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Cornell's Student Revolt of 1969
A Rare Case of Democracy on Campus

by Caleb Rossiter

May 1999

Originally published in The Progressive, Ithaca, NY, 05-May-1999

Illegal Acts on Campus, April 1969:
The Vietnam War and The Straight Takeover


In the second week of April 1969, 266 young Americans were killed in Vietnam. They were fighting in a war that was illegal under U.S. and international law, with tactics that combined the worst of both sides illegal acts in today's conflict in the Balkans: NATO's bombing of civilian infrastructure and Serbia's ethnic cleansing. Due to the institutional racism of America that kept blacks out of college and its draft deferment, it is likely that a disproportionate number of the 266 killed in Vietnam that week were black.

Cornell was helping further these illegal acts, training students in ROTC to be field commanders and performing war-related research for the Pentagon in both the social and hard sciences. Nobody at Cornell was ever punished. Indeed, the only American ever punished for the millions of Vietnamese deaths in this illegal war was Army Lieutenant William Calley, who served a few months under house arrest for the massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai in 1968.

In the third week of April 1969, 100 young Americans in the Afro-American Society (AAS) took part in an illegal occupation of Willard Straight Hall. The takeover was spurred by a faculty-student judicial board's decision to punish black students for a disruptive protest the previous December, and by a cross-burning at a black women's dorm that most black students believed was the work of whites (although it may have been a closely-held provocation by a small cell of blacks). Whatever its trigger, the takeover was the culmination of a two-year campaign to force Cornell to open what became the Africana Center, an academic setting where students could learn about such things as high rates of black combat deaths. After white students briefly broke into the Straight under the eyes of the campus police, the occupiers armed themselves.

After the AAS marched out of the Straight a day later, thousands of other students and a core of progressive faculty formed what became known as the Barton Hall Community. This occupation effectively shut down the campus until the faculty, fearing armed intervention by New York State authorities and the risks to life that would entail, reversed its initial position, and ratified the administration's agreement to drop the penalties from the December protests.

The leaders of the occupation of the Straight were punished in Tompkins County Court for the coercion they used to clear others out of the Straight, but not for bringing in the guns. Under New York State law at the time, bringing in the guns was one of the few things the occupiers did that was, in fact, perfectly legal.

Guess which crisis, which violation of academic freedom, the rule of law, and democracy we are still hearing about today on campus, Cornell's murderous support for the Vietnam War, or the uncivil but non-lethal tactics used by the AAS and the Barton Hall Community to promote black studies?


Did "Political Correctness" Start with Cornell's Crisis?

Donald Downs, a Cornell graduate who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has just published a lengthy history of Cornell's crisis, Cornell '69. It is the first major treatment of the crisis since the three chapters I included on it in my 1996 book on the anti-war movement of the 1960s, The Chimes of Freedom

Flashing. I sincerely hope Cornell '69 is not seen as the definitive work on the crisis, because Downs loads his book down with a caustic running commentary that portrays the Barton Hall Community, or anyone else who disagreed with the tiny minority of faculty who resigned from Cornell to protest the faculty's reversal, as fools, knaves, or sheep.

Along with its caustic commentary, the book does a worthy job of presenting a detailed and fair presentation of all sides' viewpoints, although it contains a few of the inevitable glitches of any history relying on participants' self-serving memories. For example, Downs hilariously allows the bad penny of campus politics,

David Burak, a graduate student leader of the Students for a Democratic Society who tried to spur a stampede to take over another building just as the crisis was nearing a resolution, to paint himself in retrospect as a moderating rather than inflammatory force.

Progressive professor Eldon "Bud" Kenworthy (not "Eldron," as Downs says) stopped the stampede by promising to join students the next day in a takeover if the faculty did not reverse itself. A bit of checking in local news files could have found Burak's public attacks on black students who weren't in the Straight as "the black bourgeois (sic)who don't realize what's best for them," and his later bizarre history of passing out "dope is good" leaflets at a junior high school.

Downs has written a fable in which the leftist threat to academic freedom he sees today was born in Cornell's devotion to social justice as well as to the life of the mind, and then came to maturity in Barton Hall. (This devotion, by the way, started in 1865, with Ezra Cornell's dream of practical and accessible education and the acceptance of the land grant that fueled it, and not, as Downs argues, in an esoteric debate about the nature of the university in the 1960s.) Downs shows how

President Jim Perkins's devotion to justice led Cornell to increase black freshman from four of the 2300 students entering in 1963 to 94 in the class entering in 1968, and how that critical mass of black students demanded a more hospitable campus and an education that respected the reality of the historical oppression of their ethnic group. Out of those demands, and Cornell's slow and confused response to them, came the takeover.

You have to read to page 264 to be finally let in on the mystery of Downs's commentary, of why his book seems to be channeling the thoughts of the ghost of Allan Bloom, a professor who left Cornell in disgust after the faculty's reversal and got his revenge in the bitter 1980s best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind:

The Barton Hall Community signified the beginning of the "political correctness" that took off in the 1980s, when activists of the 1960s -- the heirs of Perkins -- began to hold positions of power in universities.

There you have Downs's thesis, which was also Bloom's: the unruly students in Barton Hall seized power to challenge and defeat the basic tenets of Western Civilization & academic freedom, the rule of law, and democracy. This hyperbole calls to mind the response of Mahatma Ghandi when he was asked by a reporter what he thought of Western Civilization. Ghandi, a famed disrupter and violator of the laws that had been brutally imposed on his colonized country by the heirs of Aristotle, Martin Luther, and Shakespeare, replied dryly: "It would be a good idea."

How severe are the threats to free speech on campuses today? I think speech is freer than it was in the 1950s, when the voices of women, minorities, and critics of U.S. foreign policy were rarely heard. And if students and faculty with beliefs that defy the conventional wisdom, whether from the left or from the right, pull in their horns in the face of angry responses, that's their failing. In El Salvador in 1989 the entire intellectual leadership of the finest university in Central America was executed by U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion for speaking their minds. As soon as the new rector, Father Paco Estrada, buried the six dead professors and administrators, he was out restating their case. For all the analogies made by both sides in the Cornell crisis to the "fascism" being practiced by the other, let's not confuse our campus disputes with the real thing.


Two Cheers for Cornell

The case by Downs and Bloom against the Barton Hall Community, and against Cornell's acceptance of its demand for reversal of the penalties, fails in part because their definitions are wrong. A university is not a democracy with a rule of law, but a corporation that makes and breaks its own rules as its Board of Trustees sees fit. There is no mechanism available for democratic decisions other than perceptive administrators' gauging of the majority will. In such a setting, if a demand for change is denied, it can only be realized through disruption, like the Boston Tea Party that came after Britain rebuffed petitions from the colonial legislatures.

Even in its initial response, Cornell's faculty seemed to understand that because its rules were not rooted in democracy, they lacked legitimacy. Aware that white students had not been punished for similar anti-apartheid protests, the faculty didn't reject out of hand the AAS's demands for dropping the charges, but rather said they could not do so in the atmosphere of coercion brought on by the presence of guns on campus. The Barton Hall Community wasn't much moved by this stand, since it was meeting in the actual shadow of ROTC's guns on campus, the artillery pieces and naval cannon used for training officers for combat in Vietnam.

The overturning of the Cornell faculty's initial refusal to nullify the penalties for disruptive political protest was probably the most democratic instant in Cornell's history, because the consent of the governed, the students, was controlling. Having put the university back on a reasonable course, the students receded to their normal role of customers buying an education. The wording of Downs's own complaint shows this to be true. If the revolts of the 1960s had really taken power away from administrators and faculty and put it in the hands of students, there would be no position of power for the aging activists he castigates to occupy today. Students only assume campus leadership when galvanized by obvious wrongs that rally a clear majority of students, like the Vietnam War and apartheid.

The end of both, by the way, was hastened by disruptive campus protests.

Downs and Bloom's case also fails because their assessment of the risks of violence is too mild. The fears of the majority of students and faculty about bringing armed police in to end the crisis were fully shared by the people who would have ordered the police in, like Tompkins County District Attorney Matt McHugh.

The killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State colleges in 1970 during anti-war protests should give us all pause to consider what happens when armed enforcers meet student protesters -- and in those cases, the students themselves weren't even armed. It could well have been "shoot first, ask questions later" if the National Guard or the hundreds of sheriffs' deputies who were gathered downtown in Ithaca had been brought onto the Cornell campus to root students out of occupied buildings, and had heard the back-fire from an old muffler.

Cornell's crisis was a remarkable education for students, faculty, and administrators. They all had to grapple with fundamental questions of authority, civility, duty, and loyalty in the maelstrom of wild rumor, danger, and real consequences. Most students and faculty were proud of their performance during that invigorating yet terrifying week, and respectful of those who disagreed with their position. So two cheers for Cornell for weathering its crisis. I have to hold back the third cheer, because of the one great failing of a minority of students and faculty under the pressure of that week: incivility.

In 20 years of working in politics in Washington, and in ten years of watching bitter enemies in South Africa and El Salvador forgive even murder and forge ahead together, I've learned what I didn't have the maturity to learn as a student at Cornell: one can disagree strongly while being respectful of your opponent's humanity and point of view. People who listens to your impeccable arguments and then reject them aren't insulting your core beliefs, but just expressing their own, and you have to assume their good faith and engage them in the continuing debate. Sit-ins can be successful without forcing people to leave, or forcing them to stay, or screaming or cursing at them.

My father Clinton Rossiter was a Cornell professor at the time of the crisis, and he had to swallow uncivil abuse from both sides. Tom Jones, an AAS leader who is now on Cornell's Board of Trustees, threatened my father's life in the crudest of public statements, statements for which our family still awaits an apology.

And three of my father's colleagues who resigned turned their backs on him, figuratively and literally, and never exchanged another word with him for the rest of his life. These sorts of acts damage the essence of a university more than a hundred disruptive protests.


The Spirit of '69

While running for Congress last fall, I was in Barton Hall during an alumni lunch, trying in that good old American way to pull as many dollars out of people's pockets as I could for my campaign. A group of students marched in, chanting slogans for Hispanic studies. I couldn't follow the intricacies of the dispute, but as the Arts College's wise dean Phil Lewis was to be the arbiter, I have confidence that a fine program will result . It was moving to see the students care enough about their culture and their university to take a stand. I wish they had stopped and discussed their leaflet with individual alumni rather than simply speaking from a bullhorn to the whole group, but they did show political savvy by rising when the Cornell band played the Alma Mater. That helped keep open their lines of communication with us old fogeys.

I talked to some of the protestors afterwards, just to say "thank you" for the vitality they had brought to the day, and the wisdom they had brought to the campus when they chanted one of the most important lessons Americans can grasp about politics: "No justice, no peace." The spirit of '69 lives on, the spirit that dared to disrupt business as usual, help end the Vietnam War and apartheid, and promote dignity for oppressed ethnic groups. We're all the better for it.

The Barton Hall Community was a successful expression of democracy, in all its messy glory, and those who kept Cornell '69 from becoming Kent State and Jackson State '70 should be proud they crafted a solution that saved lives and continued Cornell's bold experiment in the inclusion of oppressed minority groups. We should thank our lucky stars for the courageous administrators, all of whom were also professors, like Steve Muller, Keith Kennedy, Dale Corson, and Bob Miller, who advised and negotiated for President Perkins under tremendous pressure of time and uncertainty, and for thoughtful faculty like Hans Bethe,

Max Black, Fred Kahn, George Kahin, and Cushing Strout, who took responsibility for what nobody wanted to do, but which clearly had to be done, and led the push for the reversal that ended the crisis.

Those who predicted that Cornell's commitment to scholarship, service, and speech would die in 1969 had too little faith in our ability in the Cornell community to persevere. There was no tectonic shift in power to well-organized student interest groups following the administration's and faculty's capitulations, as had been predicted by Jones and Burak, who wanted it to happen, and by the resigning faculty, who did not. The university survived this challenge, and to my mind changed too little. Downs's polemic notwithstanding, today's students and progressive faculty should look to the Barton Hall Community and Cornell '69 for inspiration, not with regret.

Caleb Rossiter ( B.S., Human Development and Family Studies, '73, and Ph.D. , Policy Analysis, '83) was an adjunct assistant professor at Cornell-in-Washington in the 1980s, teaching courses on congressional and military policy. He is the author of Development Versus Diplomacy in Southern Africa: The Struggle for Bureacratic Control of U.S. Foreign Aid, 1973-1983 (Westview Press, 1985) and The Chimes of Freedom Flashing: A Personal History of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement and the 1960s (TCA Press, 1996), available at the Bookery. Currently director of a Washington foreign policy center, Demilitarization for Democracy, that advocates an end to U.S. arming of repressive regimes, Rossiter was the Democratic candidate for New York's 31st congressional seat in 1998.

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