Cornell ’69 And What It Did

Donald Downs:

Forty years ago this week, an armed student insurrection erupted on the Cornell campus. I was a sophomore on campus at the time and later wrote a book on the events, Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University. To some the drama represented a triumph of social justice, paving the way for a new model of the university based on the ideals of identity politics, diversity, and the university as a transformer of society. To others, it fatefully propelled Cornell, and later much of American higher education, away from the traditional principles of academic freedom, reason, and individual excellence. “Cornell,” wrote the famous constitutional scholar Walter Berns, who resigned from Cornell during the denouement of the conflict, “was the prototype of the university as we know it today, having jettisoned every vestige of academic integrity.”
In the wee hours of Friday, April 19, 1969, twenty-some members of Cornell’s Afro-American Society took over the student center, Willard Straight Hall, removing parents (sometimes forcefully) from their accommodations on the eve of Parents Weekend. The takeover was the culmination of a year-long series of confrontations, during which the AAS had deployed hardball tactics to pressure the administration of President James Perkins into making concessions to their demands. The Perkins administration and many faculty members had made claims of race-based identity politics and social justice leading priorities for the university, marginalizing the traditional missions of truth-seeking and academic freedom.
Two concerns precipitated the takeover: AAS agitation for the establishment of a radical black studies program; and demands of amnesty for some AAS students, who had just been found guilty by the university judicial board of violating university rules. These concerns were linked, for, according to the students, the university lacked the moral authority to judge minority students. They declared that Cornell was no longer a university, but rather an institution divided by racial identities.

Fearing attacks by some opponents, the students smuggled several rifles into the Straight. Rumors of this astonishing act swept the campus, and soon many students and local residents took up their own arms. For several days, Cornell was riveted by escalating tensions, swirling rumors, and frayed nerves as the beleaguered administration sought to strike a resolution. Before long, the students issued another demand: amnesty for those who took over the Straight. Meanwhile, Students for a Democratic Society began rallying campus-wide student support for the AAS.
The administration ultimately agreed to a deal on Sunday that accommodated the students’ demands. The students then exited the Straight and marched across campus brandishing their weapons before an audience of astonished onlookers (myself included). A UPI photographer captured the dramatic exit with a photo that made the takeover famous world-wide. The photo won him the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for “Spot News Photography.”
Compelled to publicly address the crisis in some fashion, the hapless Perkins made a weak but pivotal speech on Monday afternoon to an anxious campus-wide audience at Barton Hall, the cavernous gymnasium/military training building that stands in the center of campus. The packed house of 10,000 Cornellians longed for an appropriate administrative response, but Perkins amazingly never addressed the issue at hand. According to a Newsweek account, “The president did not refer to the guns, the building seizure or the racial tensions directly; he simply asked everyone to approach the situation as ‘humane men.’ Many students were angry. ‘I wanted to yell, ‘Say something already’, said one junior.”
Perkins’ abdication of leadership hurtled Cornell toward chaos. Central authority palpably vanished before everyone’s eyes, leaving what one noted professor called a “Hobbesian state of nature” in its wake. What was once unthinkable started becoming thinkable. A revolutionary situation was at hand.
Amnesty required faculty assent; and at an extraordinary meeting on Monday following Perkins’ speech, a solid majority of the faculty refused to ratify the agreement. They insisted that support of the agreement–especially under the coercive circumstances–would be contrary to the fundamental principles of the university, which included a commitment to ordered liberty, deliberative reason, and the equal application of rules.
To force the faculty to reconsider its vote, SDS led several thousand students in a takeover of Barton Hall. Meanwhile, over a hundred local sheriff deputies assembled downtown. An administrator acting on Perkins’ behalf gave them the green light to enter campus in the event the “Barton Hall Community” decided to seize another building. Interviews with the deputies revealed that many were aching to charge up the hill, guns at their ready.
Late Tuesday night, an AAS leader, Tom Jones–destined later in life to be absorbed into the establishment as CEO of Smith Barney and a leading member of the Cornell Board of Trustees–announced in a speech on the university radio station that Cornell “had three hours to live” if the faculty did not budge from its intransigence. WVBR replayed Jones’ speech repeatedly throughout the night, virtually everybody on campus and in town tuning in. With guns and the promise of violence already haunting the campus, Jones’s speech pushed Cornell to the brink. Hotels and motels all around Ithaca filled up to “no vacancy” as citizens of Cornell’s city on the hill fled the campus to avoid potential violence.
Back at Barton, the assembly decided after explosive debate to wait and see what the faculty did when it met again the next day to reconsider its Monday vote. Everything now hung on the faculty’s shoulders. Would they uphold the principles they had defended on Monday? Or would the Barton Community, now reveling in its new-found power, prevail instead? At stake was what kind of university Cornell would become.
The next morning, the faculty reversed its Monday vote in what no doubt remains the most intense and momentous debate in Cornell’s history. With this vote to grant the students’ demands, the true power in the university was instantly transferred to Barton and the AAS. President Perkins made a humiliating trip to Barton to ritualistically congratulate the assembly. On the stage, an SDS leader took a conspicuous sip out of Perkins’ can of Coke–a symbolic gesture noted and understood by all. (Perkins would be gone from Cornell by mid-summer.)
Among other things, the student victory at Barton authorized the new black studies program, as well as a significant restructuring of the university to include students in decision-making. Within a few years, however, the latter spoil of victory died of natural causes as student indifference to such matters returned. With the radicalized black studies program retreating to the outskirts of campus, Cornell eventually returned to normalcy, at least on the surface.
But the faculty surrender inevitably had profound implications. On the positive side was the further commitment of Cornell and higher education to the inclusion of students from minority and other backgrounds. On the negative side were the means by which this further opening came about, and the new philosophy of the university under which it took place: the university as an agent for social justice and identity politics (today reconfigured as “diversity”) rather than as an institution dedicated primarily to free inquiry, robust intellectual diversity and debate, and common standards of justice and reason.
By surrendering authority under the circumstances that prevailed in 1969–in the face of coercion and threats of violence, and the widespread intolerance of those who disagreed with the AAS and Barton positions–Cornell leaders failed to defend the core principles that define liberal education, and which make enlightened citizenship and politics possible. Social justice unaccompanied by respect for basic order, freedom of thought, intellectual honesty, and the rights of all individuals is a recipe for tyranny of the majority (or of the activists), not justice. (Indeed, the many minority students at Cornell who opposed the AAS methods and message were targets of threatening abuse. Future Republican presidential candidate, Alan Keyes, a graduate student in political thought, fled to France to get away from death threats targeted at him because of his politics and his relationship with a white woman.).
Though they became the targets of threats and other intimidations, a few professors took courageous stands by publicly protesting the faculty reversal. This group included historians Walter LeFeber, George Kahan, Fred Somkin, James John, Joel Silbey, and Donald Kagan, and government professors Walter Berns, Allan Sindler, and Allan Bloom. (The latter three resigned on the spot.) These individuals understood the principles at stake, and grasped the existential fact that fortitude is needed to defend institutions when things get rough. Trained to embody the peaceable attributes of scholarship, most professors were unable or unwilling to take serious risks to defend academic principles in the face of intimidation—a fact that Tom Jones derisively emphasized in his haunting speech on WVBR.
Many years after the events of 1969, Tom Jones wrote a letter to James Perkins, apologizing for the pain the student rebels had caused the man who had striven to be so understanding and accommodating to their demands. Perkins wrote back, accepting the apology. Jones later wrote a similar letter to Walter Berns, who had been one of Jones’ intellectual mentors before his rebel turn. Still smarting from the death threats he received and from what the revolt had wrought, Berns did not deign to reply.
To be sure, many faculty members (and even administrators) believed in these principles, but reversed their vote out of a sense of necessity. Given the potential of mass violence in the event of continued faculty resistance, concerns for life and limb might have justified concession. But given what was at stake, this group (the largest of any faction) could have followed their vote with a meaningful protest, such as resigning, going on strike, or taking leaves of absence to emphasize their disdain. Yet no such collective symbolic action took place.
Three other reasons for the faculty reversal stood out. Some faculty members simply agreed with the new mission of the university, while others had become uncertain of what the university stands for in the face of dramatic social and political upheaval. A last group simply surrendered to their own fears. At its core, Cornell ’69 was about such basic matters as courage and conviction.
Since 1969, Cornell has continued to struggle with the dilemmas of a post-liberal university, witnessing threats to free speech, periodic conflicts over race-based dorms and programs, and related problems. More importantly, Cornell `69 was a harbinger of the politics of political correctness (later reconfigured as “diversity”), which involves elevating social justice claims and identity politics over the principles and practices of free inquiry and intellectual conscience. During the last twenty years, universities and colleges across the land have compromised the principles of liberal education by instituting such policies as speech codes, overly broad harassment rules, one-dimensional identity-based programs and departments, and ideologically-slanted orientation and campus life programs–all in the name of promoting social justice as defined by campus leaders who are beholden (consciously or not) to the goals represented by Cornell `69.
Unlike 1969, today’s campuses seldom witness violence (or its threat), as this agenda has become part of the established order. If political correctness seems less of a problem today than it did in the 1990s, this might be only because it has metastasized. Meanwhile, many students and faculty members remain committed to the principles of liberal education, but we seldom read of meaningful faculty-led movements to resist this establishment. If the Cornell president and faculty had behaved responsibly in 1969, our campuses might be dramatically different today.
Donald Downs is a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He specializes in issues involving law, politics, and society, as well as political thought, and has recently published Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.