Ithaca Diaries poster

Ithaca Diaries Review: A very fine, humorous account of Cornell U in the 1960s

PHoto, cornell University
Cornell University

This just in from Bill Fogle,Jr,  Cornell College of Engineering, 1970!

Ms. Harris has written a very fine and humorous account of Cornell University in the late nineteen-sixties, when the militant radicals, led by the Students for a Democratic Society, were fighting a two-front campaign: subverting the Kennedy-Johnson war in Southeast Asia and supporting black demands for an autonomous College of Afro-American Studies. These were the days when the inmates were most assuredly running the asylum.

I confess that I was an outsider looking in at this mayhem. It is true that both Ms. Harris and I arrived at Cornell in September 1966 as freshmen: she in the humanities wing of the College of Arts and Sciences (home of the impassioned culture-bomb throwers), and I in the College of Engineering (home of the stolid technologists). The headline events of those days ―lethal dormitory fires, frequent anti-war rallies and black takeovers of campus buildings― meant little to me then, as I was struggling with thermodynamics, fraternity pledging and NROTC duties that would lead to wartime service in the U.S. Marine Corps. But Ms. Harris was in the middle of this campus uproar and in a good position to report the emotional confusion of a surging political movement that did much to wreck interracial civility, academic freedom for the faculty, and the pre-war social order. So she was the touchy-feely liberal and I was the stone-hearted conservative. During our four years above Cayuga’s Waters we never met, and I wager it would have been a cat and dog moment if we had.

The turmoil on campus was driven by two distinct forces. The first was military conscription that could lead male students to unpleasantness and death in a war that was recognized as strategically unprofitable and politically unnecessary. The second cause was left-wing enthusiasm for University mission creep and social engineering; Cornell’s infamous Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP) was a naïve program designed to bring disadvantaged minorities to Ithaca for an educational boost into the American middle class. Alas, instead of recruiting appreciative young strivers with a serious appetite for learning, the Cornell admissions process opened the door to many radicalized, militant blacks with bad manners, a yen for tearing down the University, vague plans for a Uganda-like replacement, and demands that the Cornell trustees foot the bill. SDS embraced this agenda as the perfect complement to its anti-war campaign. But this I write with a half-century of hindsight.

Ms. Harris, referring to her diaries, provides an excellent description of how confusing it was for one situated at the epicenter of these swirling conflicts. Those outside the microcosm of Cornell were less confused and more alarmed. The New York Times reported extensively on the commotion in Ithaca; the image-conscious University administrators tried and failed to remove Times reporter Homer Bigart when his stories revealed the extent of the racial, ideological and philosophical conflict underway. Nationally syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported in May 1969 that something was seriously amiss.

” Even more bizarre was an incident two months later when the Afro-American Society (AAS) demanded $2,000 from the administration to buy bongo drums to celebrate Malcolm X Day. Within two days, the administration scraped together $1,700 and dispatched two black student leaders down to New York City in the university plane to purchase the drums.

“But pressed by a few faculty members, the administration did reluctantly bring charges against six of the more flagrant December demonstrators. Consequently once the blacks won their demand for an autonomous black studies program early this year, radicals stepped up direct action around a general theme of amnesty for the six demonstrators.

To the accompaniment of the University-purchased bongo drums, [University president] Perkins on Feb. 28 was physically pulled down from a speaker’s platform at a conference on South Africa. A few days later, job recruiters from the Chase Manhattan Bank were physically assaulted. In mid-March, three white students were beaten at night on campus — one to the point of death; two of the victims identified their assailants as Negroes while the third was in no condition to identify anybody. ”

By then the University administration was thoroughly intimidated and desperate to avoid confrontation. The faculty split on questions of disciplining the miscreants. The blacks saw their chance: they cleverly set fire to a cross outside a black women’s dormitory, occupied the Willard Straight Hall student union in response to this staged provocation, then armed themselves with an assortment of firearms and issued their demands. The University caved. A photograph of well-armed blacks marching out of the occupied building ran in media worldwide. Several professors quit in disgust with a cowardly administration, and one died, a suicide.

The delight of this book is the picture of undergraduate life that Ms. Harris provides. The problems of finding congenial roommates, tolerable housing, a decent diet and exercise will always be with us. The associations that we make with students and faculty last a lifetime, and for many of us expand. Cornell is an outstanding university because, despite the rain, the winter and the relative isolation, it is simply a great place. We learn a little while there, and a lot after ―turning over old memories for another look, again and again.
William Fogle, Jr. ‘70

Mesa,  AZ

Leave a Reply