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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Donald Alexander Downs tells the story of how Cornell University became the battleground for the clashing forces of racial justice, intellectual freedom, and the rule of law. Eyewitness accounts and retrospective interviews depict the explosive events of the day and bring the key participants into sharp focus: the Afro-American Society, outraged at a cross-burning incident on campus and demanding amnesty for its members implicated in other protests; University President James A. Perkins, long committed to x addressing the legacies of racism, seeing his policies backfire and his career collapse; the faculty, indignant at the university's surrender, rejecting the administration's concessions, then reversing itself as the crisis wore on.

Excerpt

Like an omen, Martin Luther King's murder occurred just hours after the Afro-American Society carried out the central act of the McPhelin affair, a quasi-violent takeover of the Economics Department offices. These two events galvanized the militant AAS faction; the McPhelin incident also pitted claims of academic freedom against claims of racial justice in the starkest manner possible. This was the first time that the conflict had erupted onto the public stage at Cornell, and the administration's response set a precedent of avoidance that would come to haunt the university. In short, the McPhelin affair was a trial run for April 1969.

Economics 103

Father Michael McPhelin, a visiting lecturer from the Philippines, began his second semester teaching the large lecture class of 338 students on January 30. The material in "Economic Development" (Economics 103) was potentially racially charged, covering such subjects as poverty, the economy of the ghetto, cultural and biological factors related to economic success and development, and Western values compared to those of other cultures. No students had lodged complaints the previous semester, but race relations had taken a downward turn since then. Equally important, three committed members of the AAS were enrolled in the course that spring: John Garner, Robert Rone, and Bert Cooper. (Four or five other black students were in the class as well.) If the rise of black consciousness was the sine qua non of the AAS, Garner was its heart and soul. AAS members spoke of Garner in reverent terms. Cleveland Donald's description was typical:

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