Cornell '69, 40 Years Later

I was a senior government major at Cornell University in the spring of 1969, when the campus was in turmoil after an armed takeover of the student union building by eighty members of the campus's Afro-American society.

I would like this site to be a discussion forum for participants and observers of those events--a retrospective after 40+ years.

To contribute your thoughts and reflections, click on the "Comment" tab at the end of the "Remembering 1969" post or any of the other posts.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Frank Borman, Carl Sagan and SDS at Cornell 1969. Information request.

I received the following interesting query from researcher Alan Andres regarding the visit of astronaut Frank Borman to Cornell's campus in the spring of 1969.  If you have any leads on this, please contact him, or leave a message here.

I am trying to research a visit to Cornell in the spring of 1969 by astronaut Frank Borman and his wife Susan. This followed shortly after the flight of Apollo 8, but I'm not certain of the date and whether it happened before or after the Willard Straight Hall incident. Borman conducted a series of visits to university campuses that spring including Notre Dame and Columbia, and encountered protests and unrest at a number of them. While at Cornell Borman was hosted at the home of Carl Sagan where he was confronted by members of the SDS who asked Borman about war crimes in Vietnam, a subject Borman said he felt unable to address in his capacity as an Air Force Colonel in NASA's astronaut office. His account of the Cornell incident appears on pages 235-236 of his 1988 autobiography Countdown. There is no mention of his visit in the Cornell Daily Sun that I can find. In the book, Borman mentions that Sagan was an advisor to the SDS, however this is not something that I can find documented elsewhere. Can anyone shed light on this incident, and ideally, does anyone have images from Borman's Cornell visit?

You can contact Alan Andres at 'alan' to be found at ''

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"People Were Ready to Die That Day"

Dale Corson, the Cornell official who helped quell the 1969 protest, and then was named president of the university, died in April, at the age of 97. In the obituary appearing in the New York Times on April 6, Homer Meade, one of the occupiers of Willard Straight Hall, said Dr. Corson had an acute understanding of "how close we were to a Kent State." "He knew a lot of us in that building, and he understood that people were ready to die that day," said Meade.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost and Found: '69 Class Ring with "LH" Initials

Are you missing a '69 Cornell class ring with the initials "LH" inside? Or do you know a '69 grad with those initials? If so, see the note below, which I received from Liz Tower, who had seen this blog.

I am writing with an unusual situation. Approximately two years ago, my husband unearthed a 1969 Cornell University class ring while doing a construction job in Buffalo, NY at JFK High School Football field. At that time, I called the University to try and find it's owner and received little assistance. It's been in the bottom of a drawer until I ran across it again recently which is why I am writing to you.

It is a man's ring with the initials (LH) on the inside and a 4-digit number. It is a goldish color with a garnet colored stone. Is there any way you could assist me in getting this to the correct person? If so, I would appreciate it.

If the ring is yours, if you have any clue to whom it belongs, you could contact me (Dave) through this blog, or directly contact Liz at

Friday, October 15, 2010

Alison Lurie's "The War Between the Tates"

Alison Lurie's 1974 campus novel, The War Between the Tates, is a roman a clef partly inspired by the 1969 events at Cornell, and set in "Corinth University" which seems mighty like Cornell.

I had not read this novel before, and did not know of the Cornell connection, until a reader of this blog asked if I knew of a novel depicting the 1969 events at Cornell. I asked around, found, and read The War Between the Tates. It is not really about the '69 events, but takes place about that time, and features a women's liberation group occupation of a conservative faculty member's office. The main characters in the story are a philandering government professor (Brian Tate) and his wife (and their children, who they do not like!) so the novel is more about generational and gender conflicts, and about marriage and infidelity, than about race.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alison Lurie, was an adjunct professor in the English Department at Cornell in 1969. She later received tenure there, and is now an emerita professor.

I have heard suggestions that the character of Brian Tate was thinly based on a real Cornell professor, though Lurie herself later said that the characters in the novel were composites, based on various people she knew at three different universities.
Another character in the novel, the conservative and sexist Professor Dibble, has also been compared to Cornell's flamboyant and outspoken government professor Allan Bloom. (Bloom was, in reality, much involved in the 1969 events at Cornell. And despite his political leanings, his introductory course on political philosophy, which I took as a freshman at Cornell, was one of the things that turned me on to government and politics).

The novel is an absorbing and entertaining read. And while it won't tell you much about the realities of Cornell in the 1960s, it is fun to immerse yourself in a fictional world constructed around a place and time that you actually experienced.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Homer "Skip" Meade, Before and After Cornell

Homer "Skip" Meade was one of the students who occupied the Straight in 1969, and appears in some of the dramatic photos of the group exiting the building, including the cover of Newsweek.

Sharon Matchett, who knew Homer in elementary school in New Jersey, offers her fond memories of him from those days in a "comment" buried deep in this blog, so I thought I should bring it closer to the fore! You can link to it here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Don Downs Reflects on 1969

Donald Downs, author of Cornell '69 reflects on 1969, and on his own book (published in 1999), in response to David Halperin's essay here on "Remembering the Straight--Without Pleasure, Without Pride."

[The following is Don Down's email to me, posted here with his permission]

Halperin's piece is very interesting, indeed, and I shared many of his thoughts and feelings at the time and now. When I wrote my book, I had to maintain the perspective of a researcher, not letting my own feelings and thoughts take over the narrative (though they did serve as data to some extent). Of course, as my book proceeded, it did take a narrative turn that ended up siding with Sindler, Berns, LaFeber, Kagan, and that camp. But it would have been interesting to have been able to be more personal, as Halperin was able to be.

Since writing the book, I have more sympathy for faculty's reversal, if only because it very possibly prevented a disaster from befalling Cornell. But then members of the faculty should have committed their own political act by doing something dramatic to show how angry they were about the necessity that confronted them, and how Cornell had sacrificed something that matters. (They could have submitted a collective resignation, or, short of that, a collective sit-in, or strike, or something similar.) As it was, a few resigned, while most limped back to their homes and their scholarly commitments. The lack of a political response meant that the trauma and recrimination would linger longer that otherwise would have been the case, for I believe that many would have regained a measure of honor that was sorely needed. I wish I had had this thought in writing Cornell `69, as it would have made for a more powerful ending. But, as you know, thoughts come when they will.

Regardless, I thank Halperin for his penetrating insight into the crisis, and his own reaction.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Remembering the Straight--Without Pleasure, Without Pride

The following essay was contributed by David Halperin (Cornell '69), who is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His debut novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator, will appear in early 2011 from Viking Press.

When Dave Mason asked me and other classmates for our recollections of and thoughts on the 1969 takeover of Willard Straight Hall by the Afro-American Society (AAS), I undertook to do exactly as he asked—set down my own memories of the episode and my responses to it, as faithfully as I could summon them. I held off reading Donald Alexander Downs’s Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (Cornell University Press, 1999), of whose existence I’d until then been unaware. I wanted first to get my own reminiscences down on paper—or disk—where I would not be tempted to alter them. I did look at Dave’s blog before I began to write; I believe the materials posted to it were the only things I’d read on the crisis for the past forty years.

Upon reading Downs, I discovered that my memories were mostly accurate but did require some correction. In what follows, I’ve made only stylistic changes in what I originally wrote for Dave, inserting in brackets the necessary modifications of fact. My overall view of the takeover has not been changed by my reading of Downs. In some respects it’s been strengthened.


I heard about the Straight takeover the morning it occurred [Saturday, April 19], when a friend of mine, M.T., found me studying on the ground floor of Olin Library and told me what had happened. My first reaction was revulsion. It seemed to me disgusting that inoffending people, mothers and fathers up for Parents’ Weekend, should be roused from their beds and forced out under threat of violence. M.T. acknowledged my point but said, “You don’t know; some of them may have evicted black people from their homes in the past.” The chickens, as they say, were coming home to roost. I didn’t ask whether there was reason to think any of the parents involved actually had been guilty of such wrongdoing. The idea of class guilt made sense to me then, in a way it no longer does. But I still felt something very wrong had happened, was continuing to happen.

My revulsion was not entirely disinterested. Like many or most Cornell students, I looked to the Straight as a place of comfort. I think I’d been looking forward to a study break there when M.T. came in and gave me the news. Now I was barred from it. But to a considerable degree my indignation on the parents’ behalf was real. By nature I was and still am an extremely conservative person. This conservatism was not a political stance but an emotional reflex, conditioned by prior experiences—notably, of spending my childhood and adolescence watching my mother sicken and die. (She died when I was 16, a little over a year before I came to Cornell as a freshman.) I felt change as something to be distrusted, alterations as likely to be for the worse. I had a corresponding respect for tradition, more concretely for my elders. This was not something you voiced too loudly in Cornell ’69, at least not in the circles I moved in.

Politically I came to Cornell, like many, a mild liberal. Unlike many, I remained so for the next four years. In my freshman year I moved from reflexive support for the Vietnam War (with admiration for LBJ, and also thoughts of Munich ’38) to a respectful opposition, better grounded in reality but largely conditioned by social pressure. That was about as radicalized as I ever got, although I grew a beard (a quasi-political act in those days) and sometimes imagined myself a radical. I doubt if anyone else ever saw me that way. It had been almost a foregone conclusion I would not join a fraternity. I lacked the social polish, detested the conformity. The “independent” circles to which I gravitated seem, in retrospect, just as conformist though more hirsute; I did make some genuine friends but preferred not to rock the boat. Within these circles a patronizing contempt for your family, which in effect meant your parents, was the norm. The generational antagonism, which I look back on as one of the driving forces of the time, wasn’t one-sided, and was a great deal more complex and ambiguous than most of us baby-boomers realized. But it was easier to sneer at Mom and Dad when both were alive and healthy. I say all this to give some context to my initial response to the news of the takeover, through which my subsequent awareness of events was filtered. Elders were elders, and weren’t to be treated this way without real and severe provocation.

It seemed to me then—not only that morning, but the rest of that fevered spring—that there’d been no such provocation. I know I was not alone in that view; I may not even have been in the minority. It certainly seemed so at the time, but it may just have been that supporters of the takeover were more vocal. As far as I was concerned, the takeover was a piece of brutal theater, without justification, without any purpose outside itself. In the days that followed I tested this perception against the unfolding events, and—perhaps not surprisingly—found it warranted. It is the perception I hold to this day.


The takeover was justified by its supporters in terms of the “institutional racism” of Cornell University. That this racism existed was taken as axiomatic, without any need for empirical support. We knew about the cross-burning (on the lawn [porch, actually] outside a black residence hall, I think [Wari House, the black woman’s co-op]), but I don’t remember it as having played any significant role in the defense of the AAS’s actions. Perhaps, even in the heat of the time, most people realized it made no sense to blame the university for a hooligan act performed under cover of darkness. We were also aware of the accusation that the AAS had burned the cross to give themselves an excuse for the takeover. I never heard any evidence to support this claim, and don’t know whether it had any grounding or was just a nasty suspicion. [Downs presents evidence, not all of it convincing, that this is essentially what occurred.]

But if Cornell was “institutionally racist,” then a thing like a cross-burning could be seen as an overt expression of what the elderly white masters of the university privately wanted but were not willing to say aloud. What reason was there to think this was so? The closest thing to an argument for Cornell’s “institutional racism” I ever heard was the following, delivered in a speech by one of the white radicals: In the days after the AAS’s evacuation of the Straight, some university official had expressed the hope things would begin getting back to normal. “Back to normal” is the same thing as “business as usual”; in America “business as usual” is racism; therefore Cornell is institutionally racist. There may have been less pathetic defenses offered for the charge of “institutional racism.” I can’t recall having heard any.

I have only a vague recollection of the demands made by the occupiers to lay down their arms [actually, to leave the Straight; they kept their guns], with one exception. There was talk about black studies, a black cultural center, but this all seemed nebulous and not very central. [The Cornell trustees had in fact approved a black studies program, more or less as the AAS wanted it, before the takeover.] The key demand was … that the AAS be amnestied for the takeover! So there you had it: carry out a violent occupation of a communal gathering place, and then demand, as the main condition for ending the occupation, that its perpetrators suffer no punishment. This is what I meant by the takeover being an act of theater, without purpose outside itself.

[This requires some modification. Though the demand for amnesty for the takeover itself was indeed part of the package, a more central demand—at least on paper—was for a different amnesty. A student-faculty judicial board had reluctantly imposed upon six AAS members the mildest available penalty, letters of reprimand, for acts of disruption and harassment they’d committed several months earlier. This was now to be “nullified.” My memory, and I suspect also my perception at the time, folded the one “amnesty” into the other. Readers can judge whether, and to what extent, my sense of the takeover as self-referential is hereby undermined.]


I was at the assembly at Barton Hall, the night after the faculty refused to endorse the administration’s deal with the occupiers. [The faculty meeting was Monday, April 21, the assembly Tuesday evening. I wrongly remembered the two as having been the same day.] I was accompanied by my friend J.H., who shared my disgust at the whole proceedings. To judge by the carnival atmosphere surrounding us, we were very much alone. On our way into Barton Hall, a group of women students behind us were singing “All power to the people”—then emended to “Black power to the people, right on!” and giggling. In Barton Hall, I recall Tom Jones taking the podium. I recall him declaring, in ominous tones, that if the faculty didn’t rescind its decision, the university would die at midnight tonight.

That is my recollection. The details may be wrong. It may have been someone other than Jones. [It was Jones.] The language used may not have been “die” but “cease to exist” or something like that. [It was “die.”] The deadline may not have been midnight. [It was 9:00 p.m.] But that one of the black spokespeople stood to pronounce the language of deadly threat—I can’t imagine I’ve remembered that wrongly. Then came other speakers, making responses. One male undergraduate, whose name I can’t recall but who had been in my Greek class the preceding fall, stood to say something like: I like this university, and I don’t want to see it die. His tone was not: Please, pretty please don’t do anything bad to us. It was, rather: How dare you make a threat like that? I remember this as having been the only public statement during the whole episode that was honorable, courageous, heartfelt. Another speaker, an anthropology professor whose name I remember all too well, took the microphone shortly after, or possibly shortly before. I’d taken this man’s course my freshman year; I had felt mild liking and respect for him. His response that night was to plead to the AAS [actually, to the newly constituted “Barton Hall Community”] for mercy. “Have compa-a-assion!” he bleated into the microphone, and his abject tone still echoes in my memory. I don’t think he actually got down on his knees, but that was the effect of the performance. To this day I cannot think of it without rage and disgust.

There were other speakers. Some time after the deadline—it must have been midnight [it wasn’t]—had passed and the university had not visibly died, someone got up to explain that it was spiritual death that was intended. Someone else explained solemnly that Jones, or whoever the AAS spokesman was, had used non-violent black language which we’d misheard, because we’d filtered and distorted it through our violent white minds.

In the days that followed I had some conversations with supporters of the takeover, about just what the AAS people had intended for the university’s demise. To one such person, I expressed my view that they’d intended nothing whatever—Jones’s talk was rhetoric, intended to demoralize and intimidate. The response: “Oh no, that’s ridiculous—they were certainly going to do something.” “Like what?” “I don’t know, but there was something planned.” “You ‘don’t know’ because there wasn’t anything. It was pure bluff.” “Oh no, that’s absurd, they certainly had planned something.” “Like what?”—and so on, round and round the mulberry bush, at least five or six times.


Tom Jones lived on my hall freshman year, in University Halls Three (which I understand no longer exists). I wish I could claim to offer first-hand insight into his personality, but the truth is I barely knew him. I doubt if he would even have recognized me if we saw each other on campus, which we seldom if ever did. He kept apart from the rest of us on the hall, conveyed that he had no interest in any kind of association with us, and gave the impression of being occupied by weightier concerns, though I may be misinterpreting as gravity what was simple sullenness. He did seem to be grown-up in a way the rest of us were not. In the fall of 1965 we were for the most part eager youngsters, launched upon what we imagined to be the great, scary adventure of our lives. We could hardly believe this was really it, that we were really at Cornell.

This I am sure I remember correctly: Jones’s mode of speech, in the fall of freshman year, was not what he used in public three and a half years afterward. His later speeches were delivered in what I thought of as a “ghetto accent,” diction and inflections that seemed appropriate for a street-wise black from an urban ghetto. In the fall of 1965 he did not talk that way. He sounded like any other well-educated young Northerner. I can only assume the ghetto-talk was an affectation, put on to suit his persona as militant black rebel. I also presume he discarded it again, when launching himself into the greener pastures of corporate America.


I have no idea to what extent the black students on campus actually supported the antics of the AAS leaders, and to what extent, in an unfamiliar environment and with no other apparent show in town, they were intimidated into going along. [Mostly the latter, apparently. Downs gives plentiful and shocking evidence for the bullying and intimidation of non-conforming black students—and the Cornell administration’s indifference to their plight.] I also don’t know the relation between the blacks who (like Jones, I assume) had been accepted into Cornell by regular admissions procedures, and those who were recruited in the summer of 1967 from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, to make Cornell more diverse. (I don’t know if that was the language used back then.) [Downs’ detailed account of Cornell’s recruitment of black students gives no support to my recollection of summer 1967 as a watershed. My recollection stands.] I do know that, certainly after that summer, black-white relations at Cornell were dismal. I gather that was the case on most elite college campuses.

Of course there were the “black tables” in the Straight cafeteria. It was something you just got used to, took for granted, after a while stopped noticing. I recall one Saturday evening in the cafeteria (not the Ivy Room, I think; the cafeteria adjoining it). The black students played music on the juke box, stood up en masse and danced to it. They were very demonstrative; it was impossible not to leave off the conversation you’d been having and pay attention to them, whether you wanted to or not. This was not part of what we’d come to know as the cultural norm at Cornell. You couldn’t feel irritated without also feeling like an uptight racist, but irritation was what I did feel. The student I was eating dinner with said, “Can you imagine people objecting to those people having some fun? After all they’ve been through!” I mentally told myself he was right—my feelings, as a privileged white, didn’t count for much; the space invaded by the noise and the dancing wasn’t really mine—and I kept my mouth shut. If I had decided the dancers had the right idea, and stood up to join them, I seriously doubt I would have been welcomed.

A few months before the Straight takeover [December 13, 1968], a group of black students ran through one of the libraries, dumping books from the shelves onto the floor, declaring “These books are irrelevant to my concerns as an Afro-American!” (as I remember the Cornell Sun quoting them) or (as quoted by a friend who claimed to have witnessed the incident), “This shit is irrelevant!” I loved books, regarded them as quasi-sacred objects. I couldn’t imagine throwing library books onto the floor just because you personally didn’t want to read them. I’ve often wondered what the librarians did while this was happening—whether any of them made any effort to defend their inanimate charges. Like the dancing in the cafeteria, this was no grave offence; just a sort of feather-ruffling. [Downs gives a slightly different version of the library episode, and provides a context of disruption in which it comes across far more ominous than I’d remembered.] But it exemplified race relations at Cornell, which had come to be represented (as they needn’t have been, in saner times) as a conflict of antagonistic cultures.

The worst was the memorial service that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, about a year before the takeover. I remember the hall—I don’t remember which it was, but it was enormous [Bailey Hall]—being jammed, with white and black students. I remember Martin Luther King being called a “black saint,” whose death nevertheless proved the futility of his non-violence. I remember a black spokesman getting up to declare that he was speaking to “my black brothers and sisters,” not to the “honkies” in attendance. We “honkies” would not be forcibly ejected, it seemed, but our presence was unwelcome and to be ignored. In those days it was taken for granted this kind of race-baiting was not only acceptable but admirable, provided it was done by the right people. A white student then stood to declare, as if in response, that he was speaking to “my black brothers and sisters and my white brothers and sisters.” I suppose what followed was a plea for racial harmony; I have no recollection of its content. The young man was not silenced but he was disregarded, as a quaint holdover from a bygone era, an embarrassment to all concerned. Afterward, in the Music Room of the Straight (where I hung out a lot), a female student spoke pityingly to me of his “insensitivity.” I never heard anyone mention the man’s fantastic courage—to stand up, solo, against that flood of aggrieved hatred—or his obvious good will. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t mention it either. Social pressure may not make cowards of us all; it often did of me.


I know Perkins was bitterly criticized for giving in to the occupiers’ demands. I recall one letter, printed in the Sun but obviously intended for the Cornell administration, that began: “A POX on you, who surrender to the armed barbarians!” I thought then, and continue to think, there wasn’t much else he could have done. It’s easy to talk about “standing your ground” when you don’t expect your own body to be in the line of fire, or to be detached about potential bloodshed when you don’t think your own blood is going to be shed. That summer, I had lunch at Princeton with a former professor of mine who had left Cornell for Princeton well before the takeover. He, like many Cornell professors, was bitter about the capitulation. He didn’t understand, he said, why water supplies to the Straight couldn’t have been cut off; that would have forced the occupiers out sooner or later without a police assault. I have no idea how such a scheme would have worked out in practice. I continue to believe that, if they didn’t want innocent people killed or maimed—recalling that police officers too were “innocent people”—the administrators couldn’t have done much different from what they did.

The hard-line faculty, surely with visions of Neville Chamberlain and Munich ’38 dancing in their heads [plus a pattern of escalating demands and disruptions at Cornell over the past months], seem to have expected something like the following. A coalition of radical and black students would in coming years present the university with increasingly outlandish demands, backed up by increasing threats of violence. Having surrendered once, the university would never again find the strength to resist. Before long Cornell would be gutted, ruined as an intellectually legitimate institution. In the years that followed, I never heard anything that suggested such a scenario had come to pass.

It’s true I didn’t pay close attention to Cornell politics after I left in 1969. But I did visit the place, frequently in the 1970s, sporadically in the 1980s. I kept in touch with friends who for one reason or another had stayed on in Ithaca. In 1982 I was interviewed for a faculty position at Cornell, which I was offered but decided not to accept. My reasons for turning it down had nothing to do with any sense Cornell was a disintegrating institution. It obviously wasn’t.

I visited Cornell for the last time in the summer of 1988, with my wife. What struck both of us was the number of posters, up all over the place, offering various forms of psychological counseling and support for Cornell students. This would have been unthinkable twenty years earlier. We’d known vaguely, as students, that the Student Health Service offered psychological services, but these seemed theoretical and remote. They were for people who were “crazy” or suicidal, certainly not us. We were clear-eyed young revolutionaries, or at least reformers, about to put the world to rights. (“Mothers and fathers throughout the land / Don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” etc. etc. etc.) We would have scornfully dismissed any notion of ourselves as broken souls in need of therapeutic intervention. It seems to me, in retrospect, that was precisely what we—or at least many of us—were. Only we didn’t know it. That was the real change that befell between Cornell ’69 and Cornell ’88.


I can’t imagine why Tom Jones (as quoted on your blog) thinks Obama owes him any credit for the ’08 election. Obama triumphed because he is everything Jones was not—a unifier, a healer, someone who embodies in his person the old-fashioned liberal truth that the color of your skin says nothing about your intellect, your integrity, your willingness to submerge whatever parochial interests you have in seeking the good of your nation and world. Full disclosure: I am probably a ways to the right of most of the people who have contacted you. I have always liked John McCain, and might very well have supported him in the election if he’d made a sensible VP pick and waged a campaign of ideas rather than insult. But as it was I voted for Obama, and am very glad I did.

It would be easier to make the contrary argument: that if people like Jones hadn’t aggrandized themselves by fitting into and seeming to confirm racist stereotypes of “armed barbarians,” a genuine black statesman (or stateswoman) like Obama wouldn’t have had to wait for the twenty-first century for his or her flourishing. But I think even this gives Jones & Co. too much credit. My own view—which I may be obliged to modify, once I’ve read Downs’ book [I stand by it]—is that the long-range impact of the takeover was close to nil. The history of this country and probably even Cornell over the past forty years would have been much the same, if the AAS leaders had never postured with guns and bandoliers outside Willard Straight Hall.

The interest of the episode, for me, is that it is symptomatic of what was going on at Cornell at the time, particularly in its us-against-them assumptions. This was the life-lesson I mostly carried away from my Cornell education: to think in terms of us-versus-them. The summer after my freshman year, an old friend of mine told me sadly that I’d changed in this respect since high school, not for the better. I believe he was right. Fortunately it’s a lesson that can be unlearned, that I did gradually unlearn during the saner and more grounded years that followed. There are those who yearn for the sixties. As far as I am concerned they didn’t end a minute too soon.

The us-versus-thems of the time and place would require an essay unto themselves. They included us independents versus the fraternities (I recall thinking of fraternity members as only nominally human), us enlightened Cornell intellectuals versus the New York State yahoos that encircled us, and, most significantly, us right-thinking youth against our benighted elders. This last antagonism, the generational, is usually explained by conservative-minded people (such as myself) as tantrums thrown by the spoiled “Spock babies” against the “greatest generation” who survived the Depression and won the war to save civilization. It came as some surprise to me several years ago, when I read through the archives of the Cornell Sun from 1967-68, to recall what I’d known but forgotten—that for a very long time even the self-styled radicals at Cornell did their best to be good and dutiful, and to distinguish between their opposition to noxious policies and the human respect owed to people (like the famous Proctor George) charged with executing these policies. It was our elders who often behaved in ways that can only be described as provocative.

Early in 1967, for example, the DA of Tompkins County invaded the campus, invoking anti-pornography laws, to confiscate issues of a student literary magazine [the Trojan Horse] containing a sexually explicit story. There was no need for that; the story wasn’t very good and attracted no attention before the DA’s assault; this was an obvious attempt to curry favor with a Cornell-hating constituency by inventing a crisis and getting the rich pinko brats to react with newsworthy obscenities. I assume the tactic worked. It was so plainly a well-considered bit of Realpolitik that to rail against it as disgusting seems almost na├»ve.

Yet it was disgusting. You do not launch such assaults on the human spirit, on the natural sense of trust and common purpose, without consequences, suffered as a rule by someone other than yourself. After a lifetime of studying history, I find history’s “lessons” mostly obscure and ambiguous. This one, I think, stands out plainly. At Cornell the consequence was, from 1967 on, a coarsening of political and personal sensibilities, an acceptance of the notion that “brutal theater”—a porn-hunting invasion of a campus, a racially charged invasion of a student union—is a legitimate way to advance political and personal interests. This seems to me the context of the Straight takeover.