Editor’s note: Our excerpt from Cornell: A History, 1940–2015 by Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, and Isaac Kramnick—which chronicled the student protests that precipitated the end of in loco parentis in the Fifties—garnered the largest reader response in recent memory. A sampling:
A little humor about the “riot” (“Campus Confrontation, 1958” September/October 2014). That spring I was a freshman electrical engineer, exhausted by the academic pressure. I had not had a date since high school, so the party image suggested by President Malott seems like nirvana. Yes, I stood on his lawn that night—but I restrained a nearby student from throwing an egg at him. I was wearing a very distinctive black-and-white plaid jacket, and a photographer took a close-up of me and other nearby students. Unfortunately, it appeared the next day on the front page of my hometown (Buffalo) Sunday newspaper under the bold headline “10,000 CORNELL STUDENTS RIOT FOR SEX.” I immediately knew how my church-going parents would react.
I was right. My father was furious. My mother and grandmother cried and prayed for my redemption. My fifteen-year-old brother quietly bragged to his friends that I was a hero. (Sadly, my jacket mysteriously disappeared that summer, along with my baseball card collection.)
Ah, the Social Code riots of 1958. Relatively unappreciated was the sly response of several of my friends in Telluride. They prepared signs reading “Condemned by Theresa” [chair of the Faculty Committee on Student Activities and Conduct], to be placed in front of benches, bushes, and nooks conducive to making out. But the pièce de résistance was a “Condemned by Theresa” banner, to be placed on the top of the ultimate—shall we say—Freudian symbol of Cornell, Libe Tower. But how would they gain access? They approached me, a chimesmaster.
I was torn. On the one hand, I had a loyalty to the University, to the Chimes, and to myself. President Malott had been severely provoked and, if caught, I could face expulsion, three months before medical school. On the other hand, this was delicious. I went for it.
We crept upstairs at 2 a.m. and tied the banner, furled, to the bottom of the balustrade above the clock face, facing the Straight plaza. At 9:30 the following morning, we reappeared with scissors. Unfortunately, this was the one day of the year that the Cornellian was being sold, at a desk by the tower entrance. But the esprit of the times was intoxicating; we had come too far to back out. We entered the tower and climbed to the top. Twenty minutes later, timed to catch the crowd coming out of the Straight after their morning coffee, we cut the restraining cords, the banner unfurled, and our few supporters downstairs cheered.
We barreled down the stairs, startling the pigeons that roosted in the narrow windows. But the tower struck back: we hadn’t reckoned on its updrafts. Without bottom weights, the banner billowed, rendering it illegible. Within a few minutes, it had been removed.
We weren’t caught, and the irony of my friends turning temporarily subversive—while living in Telluride and being shaped to become pillars of American society—never came to light. Had the banner been legible, I think the prank would have been up there with those of Hugh Troy ’26. Of course, they were all surpassed by the pumpkin caper of 1997.
Many thanks for that fine picture of students on the Quad in the Fifties. It was taken in the fall of ’54 and appeared on the cover of the Alumni News. That’s me and Harry Hutton ’53, BME ’54, dead center. The well-dressed students, freshman beanies, and ROTC uniforms remind one of a better day.
As for Ms. Fuentes’s diatribe in Correspondence [about the allegedly sexist logo of Cornellian-owned Valentine Vodka]: there are far bigger problems in the world than a picture on a bottle.
Deane Malott was vigorously opposed when the faculty learned in 1951 that he was under consideration by the Board of Trustees to be named president of the University. He was president of the University of Kansas at the time and his only degrees were from Kansas and Harvard Business School. He had no scholarly background. His major accomplishment before he was named to head the University of Kansas was a stint with the Dole Pineapple Company.
The problem was that the Cornell faculty had exhausted its considerable power by opposing the Board of Trustees’ first choice, Cornelis de Kiewitt, a historian who was acting president from 1949 to 1951 after the death of Edmund Ezra Day. (Dr. de Kiewitt went on to become the highly respected president of the University of Rochester.)
Malott arrived in Ithaca in 1951 with appropriate pomp and ceremony. His inaugural address was delivered to a large crowd on the library slope. A few months later, the New Yorker magazine revealed that a portion of his speech was plagiarized from an essay by Harold Taylor, then president of Sarah Lawrence.
In “Campus Confrontation 1958,” we are told that President Malott, having asked whether there was nothing the faculty found unacceptable, precipitated the joke, “Yes, Mr. President: plagiarism.” But this was no joke for many Cornellians, who felt a simmering antagonism to him almost from the moment of his inaugural address, because of the national publicity and attendant humiliation generated by his own alleged plagiarism and cavalier response. (A brief description of the New Yorker’s discovery of the plagiarism can be found in the third volume of the papers of Professor Fred Marcham, PhD ’26.) Those students who were involved in the protests were especially contemptuous of the president’s obsessive appeals to ethics and morals and felt free to reiterate what had been pounded into them in freshman English: that in the world of the academy, the only unacceptable behavior was plagiarism. However, my own memory is that despite the indifference of many, and the institutional silence of the administration and local media, the students involved had an all-too-clear sense of the hypocrisy of their elders.
Much has been said about Cornell’s “Silent Generation” of the Fifties. The CAM piece seemed to suggest that the students of these years were deficient in social awareness, unwilling to address needed social changes, etc. Having been on the Hill from 1952 to 1958 I disagree with those conclusions.
The times were the aftermath of World War II. Our parents—the so-called Greatest Generation—had survived the Depression and struggled through the deprivations of the war, all the time providing for us kids growing up in a shaky economic environment. I and many of my peers were the first generation of our families to attend a residential college pursuing at least a bachelor’s degree. Our parents sacrificed greatly to send us away to college; we were their pride and hope for a better future.
We were at Cornell to get an education, not to risk suspension by skipping classes and attending protest rallies. I hardly remember most of what the CAM piece detailed, although I do remember the disturbance at President Malott’s house. My friends and I all read the Sun, but felt that the heated rhetoric should not be allowed to get in the way of a real education, as we saw it. And we could not imagine disappointing, even crushing, parents and grandparents who scraped to put us through college.
We thought that a proper education should be the first thing a person should get before charging out to change the world. I think that many of the excesses of subsequent years might have been avoided if student leaders had learned about the world as it really was, not as their often-privileged upbringing had provided them. After that, a Cornellian might then try to rectify the social ills of society, which we were aware were many.
The excerpt in CAM brought back memories of that turbulent time on campus. I was there, in the midst of it. The reflections and reminiscences on that era prompted thoughts on my life as an academic after graduating from Cornell. I was a philosophy major in the mid-Fifties, a time of great prominence of the department.
I was one of the “independent” (non-Greek) students who thought of ourselves as aspiring intellectuals. With zero or one degree of separation from the leaders of the movement described in the excerpt, I joined them. But how did that involvement—getting rid of parietal rules, a relatively small development—affect my subsequent intellectual life?
Until I read the article in CAM, I hadn’t realized how much. The chapter from Altschuler and Kramnick’s book reminded me of how my views were transformed in 1958. We students—at least the women—viewed in loco parentis as the norm. Even if we were more liberated by our parents at home, these were the rules at Cornell. The movement told us we could challenge the rules.
Since then I have been challenging the rules. My professional and social commitments have led me to question authority, in responsible ways. It began way back then, with engaged student leaders. My professional work has focused on ethics in medical practice, research, and health policy, seeking to ensure that the lives of patients, subjects of medical research, and vulnerable populations can be improved and their rights guaranteed. Thanks to Cornell—and in part, to the activism of 1958—my life’s work has been dedicated to this goal.
I was an officer of the Student Council in 1958–59, and challenged Ms. Humphreyville’s outrageous statement that “apartments were conducive to petting and intercourse.” As a fraternity member and an apartment resident, it was apparent to me that the 40 percent of independent men would be deprived of a normal social life if the Malott Administration followed through on its threatened ban on access to off-campus apartments.
The scene in front of Sage was scary. The organizers of the riot had placed their supporters on the steps where they effectively drowned out anyone who suggested negotiation of the issue. This was my first experience with a mob. Looking back on that night, it was and still is disappointing that a large group would follow the few who urged a march to the President’s house.
Their efforts, ill-advised as they were, brought results. Our subsequent meetings with Malott showed that he had a short fuse whenever any of our six-member cabinet said something he didn’t like. In fact, he refused to meet with us in the fall of 1958 and ended a tradition of regular meetings with our predecessors.
My takeaway from the events of May 1958 is that repression doesn’t work, but that one completely loses one’s identity and control if he or she is foolish enough to join a mob. Anyone who thinks the Fifties produced a silent generation is mistaken.
A caption at the top of page 36 misidentified one of the red-tailed hawks nesting on campus. The bird is Ezra, not one of his offspring.