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

Donald A. Downs
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999
432 pp., $35 hc

Jon Porter
Franklin College

Donald Downs was an undergraduate at Cornell in April 1969 when over eighty armed black students seized Willard Straight Hall in a carefully planned takeover of the student union building on Parents' Weekend. His account is based on material in the Cornell University archives (including Cornell President James Perkins's papers and other administration documents), on interviews conducted by Cornell students during and immediately after the crisis as part of an oral history project, on recent interviews, and on an unpublished account of the crisis compiled by a journalist in the Cornell Public Information Office and a Cornell senior who was one of the main interviewers for the oral history project.

Downs begins with a twenty-two page overview of the crisis, and proceeds with a fairly straightforward chronological account of the issues leading up to the armed occupation. He divides his account into three parts. In Part I, he examines the issues that led to the Straight takeover: the rise of (nonracial) student activism at Cornell and elsewhere; racial activism at Cornell and the foundation of the Afro-American Society; the McPhelin case; the foundation of the black studies program; and the judicial board struggles. Part II looks at the Straight crisis and the faculty counterrevolt that followed: a chapter is devoted to each day from the takeover to the second faculty vote. Finally, in Part III, he outlines the circumstances that led to Perkins's resignation and, in perhaps the most valuable part of the book, reflects upon the implications of the crisis at Cornell in 1969 and the fundamental questions--about the relationship between racial justice and academic freedom, teaching identity politics, and the role of the university in a democracy--it still raises. According to Downs:

The Cornell story 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. (20-1)

He concludes with a very useful chronology of events and an eight page list of the key players in the crisis as well as others who were more peripherally involved.

In 1963, Perkins established the Committee on Disadvantaged Students--later renamed the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP)--which was designed to "recommend and initiate programs [for] students who have been disadvantaged by their cultural, economic, and educational environments" (46-7). In the beginning, no one considered black studies as part of the committee's mandate--it was to be a recruitment and fund-raising tool, not an academic program--indeed, whilst black students were the primary beneficiaries of the program, at least in theory anyone considered "disadvantaged" (including whites) could apply. "Committee members, many of whom were active in the civil rights movement, wanted something more radical" than the traditional programs for the disadvantaged: they wanted to actively recruit ghetto students to Cornell (47-8). They had little administration guidance (Perkins rarely attended their meetings) and because of fears that the faculty would raise questions about standards and fairness of a program to provide scholarships to less-qualified black students but not to similarly qualified white students (despite many well qualified students, median SAT scores for COSEP students were, on average, some 230 points lower than those for all freshmen at Cornell), the program operated without the usual faculty oversight.

Black students at Cornell founded the Afro-American Society (AAS) in early 1966, the second full year of COSEP; its purpose was to "initiate and support programs which are devoted to the eradication of the social, economic, and psychological conditions which blight black people" (62). Originally an integrated group, by the fall of 1966 the organization took a more separatist stance, in line with the changes in the national civil rights movement; black activists were growing impatient with Martin Luther King's emphasis on nonviolence and integration. The AAS rapidly grew more radical, embracing both Black Power ideology and Marxist theory.

In 1966, black students took over the economics department because of allegedly racist comments made by Father Michael McPhelin, a visiting professor from the Philippines. AAS leaders charged that McPhelin's teachings constituted institutional racism, and their reaction to the class was pivotal in Cornell's history. The McPhelin case was important for several reasons: it emphasized the rise of student power within the university; raised important questions about academic freedom; and highlighted growing racial awareness, especially among AAS members. But, perhaps most importantly, it also showed a new conception of what a university should be, the idea of the university as an instrument of social progress and social justice. But the McPhelin case was only the beginning of unrest at Cornell; when the university attempted to discipline five black students--all AAS members--for a series of severe campus disruptions (including seizing a campus building that had been identified earlier that day as the future home of the Afro-American Studies Program), the AAS defied the university's newly instituted judicial system and demanded an autonomous College of Afro-American studies, funded by Cornell but controlled by black students.

Other events led up to the seizure of Straight Hall, including the repeated public humiliation and intimidation of President James Perkins by AAS members. The final straw was a cross burning in front of Wari House, a residence for black women, which coincided with a number of (false) alarms sounding in residence halls across campus. AAS members have since acknowledged that the cross burning was perpetrated by AAS members to bring media attention to their cause.

The seizure and armed occupation of Straight Hall and the events that followed--including the failed attempt by members of a white fraternity to expel the AAS from Straight Hall and the so-called "Barton Hall Community" of student activists--is chronicled in loving detail in Part II of Cornell '69. The Cornell administration capitulated to AAS demands, which included amnesty for their actions; the AAS ended their occupation by marching out of Straight (in military formation: Eric Evans, AAS "minister of defense" was a transfer student from West Point).

The faculty response to the crisis is a curious mixture of both honor and cowardice: after a Wednesday vote which both nullified a Monday vote in favor of reprimands against student activists and restructured university governance to include much more student participation (a decision strongly influenced by the student takeover of Barton Hall and the creation of the so-called "Barton Hall Community"), government professor Alan Sindler (in many ways, the hero of this book) resigned from Cornell, as did a number of his colleagues in the History and Government Departments. As for Perkins, he was all but forced to resign after intense criticism from faculty, the New York Times, and the Cornell Alumni News.

The unrest at Cornell, combining black militancy and campus protest, received national attention, not least because of the Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of armed black students leaving Willard Straight Hall. It has more important repercussions today, especially regarding academic freedom and the role of the modern university. As Downs rightly points out, we are still dealing with the aftermath of the events at Cornell in 1969.

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