Friday, November 13, 2015

No Struggle, No Progress

In his smart and sympathetic paper on Cornell's 1969 student revolt, Caleb Rossiter writes,
A university is not a democracy with a rule of law, but a corporation that makes and breaks its own rules as its Board of Trustees sees fit. There is no mechanism available for democratic decisions other than perceptive administrators' gauging of the majority will. In such a setting, if a demand for change is denied, it can only be realized through disruption....

I was a kid in 1969, a classmate both of Caleb's younger brother and of the son of the Cornell president. It is hard to imagine the repercussions of the Straight takeover, hard to imagine how it fractured the faculty, with moderates like Caleb's dad urging leniency, and others (conservative, closeted Allan Bloom among them) calling for the harshest of penalties. This was an era when taking over a building might be an illegal act, but carrying guns on campus was not a problem. It's hard to imagine how it fractured the student body, with SDS forming a sympathy barricade around the Straight while white fraternity members barged in and fought with bats and fists to take back the building before the occupiers armed themselves. Other students occupied Barton Hall with friendly faculty and held out until the administration agreed not to pursue major charges against the Straight occupiers.

Unlike the lead-up to today's situation at Ithaca College, Cornell had made an earnest if modest attempt in the years preceding the takeover to increase enrollment of African-American students and was in the process of building what's now the Africana Studies and Research Center (the original would be torched in 1970; the arsonist was never caught). Failing to recognize how slow progress felt was perhaps President Perkins's main error. He had initiated his plan to increase and support African-American enrollment six years earlier. But undergraduates spend just four years on campus. From their vantage point, a multiyear plan can seem...invisible.

Now here we are, nearly 50 years later, and we're still fighting the same systemic battles. Burning crosses, cartoons, costumes, language—any number of things may be the catalysts that force us to hold up a lens to our societal structures and find them fractured and flawed. At Cornell in 1969, the surrounding culture included the unpopular war in Vietnam and the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At Ithaca College (or Yale, or SUNY Plattsburgh) in 2015, the surrounding culture includes the multiple violent incidents that led to Black Lives Matter. And we're startled to see the anger on both sides, because we think we've moved past that into some kind of postracial era. Surprise!

Cornell 1969 led to Perkins's resignation, Bloom's disgusted departure, and the elder Rossiter's suicide. One key figure from the takeover and a Daily Sun reporter who covered many of the events that April later became Cornell trustees. The Africana Studies program offers a major, a minor, and recently, a PhD program. The Class of 2017 features 231 African-Americans (7%) compared to 94 in 1968 (and 4, or 0.2%, in 1963, when Perkins began his tenure).

Have we made progress? Not enough, clearly. Why are we still fighting these battles? You name it: Inequity, fear, insensitivity, history, divisiveness, prejudice, injustice, ignorance. If history's any indication, the current upheavals at Ithaca College, Yale, Plattsburgh, and elsewhere will result in incremental, positive change. But not easily, and not without pain, and not enough.

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