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March / April 2009
Getting It Straight
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Tuesday, 03 March 2009


JONES: Words have power. They have a purpose. When I used words like "Cornell has three hours to live," it was a metaphorical statement. Because if violence erupted, it would have been the end of Cornell as we knew it. The University never would have recovered from the disgrace of bloodshed on campus. I think it would have marked Cornell even more deeply than Kent State came to be marked by the deaths that occurred there.

student protests
Dissenting opinion: A student urges the faculty to reject the deal between Cornell and the AAS.

Eventually, the campus calmed down. In a decision that prompted a few resignations and much lingering resentment, the faculty opted to accept the agreement with the AAS, some out of fear that events would spiral out of control if they insisted on punishing the occupiers. With many professors deeply disillusioned with Perkins, the writing was on the wall; at the end of the semester, he resigned and Corson became president.

JONES: I'm not proud that an implicitly violent act was used to settle a dispute, when that's counter to everything that the University stands for. I'm certainly not proud that President Perkins became a scapegoat for the rage that erupted. He was a good person and that is the tragedy of these things. Sometimes it's the good people who end up suffering the most. Wars and human conflicts have a lot of innocent victims. Many of the black students never recovered and many of them never finished at Cornell. These things take a toll.

DOWNS: The students got everything they wanted, pretty much, and went off and did their own thing. And so the racial segmentation that had existed before reasserted itself. The average white student, speaking generally, went his or her way. The black groups went their way, and some black students had a foot in both worlds. But there were certain things you had to be careful about saying aloud in public. You didn't want to say something too politically incorrect because it might get you in trouble or raise these kinds of tensions again.

LAFEBER: The wounds continued to fester for more than a generation. At the 1999 commemoration, I was struck by how current many of the remarks were. There were still recriminations and hard feelings. Some faculty relationships were broken in '69. People quit talking to each other. Some of them never began again. I think those were the exceptions, not the rule. But the faculty did divide, because the issues were fundamental. If you were going to take a position for academic freedom, then you were essentially saying no to the people who occupied the Straight. The faculty felt intensely about it, because we were going to have to stay here long after the students who were doing the protesting would leave. We were going to have to live with the consequences.'Frankly, I do not think Barack Obama would be president today without what we did in Willard Straight Hall in 1969. He stands on our shoulders.'

DOWNS: I think there were two effects—one good, one less so. The good is that it opened up the University to minority students. The civil rights movement moved into higher education and Cornell was a pioneer. On the negative side, it was the beginning of the politicization of universities, in which groups with certain political and moral agendas started pushing them in a way that could conflict with the intellectual mission of the university, which is the pursuit of truth and encouraging as many viewpoints as possible. In some ways, it was a harbinger of the culture wars that came to universities in a bigger way beginning in the Eighties, like speech codes.

MCLAUGHLIN: Our parents and communities expected us to reap the benefits of the federal civil rights legislation, to be trail-blazers for opportunity, but even though the laws had changed we were still confronting the mindset of racism and inequality. It was a hostile environment. That experience traumatized a number of students of color. Some of us became professionally successful, but it doesn't mean that it didn't have an emotional cost. It looks victorious now—and yes, we have a stellar Africana Studies and Research Center. But nobody really discusses the emotional costs.

JONES: Was every decision right? No. It's like being in the fog of battle. Stuff happens and you make decisions on the fly. You do the best you can and all you're thinking about is, we've got to win.

McLaughlin, who attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver, went to Washington for the Obama inauguration. Taking refuge from the cold, she witnessed the swearing-in on a big-screen TV in a packed restaurant with an "intergenerational, multicultural crowd."

MCLAUGHLIN: It was one of those pivotal moments, and I equate it to my participation in the Willard Straight Hall takeover. I was part of something bigger than myself. Some call it history; others may call it the struggle for human dignity.

JONES: Frankly, I do not think Barack Obama would be president today without what we did in Willard Straight Hall in 1969. I believe Barack Obama stands on our shoulders. The Straight was part of a series of historical events that began with Rosa Parks in 1955 and continued through the Sixties with the Freedom Riders and the marchers at Selma, Alabama, and made possible this magnificent thing that happened in January 2009. I think we're part of a chain of history. I'm not saying the most important part, but we're one of the links.


Comments (22)Add Comment
written by Jonathan S Krauss MD, March 09, 2009
I was graduated in 1966 and missed the Straight takeover, however, I do note the commentary that many faculty disapproved of Perkins' handling of the crisis. I believe this article might have benefited by identifying which faculty left Cornell because of the administration's handling of this incident and what these ex-faculty later accomplished. This incident caused Cornell much grief.
1972, 79
written by Gerald Gluck, Ph.D., March 17, 2009
I was standing in fron of the store and not 20 feet away as this picture was taken during my first year as a doctoral student. One thing that was never mentioned is that the division in the faculty and the way in which Clinton Rossiter, The John L Senior Professor of American Government, was treated because of this incident contributed greatly to his death. I was his last graduate student. He was a casualty of this conflict. I still mourn his passing.
MA '67, Ph.D. '68
written by Haskell Rhett, March 17, 2009
As a graduate assistant I met with admissions and financial aid committees in 1965 as we discussed the incoming freshman class, which had a significant increase in African-American students. One staff member wanted to discuss the effect Cornell would have on those students, and from the back bench I responded that we would be better off considering the effect those students would have on Cornell. There's a snapshot of the existing mindsets in that exchange.
written by Elaine Poon, March 17, 2009
Thanks for publishing this story. It is inspiring, thrilling, and makes me so proud of being a part of the Cornell legacy. I hope that Cornell continues to play a role in our struggle for progress for years to come.
written by John Egan, March 17, 2009
I was a freshman in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and lived in U Hall #2. As soon as it became known that the Black Students had armed themselves inside the Straight, we were "locked down" inside the dorms. I did attend the Barton Hall community rallies later in the week and became "radicalized" by the speeches and issues at that time. I began to feel a sense of empowerment that energized me to subsequently participate in "teach-ins" and the Anti-war protests in DC. One of the slogans made popular at that time was "The whole world is watching!". This event did more to teach me to use my life to "make a difference" in the world than anything else before or since. I also attended the Inauguration of President Obama this past January and felt the empowerment of the moment that I first felt at Cornell in April of '69.
B. S. 1971
written by Brenton Hill, March 17, 2009
I am glad to see this article as there are some things I had forgotten or did not know. At the time I thought the event was extremely stupid, dangerous and for some of the participants an example of political correctness run amok. I still believe those elements were present, but I now also see that people were just not talking or listening to each other, especially listening. The occupation was polarizing and was a temporary setback for campus racial relations. We can learn from it but we should not celebrate it.
written by Juanita E. Goss, March 17, 2009
I was a part of the takeover. One important event happened later in the timeline. Our first African-American studies center was at a house on a hill across from Ridley Hall. It was right around the curve of a street name that I have forgotten over forty years. I recall that a carload of us New Yorker City students were returning from a weekend at home. It might have been Thanksgiving? I will never forget the terrible feeling I had as I turned the curve. We all gasped as we saw that the center had been burned to the ground. As far as I know, the perpetrators were never caught. It was rumored that it was the frat boys that did it, in retaliation for the WSH takeover. As I read the article and related commentary, I feel immense pride that I was part of the event. We believed so deeply in what we were doing. We were committed to the fight. Those were the tumultous times. It was boiling point around Viet Nam and after Malcolm, King and John and Bobby Kennedy. We were as fed up as the song warns "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge!"
written by Cynthia Ravitsky, March 17, 2009
I was a junior in the Ag school at the time, and learning to throw pottery on a wheel that spring. I went to the Straight to work in the pottery studio, which was located on the lowest level. So as usual I went to the small door in the back of the basement level, opened it, and started in. (I was oblivious about the take-over going on.) I was immediately confronted by a tall African-American carrying a bandolier with ammunition over his chest. He pulled me inside, shut the door, and asked "What are you doing here?" Stunned and frightened, I told him I had come to work on my pottery! He thought for a moment, than firmly told me, "You don't want to be here. Go back home." He then opened the door and let me leave. When I got back to my room, I found out about the take-over. I was amazed then, and now, at how calm he was, and how he was able to treat me considerately and help me to avoid getting in the middle of the crisis. I think that person was Eric Evans, based on the photo.
written by Marc Rivera, March 17, 2009
Thank you for this account of the WSH Takeover. I realize that the Takeover represents a low-point for Cornell in the eyes of many faculty and alumni, but the Takeover and the legacy of activism that have followed are large part of the reason that I LOVE my alma mater.
1986 (MILR)
written by Carol Kates, March 18, 2009
I moved to Ithaca from New Orleans in 1968, and knew one of the participants, who told me at the time the guns were not loaded (has this been verified?), and the students were surprised by the level of fear created by their action. It seems what may have been intended as theater (assuming there was no intention of shooting at frat boys), has now been inflated in some minds to a necessary condition for the election of Barack Obama! In fact, non-violence was the essential condition for the success of the civil rights movement. The claim that a student confrontation with academic liberals in Ithaca should be compared to the rebellion of Rosa Parks, the Freedom Rides, and the Selma march would be funny if one had no idea how dangerous those actions were.
written by Doris Grayson, March 18, 2009
Our Cornell Liberal Union was in the vanguard of groups demanding that more African-American students be admitted to Cornell. When I was a student the only students of color were from African or the Caribbean, save maybe 5 or 6. I was part of the "collegetown crowd", politically and/or socially conscious students who opted out of the fraternity/sorority clubs. Doris Grayson '63
69 MRP
written by Stuart Stainman, March 18, 2009
I was a graduate student in 1969. One of our professors was a nationally prominent expert of Polish background who survived the Holocaust. He was traumatized by the militancy of the Black students, the disruption to campus academics and lack of toleration for opposing views. He imagined a repeat of Hitler taking over universities,burning books, and worse. The next academic year he moved to another univerity and Cornell lost the benefit of his presence.
written by Susan Goodspeed Anderson, March 19, 2009
In the spring of '61 I joined a group of interacial-interfaith students who toured the southeastern United States. Even then cracks in the whiteness of Cornell were developing. I have come to understand that a large part of the value of my Cornell education was growing from sorority (I later withdrew) to the real world in my four years. I am proud that the Straight takeover continued the growth of the institution from the small liberal arts-ag school founded by White and my great X4 grandfather, Ezra, to the complex community it is today.
written by David Mason, March 19, 2009
I was a senior government major in 1969. I have set up a blog to commemorate and reflect on the events of spring 1969, for those who would like to contribute. If you have not done so already, you should read Don Downs' book "Cornell '69" about these events. When I did so recently, I was astounded to find out how much was going on around me in those days. Mostly I was oblivious!

written by Tom Nisbet, March 21, 2009
I still don't understand why the leaders of the Straight takeover weren't arrested and proisecuted--oe, at very least, Kicked off the hill forever. I'm also surprised that the authors didn't interview central players like Steve Muller. It's a dirty shame for Cornell that the occupying thugs stayed, while Muller had to leave. But then, he didn't need Cornell anyway, going on to bigger and better things at Johns Hopkins.
written by jeffrey a. klopf, March 24, 2009
I was there when these awful events occurred. To this day I cannot believe that this criminal behavior went unpunished. It took years for cornell to recover from this mess. I regretted the loss of many great professors in the Government Department who refused to stay at an institution that no longer respected the rule of law. I was at Cornell during the 1970's when the school had virtually no money because alumni, who were humiliated by what had occurred, stopped giving. The campus deteriorated, good faculty left, maintenance was postponed, construction of new buildings stopped. I am disappointed that the CAM chose to celebrate these sad events.
written by Eric Evans, March 24, 2009
To Carol Kates,
At that time, state law defined a loaded gun as having a cartridge or shot shell in the chamber. Thus, a gun could have a full magazine but, as long as there was not a round in the chamber, it was legally defined as being unloaded.

To Tom Nisbet,
The leaders of the Boston Tea Party were not arrested and prosecuted, either. Their issue was, "No taxation without representation." Our issue was, "An organization in which we are not represented cannot judge us or discipline us."

To Cynthia Ravitsky,
Thanks for the compliment.
written by Nadene Reid, March 30, 2009
"A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction"
-Rita Mae Brown, writer

As a member of the Class of 2009, I would like to say thank you to those who participated in the WSH Takeover.
Law 1966
written by Lewis C Taishoff, March 31, 2009
I was in Vietnam in an engineer company when the takeover took place. At the time I had other concerns. Reading the account in the alumni magazine, the event was indeed a turning point, but Cornell was forever changed.
1987 Arts
written by Darrell Butler, April 01, 2009
As many students of color can attest, part of our orientation at CU is learning about the WSH Takeover. It became the fuel that continued my burning flame of activism during my campus days in the mid '80s. I recall a sparked interest in CU during my high school days in St. Louis, MO after someone mentioning the political activity of Cornell's student body. I was pleased upon arrival to hear of those brothers, sisters, and supporting white students who lead the way for us in subsequent decades. Thank you for your unwavering fight for our future at a time when you could not foresee it.

The "changed Cornell" as some have called it is the Cornell that I am proud to call my Alma Mater. It is the place of education that strongly defined my growth in intellect, critical thought, and eventually my current business in diversity and inclusion.
1956 BA
written by Richard Terhune, April 03, 2009
It is very discouraging to me not only that these criminal acts were not ever prosecuted, but also to read here how too many have draped this crime with a cloak of noble purpose. If it were done today in the Middle East, they would undoubtedly call it "terrorism".

It seems that the teaching and practice of critical thinking at Cornell dropped off a lot after I left.
written by Bruce Taylor, March 11, 2015
I miss one part of the Straight takeover timeline in this article. I was a freshman in 69. On the night of the Barton Hall "takeover" students were circulating through the West Campus dorms, letting us know that SDS had planned a meeting in Bailey Hall, and that the odds of their voting to take over another building were high. SDS believed in "participatory democracy," which meant that anyone could attend a meeting and vote, regardless of whether they were SDS members. A number of us felt that we needed to attend, if only to vote down a new takeover and prevent a violent outcome. The crowd was way too large for Bailey, and the group migrated to Barton. Word was that the hard core of the SDS was unhappy that all these moderate students were present, but SDS speaker Dave Burak declared that the Barton Hall meeting constituted a takeover, which backed the hardliners into a corner. We were there not just to support black students but to protect Cornell from a more dangerous outcome. Tough decisions for very young adults to make, but I'm proud that so many of us showed up for this. Some of the faculty never forgave us, but we were there on the front line. Where were they?

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 March 2009 )