As Cornell launches its sesquicentennial celebration, it’s time for an update. A History of Cornell, the much-admired account by Morris Bishop 1913, PhD ’26, ends in 1951, with the naming of Deane Malott as the University’s sixth president. A great deal has happened since then. So, eleven years ago, the task of bringing Cornell’s history up to the present was tackled by Glenn Altschuler and Isaac Kramnick, two of the University’s longest-serving and best-known professors. Altschuler, PhD ’76, is the Litwin Professor of American Studies and dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions. He also served as vice president for university relations. Kramnick is the Schwartz Professor of Government and was vice provost for undergraduate education from 2001 to 2005. They were given access to presidential papers in the University Archive and drew from a wide variety of other sources— including this magazine. Their book, Cornell: A History, 1940–2015, has just been published by Cornell University Press. In this exclusive excerpt, the authors recount the tale of the “apartment riot” of 1958, a seminal event that foreshadowed much campus turmoil to come.
In the Fifties, Cornell was slow to sense the new mood of postwar students with respect to sexuality, which was shaped, in part, by the returning World War II veterans, who felt themselves quite capable of regulating their own personal and social conduct. This would lead to a dramatic confrontation between students and President Deane Malott in 1958 over the University’s claim in loco parentis to regulate student social and sexual actions and even at titudes.
There was a foreshadowing of this cultural lag in late 1953, when Malott took offense at the presence of what he la beled “filthy words” in a short story published in the student literary journal, the Cornell Writer. The president complained in a letter to Baxter Hathaway, the English professor who was the faculty adviser to the publication, that because “Cornell” appeared on the masthead, “a public relations problem” loomed. He urged Hathaway to re move obscenities from future published student pieces. The president’s anger reveals much about him and the en suing confrontation between him and the students. The story, “Indian Love Call,” by Ronald Sukenick ’55 (who became an English professor at the University of Colorado and author of five novels), contained, in fact, no obscene phrases, no four- letter Anglo-Saxon words, no anatomical or even erotically charged passages. The filth Malott objects to is clearly the general “immorality” in the story’s portrait of college life, which is a narrative about drunken, dissolute college students—disaffected intellectuals whose friendships include casual sex, never described.
Hathaway responded to Malott’s letter with the claim that “I have no business to act as censor.” Not all students write as their predecessors in the “Genteel Tradition” did, he added in a mini-lecture, describing the new “realist school” in contemporary fiction, concerned with “real-life behavior.” Hathaway concluded by noting that “there is a point somewhere within which the educational pro-cess must be protected against the demands of good public re lations.” An infuriated Malott replied, “I cannot believe there is literary or educational value in filthy words. I sup pose as an administrator it is scarcely appropriate for me to have opinions on education, but certainly to publish filth seems even to a layman scarcely a part of the educational process, regardless of how educational may be either the reading or the writing of it.”
Malott immediately referred the matter to the Faculty Committee on Student Activities and Student Conduct, which that spring had done his bidding by reprimanding editors of the Cornell Daily Sun and the Widow for “obscene and profane material appearing within their pages.” The president urged a similar rebuke to the editor of the Cornell Writer and the author of the offensive story. With the Daily Sun editorializing against “the forces of right eousness, virtue, and purity on the Cornell campus” and English professors opposing what they labeled the “clear- cut trend to bring open expression of student thought under tight control,” the Faculty Committee declined to act on the president’s request that the two students be reprimanded. The story was “a bona fide effort in the field of modern realistic writing,” the committee held, even if, as committee members acknowledged, it “went beyond the limits of the standards of good taste.” Around campus, jokes were told of faculty responding to an angry Malott asking if there was nothing professors found unacceptable, with “Yes, Mr. President, plagiarism.”
The faculty would soon have its authority in such matters undermined. When the same Faculty Committee in late 1953 allowed male students to entertain women “guests” in unchaperoned apartments with two or more rooms, if at least two non-freshman women students were present, and permitted the women to remain in the apartment until midnight, or 1 a.m. on Sunday, the president had had enough. Ignoring a poll that revealed that half of women students thought they should be allowed to visit men’s apartments “under any circumstances,” he decided in May 1955 to move responsibility for supervising and disciplining student conduct and extracurricular activities from the faculty, where it had resided since 1901, to the president. Despite almost unanimous faculty disapproval and the resignation of the dean of the faculty, William Farnham 1918, LLB ’22, the Board of Trustees changed the University’s bylaws so that the formerly autonomous Faculty Committee would henceforth be appointed by and re port to the president. Whereas usually seventy-five to one hundred professors showed up at faculty meetings, 300 came to the one responding to the Mal ott-inspired board action. A resolution condemning the bylaws change as “contrary to sound educational policy” was passed by acclamation. So began the multiyear Malott “morals crusade.”
Skirmishes saw Malott’s own dean of women, Dorothy Brooks, recommend in the spring of 1957 that, except for a ban on freshman women, all regulations on apartment parties be abolished. Brooks pointed out that 62 percent of parents gave “blanket permission” for their sophomore daughters to attend parties. Malott would not budge, writ ing to the chair of the Faculty Committee—a committee that now reported to him—that allowing male students an unrestricted right to entertain female students in their apartments at night would be “in complete disregard of con ventional mores and morals.”
The conflict escalated after a particularly alcohol-sodden Spring Weekend, which saw a student, Frederick Nowicki ’60, die in the University infirmary from a fractured skull suffered in a fifteen-foot fall from a second-floor porch at Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 11, 1957. On Sunday, Malott called a group of student leaders to his office. He demanded that they take action to prevent any recurrence of “rowdiness, vandalism, and public displays of drunkenness.” Agreeing that “wild and drunkard parties” had to be prevented, the students promised to establish new social standards for parties. In the fall, they proposed earlier closing hours, along with limitations on “party-hopping” and “public” drinking. The President’s Committee on Student Activities, which had recently imposed an unpopular alcohol ban in Schoellkopf Stadium, found the student-authored social code inadequate, especially in controlling sexual activity, and in December announced much more stringent rules. The committee specified, for example, that for four hours, from 3 to 7 a.m. Saturday and 4 to 8 a.m. Sunday, at overnight parties, there could be no one of the opposite sex present in any room or house on or off campus.
In January 1958, the Student Council by a vote of 16–0 rejected the Faculty Committee’s “university social standards,” as did the Interfraternity Council and the Women’s Self-Government Association. Malott replied by informing an open meeting of 350 students, faculty, and administrators in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall, with another 175 students listening to a broadcast of the session in nearby rooms, that neither students nor faculty had jurisdiction over matters in the social code; the Board of Trustees gave authority to him alone over such issues. When asked about the appropriate role of the University in setting up a “standard morality” for students, Malott shot back that “students should conform to the mores of the society in which we live. Most students have acceptable habits of conduct. Some do not, and have to be controlled.”
A tense truce persisted through most of the remaining spring term. Invoking historian Carl Becker’s already canonical words, Malott repeatedly insisted on the need for student responsibility to temper their excessive freedom. The Daily Sun in its editorials, letters, and columns responded that “the imposition and codification of responsibility is a dangerous precedent to set. It is not a question of Freedom with Responsibility, but of the insult given to the students by the imposition of rules, which if followed make the student moral and responsible, which if broken make the student immoral and irresponsible.” The chair of the president’s Faculty Committee, Theresa Humphreyville, who taught in Home Economics, defended the code in terms of the University’s role “as a parent, providing a place to live, and an atmosphere to meet and get together, both normally the functions of a family, a role which parents put the University in. The University feels responsible for what happens to students while they are here.” She told a Student Council meeting that “there was just too much social activity at the University. Anything which limits partying provides an opportunity to pursue academics.” In response, Cornell erupted in the first broadly based “student power” protest of the kind that swept American campuses during the Sixties.
Open warfare broke out in mid-May, when Humphreyville and Lloyd Elliott, the executive assistant to Malott, informed the Student Council that the president’s Faculty Committee was seriously considering restoring the ban on unchaperoned parties in off-campus apartments. Apartment entertaining, Elliott told the council, “was not in the best interests of an educational environment leading to co-educational achievements.” The University “should lead in the ethics and moral development of students.” Humphreyville added that “since the apartment situation is conducive to petting and intercourse it is an area with which the University should be properly concerned.”
Students countered first with a flurry of letters and opinion pieces in the Daily Sun. “No amount of legislation is ever going to prevent society—much less students—from ‘necking,'” an editorial proclaimed. “The administration is operating under the magnificently false assumption that our parents do not trust us unchaperoned in a room with the opposite sex,” wrote Stephanie Green ’59. “The main rationale for the Committee’s contemplated action is a Victorian belief in the fundamental immorality of sex; the administration plans to change bad old Cornell into a Bible Sect Seminary,” claimed another student, “name withheld.” “It is time for the University to abandon its ill-conceived and non-purposeful attempt to impose moral ‘standards’ on its student body,” declared Stephen A. Schuker ’59. And Jay Cunningham ’58 asserted that “what really hurts is seeing the University set itself up as a molly-coddling goddess, a sort of Johnny-come-lately Mom in the form of a new and all powerful pseudo-parent.”
On Friday and Saturday, May 23 and 24, the students took to the streets in anti-Malott rioting, in an unprecedented protest against their own administration. The leaders were John Kirkpatrick Sale ’58 and Richard Fariña ’59, who shared an apartment at 109 College Avenue. Sale, the son of Cornell English professor William Sale, had grown up in Ithaca and in 1958 was editor of the Daily Sun. He was a student radical, who a year and a half earlier had written a Sun opinion piece that decried student apathy and acceptance of the Fifties status quo. “Cannot Cornell take its place with other people across the country in refuting the abominable notion of The Silent Generation?” he asked. Sale’s editorials relentlessly criticized Malott for treating students as if they were children and encouraged students to take direct action. On May 13, he had written, “Let Cornell students not sit passively by once more while the President’s Committee takes away privileges and attempts to define morality for the undergraduate. If there is resistance to the elimination of apartment parties, let it be formulated now.”
We know from Fariña’s critically acclaimed 1966 novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, that “resistance” was in fact being planned. Fariña, whose first writings appeared in the tainted Cornell Writer, and who would also become a respected folk singer and composer (and husband of Mimi Baez), would die in a motorcycle accident two days after his novel’s publication. The novel describes endless drug- and drink-filled planning sessions in the spring of 1958 with campus anarchists and the editor of the Daily Sun. They designed protests against “Sylvia Pankhurst” (Fariña’s fictional Cornell vice president, a composite of Humphreyville and Elliott), who, the novel relates, “actually said that male apartments, if you follow me, are conducive to petting and intercourse.”
One thousand students gathered in front of Willard Straight Hall at ten o’clock on Friday morning, unsure of what was going to happen until Sale stood up and addressed the group: “We’re here to protest the social code, and the crushing of the faculty. Today is a day for action. We don’t need people who are going to chicken out.” The group then marched to Day Hall, chanting such slogans as “We want Malott shot” and “No ban.” Malott, “tall, tanned, graying, and tending toward natty blue suits and red neckties,” according to Newsweek’s account, had already “made a fortunate escape.” Eventually the crowd circled the Arts Quad and returned to Day Hall. Sale announced that the women at Sage Hall would stay out late that night to protest the proposed ban and the existing curfew rules. The group then sang the Alma Mater, but before breaking up at 10:50 to go to classes, a few students threw eggs at Day Hall, some of which splattered the dean of men, Frank Baldwin ’22, who had been speaking to them from the steps of the building, and whose daughter Polly [Mary Baldwin Gott ’58, BFA ’59] was one of the protesters. Despite this incident, a faculty observer deemed the protest “orderly and good-natured,” commending the organizers for stationing students in front of the doors of Boardman and Goldwin Smith to prevent anyone from interfering with classes.
That night, more than 3,000 students gathered in front of Sage to urge women students to stay out after the 12:30 a.m. curfew. Some of them carried flares and torches, and from time to time firecrackers were set off. Officers of the Student Council and the Women’s Self-Government Association tried to calm the crowd. P. K. Kellogg ’59, president of the council, said he had met with University officials that afternoon and saw some evidence that administrators might not impose the ban.
‘We’re here to protest the social code, and the crushing of the faculty,’ Sale said. ‘Today is a day for action. We don’t need people who are going to chicken out.’They were shouted down as “puppets” with cries of “We want Sale.” And they got him. Proclaiming “what we need now is less Student Council and more student body,” Sale asked the group if they wanted the new tighter rules governing house and apartment parties, and a chant went up: “We want a new president.” When more than 100 women did not return to their dorms after 12:30, the protest turned nastier, with a burning effigy of Malott hanged from an elm tree in front of Sage. Sale and others took down the effigy, put out the flames, and tried to convince the crowd that, having accomplished its purpose of encouraging women students to break their curfew, it should disperse. When a few students cried out that the protesters should march to the president’s home in Cayuga Heights, Sale tried—and failed—to dissuade them.
Deane Malott was the first president of Cornell not to live in Andrew Dickson White’s house on central campus. He resided about half a mile away, on Oak Hill Road in a University-purchased home. On this particular weekend, he and his wife, Eleanor, had as houseguests John Collyer 1917, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and his wife. On Friday afternoon the Coll-yers had presented the University the new Collyer Boathouse. On Saturday morning at about one o’clock, a leaderless throng of almost 1,000 students arrived at Malott’s house, trampling the lawn and landscaping, setting off a smoke bomb, and throwing eggs and stones, all the while chanting “Go back to Kansas.” Appearing on his front steps, Malott told them, “This University will never be swayed by mob rule.” Obscenities were shouted at him, and some windows were smashed. On seeing the demonstrators, Mrs. Collyer reportedly said to her husband, “Are these the boys you are giving the boathouse to, John?” The next morning, Sale, who had not gone to Cayuga Heights, said that he “regretted the violence against President Malott, and expressed the hope that there would be no further violence on campus.”
It was too late for regrets. Sale, Fariña, and two other students were suspended by the dean of men on Sunday night for “inciting fellow students to riot.” They were not permitted to attend classes or otherwise appear on campus until the Men’s Judiciary Board considered the charges against them. Sale repeated his criticism of the violence at Oak Hill Road, but condemned the president and “the entire attitude of the Cornell administration over the last eight years to limit the student voice, to limit faculty powers, and to impose standards of morality and social behavior on the students.”
As the Men’s Judiciary Board, composed of eight undergraduates appointed by the Student Council, considered its verdict, there was a flurry of activity on campus. A petition supporting the four students was signed by 1,860 Cornellians, and a sit-down strike at Day Hall to end the “reign of error” was called off at the urging of friends of the suspended students. Lloyd Elliott, an architect of the social code, resigned, to become president of the University of Maine. He was replaced by John Summerskill, one of the directors of the new Gannett Health Clinic, associate professor of clinical and preventive medicine, and an authority on student psychology. With a new title, vice president for student affairs, Summerskill quickly orchestrated a meeting of the four suspended students with Malott to apologize for the violence. A bit chastened, perhaps, the president asked Summerskill to create an advisory committee of students “to assure a constant and free flow of opinion and understanding between the administration and the students.” Speaking on WVBR, Theresa Humphreyville backed away from a ban on unchaperoned parties, claiming to favor “spot checks” to assess “their effect on the general social atmosphere at Cornell.” Off campus, the protest was front-page news in the national press, with the New York Journal-American story displaying the headline Four SUSPENDED BY CORNELL AFTER 2-DAY RIOT OVER GIRLS. The San Francisco Chronicle‘s story was headed STUDENTS STNE HEAD OF CORNELL.
In a meeting that began at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday and lasted until 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Men’s Judiciary Board decided to put Sale and Fariña on “parole” and to give reprimands to the other two miscreants. The board rejected suspension, it reported, because none of the four “had participated in the acts of violence which marred the demonstrations.” Because “they had in large part contributed to the atmosphere out of which the violence arose,” Fariña and Sale were required by the parole to be under the direct supervision of a faculty member or University administrator to whom they had to report periodically.
Sale had the last word in a full-page editorial in the Daily Sun a month later on graduation day. Anticipating the general mood of Sixties student radicalism, he offered a blistering attack on “the lack of a sound intellectual atmosphere at this campus,” where there is no longer any chance “for a student talking and thinking with his professors.” He was convinced that “as long as the fraternity social atmosphere at Cornell is dominant, the intellectual life of the students is irreparably damaged.” The Malott administration, Sale added, “seems to have had very little regard for the magnificent tradition of Cornell.” Day Hall was “far too impressed with efficiency . . . too [much] big business and not enough Cornell,” and all too willing to trample on “student rights and student freedom.” Sale would become a founding member of the national Students for a Democratic Society, the history of which he would write in his long career as a public intellectual and author of books on Columbus, Robert Fulton, and the Luddites.
During the Board of Trustees meeting on that very weekend, Collyer presented a telegram from Humphreyville suggesting that the board should annul the parole of Sale and Fariña, suspend them, and thereby prevent Sale, a senior, from graduating. The trustees declined, voting 18–7 to uphold the decision of the Men’s Judiciary Board. The trustees also voted, however, “that John Kirkpatrick Sale be not admitted for further study in any division of the University without approval of this committee.” Meanwhile, graduating Hotel school students gave Malott a two-layer marble cake with the note, “Whenever you receive eggs from students in the future, they will be in this form.”
Malott remained ambivalent in the wake of the riots. Sobered by the intensity of student anger, he seemed content to turn over student issues to Summerskill and the newly created Student Advisory Committee. He would accept dramatic policy innovations brought by Summerskill that fall. But a part of him resented the catastrophic ending of his morals war. “My attempts to bring the University within a framework of decent standards is primarily the cause of their rebellion,” he insisted. Three days later, however, he wrote to the president of Ohio University that the mob was “not vicious or malicious” but simply “trying to make a point—which I don’t think was valid, to be sure, that they were getting too many rules and regulations inhibiting their social activities.”
Malott was particularly hurt by a trustee revolt over the affair, led by Arthur Dean 1919, JD ’23, and Maxwell Upson 1899. In the midst of the May crisis, Dean had urged privately “that the President has to be relieved of his central, untenable position in the handling of these social disciplinary cases.” Upson went even further, becoming the ringleader of a veritable coup, unsuccessful to be sure, but the nature of which he ultimately shared with the president in an unusually candid letter. He had, he wrote, been “under great pressure from many of my co-trustees, the alumni and professors” to do something about “the marked and severe criticism of some of your methods, during the past three or four years.” Upson assured Malott that he had defended him in the past, “always hoping and expecting a betterment of the situation.” But the events of the spring “reached a degree of seriousness that caused me to feel it was my duty to take steps to rectify the situation,” in which the “reputation of Cornell was being seriously menaced.” One possibility involved “putting you in as Chancellor and finding an understudy who would have charge of relationships with the faculty, the students, and the alumni. The areas of most serious discord.” Happily, Upson wrote, with the installation of Summerskill, and the realization “that you were leaving him completely alone, permitting him to handle the whole matter,” such an intervention proved unnecessary. Reassured, Upson “deeply regretted succumbing to the trustee pressure” and felt that there was no longer any justification for board interference, since it was evident that “[you had decided to] delegate responsibilities and . . . discarded your offensive operational methods.” He concluded with “a sincere hope my confidence is going to be justified.”
Malott replied with an unapologetic defense of his morals crusade. He knew little about “the charges which you and apparently others whose names are unknown to me have made”—and was astonished that “some of you have become so frightened about my ability and fitness.” Malott assumed the trustees shared his determination “to cut down on the drinking, licentiousness, and wanton sexual misbehavior—the extent of which I do not believe you realize and which was out of hand when I came in, and if you think this can be done without some upheaval, you are in my opinion expecting the impossible.” He had ended the traditional faculty role in supervising student conduct, the president noted, because “the faculty here has long had a wide reputation for an almost libertine sense of freedom; I am frequently kidded about it by other university presidents.” Reminding Upson of the many “letters of backing from alumni and parents over my stand, and Cornell’s objectives, at the time of the deplorable demonstrations,” Malott expressed regret that “I displease those whom I look to for wise council [sic].”
The headline in the Daily Sun greeting second-semester students in January 1959 was BIG CHANGE . . . FALL 1958: A NEW ERA OPENS. The hero was John Summerskill, “who, like David, is out to slay Goliath. What he seeks to destroy is the atmosphere of distrust between students, administration, and faculty which has characterized relations among these groups for the past few years.” If the students, faculty, and administration supported this David while “he stoned the creature of their own making to death, it would be the happiest thing to have happened at Cornell in years.”
Malott assumed the trustees shared his determination ‘to cut down on the drinking, licentiousness, and wanton sexual misbehavior—the extent of which I do not believe you realize and which was out of hand when I came in.’Summerskill restored the faculty, which had been alienated by the 1955 trustees action, to the process of making policy in extracurricular affairs. In the miracle fall of 1958, the deans of the seven undergraduate colleges produced a fifteen-page report on student activities and conduct. They urged that jurisdiction over student activities and conduct be put back in the hands of committees composed of elected faculty and student representatives, concluding that “the University cannot undertake to act in loco parentis, if this means maintaining concern for and supervision over all aspects of the student’s life—social, moral, and religious as well as intellectual. The University should not attempt to spell out rules, regulations, and codes governing student behavior beyond the bare minimum necessary in any society.”
In a rare display of unanimity, the faculty accepted the deans’ recommendations, which had already been endorsed by various student groups. At the end of their meeting on December 17, 1958, faculty members broke into loud applause to commend the report, which brought back a supervisory faculty committee over student conduct, appointed by and reporting to the faculty, but giving students substantial control over their own affairs. The restored Faculty Committee delegated actual power over student affairs to a central student government body with responsibility for writing actual codes to govern student conduct. In the Daily Sun‘s coverage of the faculty vote, passing reference was made to the effect that “President Deane W. Malott has already announced his support of the measures.” According to the Sun,
Eight months have seen a virtual miracle. Salvaging the wreckage of an outmoded and disastrous policy, John Summerskill—and it does not seem unfair to give so much credit to one man—has led the Cornell Administration forward to the point where it is on the verge of becoming one of the most progressive in the country. . . . And it cannot be doubted that it was the demonstrations which signified the end of the old era and the beginning of the revolution.
The Cornell “miracle” fall of 1958 was the beginning of the end of the University in loco parentis. Dwarfed in subsequent accounts of the Cornell story by the events of the spring of 1969, and its relationship to national racial issues on college campuses, the “apartment riot” of 1958 deserves to be accorded its true historical significance. From East Hill a wave of student anger at being told when, where, and how they could personally interact with other students would sweep through American universities and lead to the end of parietal hours, curfews, and most university restrictions on social conduct. It would be an important part of the general student unrest of the Sixties over other aspects and attitudes of American life that students also repudiated as what they considered the misguided follies produced by the insensitivity and arrogance of their parents and their universities.