysfunction at the heart of American higher education, one that was sure to have destructive effects, Tarcov warned.

The warning came true far sooner than he expected, as the Cornell campus erupted in racially tinged violence less than a year later. The student protests of four decades ago were not, of course, limited to Cornell. Outbreaks no less serious (and in several cases far more so) occurred at many other elite universities. A similar story line can be discerned in each case: student radicalism, often with racial overtones, spills into violence and tests the resolve of the university’s administrators, who quickly fail the test, cave to pressure to change the curriculum or other practices, and set a lasting precedent for the subordination of academic freedom to an extreme political agenda. In each case, too, the error was only exacerbated with time, with both the students’ violence and the administrations’ weakness now celebrated in ways that continue to harm the American academy.

In his essay, Tarcov remembers that he had chosen to attend Cornell in the expectation that it would be far less politicized than Berkeley or Wisconsin—and it was, at first. The events of 1969 had special resonance precisely because of Cornell’s reputation as a calm and nonpolitical campus.

The trouble began with some early indications of racial tension. The number of black students at Cornell had been steadily growing during the 1960s, thanks in particular to the efforts of the university’s administration. When James A. Perkins became Cornell’s president in 1963, only about 25 of the school’s 11,000 students were black. Perkins, a Quaker who had been chairman of the board of the United Negro College Fund, solicited a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to help bring in promising black students. After the program proved successful, Perkins established the Committee on Special Education Projects to further intensify recruiting. By 1969, Cornell had 250 black students in a student body that, because of the baby boom, had reached 14,000.

But despite the efforts of the president and faculty to attract and integrate them, many black students at Cornell felt alienated from the student body and hostile to the administration. In 1966, a group of black students created the Afro-American Society. Strongly influenced by the national Black Power movement, the AAS sought to increase black students’ autonomy and change Cornell’s curriculum to suit its views, rather than pursue integration. A typical AAS statement, in the form of a letter to the Cornell Daily Sun, read as follows:

If Blacks do not define the type of program set up within an institution that will be relevant to them, it will be worthless. Moreover, the Blacks must have the right to define the role of white students in the program, even to the point of their restriction, if it is to be valid for Blacks or whites. We do not expect whites to understand because their perception is dimmed by the racism they admit they possess.

In 1968, a group of AAS members disrupted the class of Father Michael McPhelin, a visiting economics professor from the Philippines who had criticized the economic-development policies of a number of African nations. Without addressing McPhelin’s criticism on the merits, the AAS tried to intimidate him into recanting. The students first tried to read a letter criticizing him in class—without showing it to him first—but he refused to allow it. Then they attempted to take over the class, and he resisted. McPhelin complained to the chairman of the economics department, who, instead of punishing the offending students, praised them for their activism. By the end of the year, McPhelin had left Cornell and, as Tarcov saw it, a pattern had been established: “The disruption of a class, seizure of a department office and chairman, and the threatened and actual use of force had gone unpunished and had even received the sympathy and admiration of liberals and administrators for the moral convictions manifested.”

Similarly, in the summer of 1968, Thomas Sowell, a black economics professor in his first academic position, tried to eject a disruptive black student from his course, only to find his decision overruled by the same chairman who had undercut McPhelin. In his memoir recounting his time at Cornell, Sowell reports that he was called a “man from Mars” for refusing to join any of the mass discussions or small-group intrigues that dominated the campus. Unhappy at Cornell, Sowell tendered his resignation.

The troubles grew worse. In December 1968, black students demanding a separate curriculum turned over vending machines, brandished fake guns on campus, and marched on the tables of a student dining hall during a meal. The administration’s weak response to these disruptions invited greater ones.

Sure enough, these began in the winter of 1969. In February, a symposium about South Africa took place on campus. President Perkins agreed to appear and discuss the university’s investments in that country, of which many student activists disapproved. While Perkins was speaking, a black sophomore named Gary Patton climbed on stage and grabbed him by the collar. The crowd of 800 students let out a collective gasp as Perkins whispered ineffectually to Patton, “You better let go of me!” Ex-student Larry Dickson then pointed a large wooden plank at the head of Lowell George, Cornell’s supervisor of public safety, who had moved to defend Perkins. AAS members in the audience beat bongo drums as Patton continued to hold and threaten Perkins. After a few moments, Patton let go and Perkins rushed off the stage, but the New York Times ran a front-page story on the incident, and it was soon clear that Cornell was on the verge of an explosion.

Other modest eruptions continued throughout the semester. By April, many white students had grown weary of the protests and felt that the university should deal with the unrest more forcefully. Stan Chess, editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, claimed in the New York Times Magazine that “if the administration [would say] ‘no’ now, it would get the backing of a majority on this campus.” But the administration took no concrete action.

On April 18, students at Wari, a cooperative for black women, reported a burning cross on their lawn and blamed racist whites for the incident. The cross burners were never caught, and Ithaca police suspected, but could never prove, that AAS members themselves had burned the cross, trying to create a pretext for further protest. Stephen Goodwin, a Cornell student at the time who served as the AAS treasurer, later called the cross burning “a set-up. It was just to bring in more media and more attention to the whole thing.”

Whether it was a set-up or not, the incident set the stage for a massive escalation. At 5:30 AM the next day, the AAS took over Willard Straight Hall, Cornell’s student-activity center. Though AAS leaders claimed that their action was a response to the cross-burning, they had planned the move weeks earlier, choosing April 19 to coincide with the university’s Parents Weekend.

In carrying out the takeover, AAS students crossed the line between incivility and life-threatening violence. The invading students ran through the building shouting “Fire!,” sending 30 confused parents outside without even a chance to gather their luggage. A number of parents had the presence of mind to call the university’s department of public safety and ask for help, but they were advised, “There’s nothing we can do; do what they tell you.” One woman claimed that students wielding “steel sticks and crowbars” broke the lower panel of her door while urging her to leave. The raiders shouted at the parents, calling them “pigs”; telling them, “Your lives are in danger; you had better get out of here fast”; and declaring, “The black man has risen.” After the parents evacuated, along with 40 university employees who had been inside the building, the AAS chained the doors closed.

The takeover deeply divided Cornell. Within minutes, white members of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society formed a sympathy barricade around Straight Hall. SDS member C. David Burak told 100 picketers over a megaphone that he condemned the “racist and capitalist” policies of both Cornell and America at large. Others, however, were angry at the AAS radicals. Twenty-five white students from the Delta Upsilon fraternity entered Straight through a window a few hours after the takeover and got into a minor scuffle with AAS members before leaving the building. According to Allan Sindler, chairman of the government department at the time, black students then brought rifles to Straight’s loading dock for use by AAS members, and campus police, acting on orders from the administration, did nothing to stop them. Once armed, AAS leader Eric Evans, a senior majoring in communications, demonstrated a proclivity for his chosen field when he shouted through a megaphone, “If any more white students come in, you’re gonna die here.”

The occupiers demanded the nullification of campus judicial action against the students who had overturned vending machines the previous year, the commencement of housing negotiations between the administration and the AAS, and a complete investigation of the Wari cross-burning. They spent Saturday night smuggling in more rifles and preparing for another day of antics. On Sunday, they negotiated with a special committee of faculty members and administration officials appointed to manage the crisis.

That afternoon, the AAS and the administration came to an agreement, and 110 black students left Straight and marched to the Africana Studies and Research Center to sign the deal. Even the exodus took place in a manner embarrassing to the university. AAS leaders Dickson and Thomas Jones were the last to leave, each holding a gun in one hand and making a Black Power salute with the other. Though the guns were, by previous arrangement, unloaded, cameras captured the appalling image of armed students. AP photographer Steve Starr’s Pulitzer Prize–winning picture of Evans and another student leaving Straight with weapons in hand shocked the nation and entered 1960s iconography.

The agreement itself was also a blow to the university: in exchange for AAS members leaving the building and cooperating in creating a new judicial system on campus, the administration agreed to recommend that the faculty nullify any actions taken against the five students who had run wild in December, not pursue any charges in connection with the Straight takeover itself, and provide round-the-clock protection for the Wari cooperative. The agreement represented a complete capitulation on the part of the administration.

While the administration cowered, many students and faculty members objected. Allan Bloom, one of Cornell’s most popular—and controversial—professors, told the Cornell Daily Sun that he was “shocked” by the agreement, and an unnamed “senior government professor” warned that “this conceivably could be the end of Cornell University.” Before the faculty met to discuss the issue, 50 students, calling themselves part of the “silent center,” protested the administration’s cowardice, waving signs reading DON’T LET THEM BULLY YOU and BERLIN ’32, ITHACA ’69. Some students, under Bloom’s direction, handed out excerpts from Plato’s Republic.

The faculty by a wide margin voted down the administration’s recommendation to dismiss charges against the students who had overturned the vending machines. Though the faculty did not reject other elements of the agreement, the vote against amnesty infuriated the AAS. Jones gave an incendiary speech on campus radio threatening the lives of faculty who had supported the resolution, calling them racists and mentioning the names of three professors (Bloom, Clinton Rossiter, and Walter Berns) and four administration officials (including Perkins and provost Dale Corson). He even reported their home addresses, warning that they would be dealt with if the faculty didn’t reverse its position by 9:00 PM. Jones closed his remarks by announcing: “Cornell has three hours to live.”

The threatened faculty brought their families to motels, registering under assumed names. Bloom also helped protect a black student, Alan Keyes, whom the AAS saw as a traitor because he opposed the takeover. Bloom put Keyes on a late-night bus to Montreal and arranged financial aid for him to finish his studies at Harvard.

The threats and incendiary rhetoric took their toll. By Wednesday at noon, when the faculty convened an emergency session at Bailey Hall, most of the modestly defiant professors of two days earlier had been cowed. They believed that if they resisted any further, SDS, AAS, some unaffiliated students, and a considerable number of faculty members themselves might resort to violence. Twenty-six professors said that they would participate in building takeovers and 49 threatened to strike if the faculty refused to overturn its earlier vote. After 90 minutes of mostly one-sided debate, the faculty agreed, again by a large margin, to reverse the earlier decision, repealing the penalties it had upheld two days earlier. As Bloom put it, “students discovered that pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom could, with a little shove, be made into dancing bears.”

Even after the immediate threat of violence subsided, Cornell did not return to normal. The continued coverage of the crisis in the New York Times provided a steady flow of damaging stories and images. The Cornell Alumni News contributed its own overview of the crisis in a special early-June issue, unfiltered by Cornell officials and reaching 40,000 alumni. According to Sindler, as more people, and particularly more alumni, understood the extent of the administration’s follies, Perkins’s presidency became increasingly precarious. Perkins soon announced his intention to resign. But while his resignation put an end to the immediate crisis, the aftermath of the events of 1969 continued to bedevil Cornell for many years to come.

The most concrete immediate effect of the takeover at Cornell was the angry departure of a number of prominent faculty members, including Bloom, Berns, Sindler, Sowell, and the beloved classics professor Donald Kagan. Bloom’s departure in particular hurt Cornell, as he had personally drawn many talented students to the school. Back in 1963, when he had left for a year to teach at Yale, his students had followed him. When he returned, the students returned with him. His departure ensured that those he attracted would go elsewhere. Many of the most noted Cornell graduates between 1965 and 1970 had been his devoted students, including Tarcov (now a professor of political science at the University of Chicago), Paul Wolfowitz (former deputy secretary of defense and president of the World Bank), Alan Keyes (former presidential candidate and assistant secretary of state), Clifford Orwin (professor of political philosophy at the University of Toronto), Edith Jones (chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit), Francis Fukuyama (professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University), William Galston (senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former policy advisor to President Clinton), and others. In many cases, the Straight takeover politicized these students—or at least awakened them to the extent of the university’s politicization—and as they rose to important positions in government and academia, they carried their Cornell memories with them. Bloom himself described the importance of the experience in shaping his own thinking in his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind.

In addition to its effect on specific people, the Straight crisis had more atmospheric, long-term consequences for Cornell, starting with a collapse of civil discourse on campus. With the emergence of threats, intimidation, and the publicizing of opponents’ home addresses, political differences became personal. Opposing parties lost the ability to debate differences openly, or to resolve them in a nonviolent manner. The threat of violence, not any adherence to principle, had determined campus policy in the Straight crisis. Once the precedent was established that protest, whether violent or not, could change university policy, the university became increasingly politicized. Any decision would have a political component, and any decision could therefore be challenged, and changed, through political action.

The crisis also had grave implications for academic freedom. If the faculty would not punish violent students, and the president did not feel free to denounce their actions, then individual professors could not expect to speak freely in their classes, especially if their comments might offend certain groups.

Moreover, the events of 1969 ratified the notion of black self-segregation at Cornell, with dire consequences reaching to the present. Acceding to the demands of the AAS (which renamed itself the Black Liberation Front after the takeover), the administration signaled that it would no longer object to black students’ attempts to live, eat, and learn separately from their white fellow students. Many of these patterns of separation have persisted and spread. Over time, black and white students came to live in separate dorms at Cornell, and students of other ethnic groups (especially Hispanics) established their own living and eating spaces. By the mid-1990s, Cornell’s West Campus was 70 percent white, while its North Campus had become majority-minority. Given the sheer size of the Cornell campus, this meant that white students and black students established completely separate social worlds in their freshman year. That fact, coupled with the separate classes that the African-studies curriculum entailed, meant that black and white students at Cornell had minimal opportunities for interaction. Attempts to reintegrate were routinely met with protests, most notably in 1996, when Al Sharpton visited Cornell and accused the administration of forcing black and Hispanic students to “merge in with everyone else so we don’t know they’re here.”

Sharpton had come to Cornell to protest a proposal that would integrate housing for freshmen and sophomores and limit self-segregated housing to upperclassmen. During the demonstration, hundreds of students lay down in the street, blocking traffic at one of Cornell’s busiest intersections. Naturally, no one was arrested or punished, and indeed the whole incident was met with nothing so much as warm nostalgia for the violence of the late 1960s. In his commencement remarks later that year, Cornell’s president, Hunter Rawlings, even thanked the students “for reassuring me the Cornell tradition of demonstrations and protests is alive and well.”

Rawlings did take some action to lessen segregation, requiring all freshmen beginning with the class of 2002 to live on North Campus. But the plan left self-segregated dorms intact and has done little in practice to end racial self-segregation. Rawlings displayed even greater weakness in defense of free speech on campus. In April 1997, the Cornell Review, a conservative campus paper, published a parody of black studies, written in “Ebonics.” In response, black students burned hundreds of copies of the offending issue, and the administration did nothing about the destruction of property or the suppression of free speech. Rawlings condemned the article as “race-baiting, stereotyping, and intentionally degrading attacks” but didn’t protest or investigate the paper burnings. When Ying Ma, the Review’s president, tried to speak in its defense at a hearing, protesters forcibly held her back from a microphone, while others threw a basket of burning papers at her face. Several Review staffers also received death threats.

Similar incidents have continued over the past few years. Intimidation tactics have thus remained a prominent element of Cornell’s culture wars, and the university’s administration has remained unwilling to do much about it.

At Cornell earlier this year, the university marked the 40th anniversary of the AAS standoff with a campuswide celebration that featured former AAS leader Thomas Jones (now an investment banker). In an interview with the Cornell Daily Sun, Jones described the events surrounding the Straight takeover as “an enormous act of selflessness . . . in terms of saying we’re going to fight this fight as part of the larger battle.” And though he expressed regret for the personal toll the takeover had on “black students who didn’t finish their degrees,” “professors who quit in anger,” and “Perkins losing his job,” Jones was unapologetic for “being one of those who stood up for the fight that we fought that we thought we had to engage in,” which he claimed was “in this historical context” and “one of the events that made that chain of history that lead directly to Barack Obama being elected.”

The weeklong festival also featured artistic and cultural displays, panel discussions, prizes, a commemoration walk (which takes place every year), a free catered dinner, and a community photo op. The university’s president, David J. Skorton, even appeared and, incredibly, gave the Black Power salute. The events were publicized through a university-sponsored Facebook page and characterized by one student as an opportunity to “warmly welcome the next generation of Cornellians” through “food, prizes, discussion, and much more.”

But in fact, the violent student uprisings of the late 1960s and early seventies have left a legacy of political radicalism and intellectual feebleness that continues to haunt not only Cornell, but many of our best universities. The most troubling trends in academic life these past four decades—including the introduction of highly politicized new departments and disciplines, the casual acceptance of racial self-segregation and animosity, the burdens of political correctness, and the decline of core liberal education curricula—can be traced in large part to the surrender of authority by university administrators and faculty in the face of student radicalism.

These days, administrators and professors are more likely to be former radicals themselves than to see the damage done by the student protest movement. Their celebration of the surrender of the American academy now shapes the next generation’s understanding of the events of that period and of the radical politicization of America’s great universities. To recover, the next generation of professors and academic administrators needs to hear the true story of the student uprisings and to rediscover the importance of a truly liberal education, now nearly forgotten after four long decades of false nostalgia.

Tevi D. Troy is a graduate of Cornell, a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?

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