Cornell 69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University


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More filters. Sort order. A fantastic book about Cornell's near-death experience, for which it turned out to be quite unprepared. Dense, well-researched, and well-written, the book presents all the actors with sympathy and understanding and gives both the big picture and the close-up details. Intentions were good all around, so how did this happen? The author was an undergraduate at the time along with my brother and now teaches political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin. Mar 25, Rolland rated it it was amazing Shelves: politics-and-social-science. This is one of the most thought-provoking and harrowing books I have ever read.

While the title of this book is misleadingly narrow, and risks attracting mainly readers with an interest in Cornell, there is truly so much going on in this book that is important, relevant, and ongoing in higher education - and our American culture today - that I hope more people take the time to read it. Disclosure: I myself never attended Cornell, nor know any people who were there at that time.

I discovered the This is one of the most thought-provoking and harrowing books I have ever read. I discovered the book on a family member's bookshelf. Perhaps the subtitle gives a better sense of the book's sweeping dimensions: "Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University," but that too fails to fully convey the gripping human drama inside. Focusing on the events leading up to the black student takeover of Cornell University's Willard Straight Hall and the apex of militant activism on campus, this book tells the story of an entire community's sudden and surprising descent into darkness, paranoia, and imminent threat of violence.

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Afro-American Society members who occupied "the Straight," perhaps fearing attacks from white fraternities or authorities, armed themselves, and violent revolutionary statements ensued, including veiled threats on individual faculty members. They - along with significant white student support - demanded amnesty and nullification of prior judicial punishments, and the creation of a new African Studies program. The faculty voted, under pressure and fear of violence, to accept the armed students' demands in what many interpreted as capitulation.

Following the crisis, senior faculty would leave, the president would resign, and there was a feeling that Cornell would never be the same again. The events that spring of shaped an entire cohort of Cornell alum, including the author who was a student at the time. This is a well-researched book, filled with personal accounts, and I found the progress of events riveting, especially as they clearly took on a momentum and life of their own.

No one actor was in control and the unfolding drama gave me a strange sense of the Curtain being pulled back, revealing the fates and gods at work among men. As the author hints, what transpired had many elements of Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, with pride, honor, overthrow of authority, and lust for power all themes. The author, political science professor Donald Downs, flushes out many primary characters in great detail - key faculty, administrators, and student leaders - and provides a chronological unfolding of events, while framing those events as a "watershed in terms of the tension between the pursuit of social justice and academic freedom.

In fact, Mr. Downs believes that is exactly the dynamic in that led to a faculty exodus. I credit Mr. Downs with providing a detailed portrayal of events, and being able to clearly articulate the many and changing viewpoints of students, faculty, and administrators - plus those of the outside police and press.


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Never do his framing and conclusions come across as reductionist, heavy-handed or as personal agenda. He preserves the humanity of the people portrayed, and expresses a sympathetic understanding of the pressures and difficulties of leadership in that moment. Nonetheless, Mr. Downs does contend that the basis of liberalism was under siege, and that there was insufficient will and effort to support the principles of liberal education when they were under attack.

And so it's worth being specific. The "principles of liberal education" at risk were freedom of thought and inquiry; intellectual honesty; a commitment to reason; tolerance of dissenting viewpoints; a focus on fundamental virtues and universal questions; and adherence to the law and the processes of justice primarily to protect freedom of thought in the midst of coercion, threats, and violence.

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The most aggrieved students did not embrace these principles as inviolable. Especially in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. With increasing force, several asserted that Cornell was an instrument of corruption and injustice, guilty of reinforcing the oppressive structures of power, and should be overturned and recast, through violence if needed. This vocal minority of the black student community managed to intimidate and silence dissenters within their own ranks and present a strong message of uncompromising power and fearlessness to the administration.

Other student groups, drawn by a sense of justice and opposition to authority, joined this opposition. The introduction of guns escalated the message and the stakes. A violent confrontation seemed imminent, and the potential loss of life real. Under these circumstances, outside law enforcement was primed to reassert order over the campus, and president Perkins prioritized working with the students and averting violence.

While the author views the outcome as failure to protect core academic principles, its worth pointing out that violence was averted. There was no loss of life. At what point do principles become worth fighting for, even if that could mean lives damaged or lost?

Cornell ’ Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University – Ying Ma

The answers to that question varied tremendously among campus leaders. That said, it is clear that the administration lost control of the situation, and the author clearly shows that it was not campus leadership that prevented a violent confrontation anyway, but rather the last-minute appeal of a sympathetic professor to a student horde of thousands, followed by a student leader's creative reframing of the moment.

The gathered masses, poised to transform into an outraged mob, instead settled into a largely peaceful sit-in. Cornell ' Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University. University of Illinois. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Article PDF first page preview. Issue Section:. You do not currently have access to this article. Download all figures.

Sign in. You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? Don't have an account? 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.

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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. 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 packed house of 10, Cornellians longed for an appropriate administrative response, but Perkins amazingly never addressed the issue at hand. What was once unthinkable started becoming thinkable. A revolutionary situation was at hand.


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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.

Interviews with the deputies revealed that many were aching to charge up the hill, guns at their ready. 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. Would they uphold the principles they had defended on Monday? Or would the Barton Community, now reveling in its new-found power, prevail instead?

Déjà Vu All Over Again at Cornell

At stake was what kind of university Cornell would become. President Perkins made a humiliating trip to Barton to ritualistically congratulate the assembly.

Moderate student pushed to right by 'Ivy League liberalism'

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.

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

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