The Day Cornell Died

Saturday, October 30, 1999

No one who was at Cornell University in the spring of 1969 is ever likely to forget the guns-on-campus crisis that shocked the academic community and the nation. Bands of militant black students forcibly evicted visiting parents from Willard Straight Hall on the Cornell campus and seized control of it to back up their demands. Later, after the university’s capitulation, the students emerged carrying rifles and shotguns, their leader wearing a bandoleer of shotgun ammunition. It was a picture that appeared on the covers of national magazines and was even reprinted overseas.

What happened behind the scenes was at least as shocking. Death threats were phoned to the homes of professors who had opposed their previous actions or demands. Shots were in fact fired into the engineering building.

Militant student leader Eric Evans announces an agreement with the Cornell University administration that ended the students’ thirty-five-hour occupation of the student union on April 20, 1969. The agreement gave the students amnesty and absolved them of any financial responsibility for damage caused during the takeover. (Photo courtesy of Cornell Alumni News.)

In a decade noted for its student riots, this was the most violent in the nation. In an academic world noted for its weak-kneed administrators, Cornell had the quintessential appeaser and dispenser of pious rhetoric in its president, James A. Perkins. As an assistant professor of economics at Cornell at the time, my characterization of Perkins in the media was that he was “a veritable weathervane, following the shifting cross-current of campus politics.” After thirty years, there is no need to take back any of that. However, a new book published on the anniversary of that tragic academic watershed reveals in even more painful detail how this hollow man set the stage for the betrayal of the university and his own downfall.

The book is Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University, by Donald Alexander Downs, a student at Cornell at the time and now a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Its value is largely that of a detailed chronology of the series of events over a period of a year that led up to the guns-on-campus crisis. Someone once said that there is a fundamental difference between telling a story and emptying your notebooks. Downs has emptied his notebooks. This is not to say that Cornell ’69 is wholly without insights. But the insights are mostly in quotations from those people who saw at the time what was happening and sought in vain to deter the university administration from its feckless and farcical policies. Downs’s own comments are pedestrian at best.

The Cornell tragedy began with one of those good intentions with which the road to Hell is paved. When James Perkins became president of Cornell in 1963, it had an almost totally white faculty and student body. When I joined the faculty two years later, I did not see another black professor anywhere on this vast campus. Perkins, like other presidents of elite colleges and universities, sought to increase minority student enrollment—and to do so by admitting students who would not meet the existing academic standards at Cornell. The emphasis was on getting militant ghetto kids, some of whom turned out to be hoodlums who terrorized other black students, in addition to provoking a racial backlash among whites.

This combustible mixture led to escalating episodes of campus disruptions and violence by black militants, each episode being rewarded by the administration, while fending off faculty demands for punishment with glib pieties and evasions.

Black students who complained about threats and violence from the militants could not even get to see university officials, while the militants themselves had easy entry to Perkins, whom they increasingly insulted to his face. There was massive capitulation to militant demands for their own black studies center, free from the academic standards and controls found in other departments and programs—and all this was before the guns-on-campus crisis.

The armed occupation of Willard Straight Hall was about reprimands—mere reprimands—received by some members of the Afro-American Society for previous disruptions and violence on campus. It was a demand for exemption from the authority of a duly constituted faculty-student disciplinary body that had dared to slap them on the wrist. Apparently existing de facto double standards were not enough, though such double standards were so well established that, when a parent, evicted from William Straight Hall by the students taking it over, phoned campus security, the first question he was asked was whether the students who had evicted him were white or black. When he said they were black, “I was told that there was nothing that could be done for us.”

While Downs presents ample quotations from both supporters and critics of the Cornell administration, his own comments seem heavily constrained by political correctness. Arguments presented by militant black students are repeatedly taken at face value, even though cynical misrepresentations were at the heart of the key events he writes about. For example, supposedly the militants got guns to defend themselves after a cross was burned in front of one of the black dormitories and a brick was thrown through one of the windows of another. Now, decades later, it comes out that these were acts committed by the militants themselves to win campus sympathy—a foretaste of the Tawana Brawley hoax of later vintage.

Downs begins his account of the seizure of Willard Straight Hall by conceding that criminal actions took place and apologizing for telling the truth (“the truth must be spoken”). This is followed by apologetics for those who committed these acts (“remember that the students were young and angry”). However, no such hand-wringing accompanied his curt dismissals of the local sheriff’s deputies who were waiting on the fringes of the university as “intolerant young rural toughs, eager to unleash their brand of justice against unruly students.” How did he arrive at this conclusion? Not even a full sentence is devoted to this sweeping indictment.

It so happens that the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus and in town was not apparent to me during the four years that I taught at Cornell and lived in Ithaca. Nor did I find the local police to be “intolerant young rural toughs,” not even when I was pulled over for speeding at about a hundred miles an hour on a deserted highway at midnight. There was even a certain humor by the cop who handed me the ticket, advising me to keep an eye out for police cars before doing that again. It was good advice, though I never had another occasion to use it.

Certainly there was a racist backlash among some white students after innumerable incidents of unpunished violence and disruptions by black militants, as well as other needless provocations by ghetto kids with chips on their shoulders. The racial atmosphere on campus became so charged that one of the black students moved in with my wife and me to escape dangers from both blacks and whites in the dormitory. The local black community in Ithaca was also not thrilled by the importation of hoodlums by radical chic whites at Cornell.

It never seems to occur to Downs that how people conduct themselves has something to do with how others react to them. This applies across the racial lines. One of my white colleagues who had a somewhat hippie look complained to me that he was treated rudely in a certain clothing store in Ithaca—a store where they were all but obsequious to me when I came in wearing my only Hart, Schaeffner & Marx suit.

Accuracy may not be this book’s strongest suit, judging by things I am in a position to know. For example, it says on page 184 that the sit-in at the economics department office in 1968 took place on a Friday, as part of a pattern of having such things happen on Fridays for tactical reasons. In reality, the economics department sit-in took place on a Thursday, April 4, 1968—the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Three days after the takeover of the student union, Eric Evans (left) and Cornell University President James Perkins address a campus rally of eight thousand. The president informs the crowd that the faculty council had just voted to overturn a reprimand of three student protesters, one of the main demands of the occupiers of William Straight Hall. (Photo courtesy of Cornell Alumni News.)  

Also contrary to this book, I did not resign from Cornell in June 1969, after the crisis, but in August 1968—eight months before the crisis—effective at the end of the academic year. Nor had I been “considering the move for some time,” as Cornell ’69 claims. I was not considering the move for even a second, because I had already made it—and had not spent even a day considering my resignation the previous year, after discovering a typically contemptible action by the Cornell administration. Such misreporting makes me wonder how many other inaccuracies there are in this book.

Omissions are also troubling, especially in a book that is so wordy about small details. One of the most obvious factors that receives virtually no attention were the serious academic problems of the black students admitted under lower academic standards. How much of their disaffection and alienation was a result of this painfully humiliating fact, obvious to the whites around them, and how much was due to the “racism” that they claimed to see everywhere, is a question that needed exploration, however politically incorrect it might be to discuss such things. But this is a non-issue in this book, where more attention is given to one of the militant leaders’ supposedly almost straight-A average. Since transcripts are not shown to outsiders without authorization and the student himself is now dead, was this a verified fact or part of the romantic folklore that has grown up around this episode?

At the time, I was sufficiently alarmed by the well-known fact that half of the black students were on academic probation that I went over to the administration building and checked the files. It was here that I first learned of a pattern that would prove to be all too common at elite colleges and universities across the country: Most of the black students admitted to Cornell had SAT scores above the national average—but far below the averages of other Cornell students. They were in trouble because they were at Cornell—and, later, Cornell would also be in trouble because they were there. One of the other omissions in Cornell ’69 is that some academically able black applicants for admission were known to have been turned away, while those who fit the stereotype being sought were admitted with lower qualifications.

One of the few people who came through the Cornell debacle with flying colors for courage and integrity was a slender young black woman named Pearl Lucas, an assistant dean who refused to kow-tow to the militants or to go along with the cant of the administration. She was fired on trumped-up charges, ruining her career. Yet, the half page devoted to her in this book mentions none of this and simply depicts her as an integrationist who had “tensions” with separatists. Apparently this was just part of Downs’s emptying his notebook, when the story could have been told in the same space he frittered away on pedestrian details.

Despite commemorative writings that appeared in 1989 at the twentieth anniversary of the 1969 guns-on-campus crisis and now the thirtieth anniversary Cornell ’69, it may well be the fiftieth anniversary in 2019 before political correctness has subsided enough for a trustworthy and in-depth examination to be published.