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Cornell '69 Hardcover – February 25, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

The scenes recalled here of armed black students leaving a Cornell University building in 1969 speak loudly of the rule of law, radicalism, racism, power politics, intellectual honesty, and the relations between academia and society. For Downs (political science, Univ. of Wisconsin), the author of several books, including Nazis in Skokie (LJ 3/1/85), the context for the Cornell uprising was shaped by the history of liberalism in 20th-century American higher education as well as campus events and university policies. A Cornell undergraduate that infamous spring, Downs narrates the issues argued by the Afro-American Society, other student organizations, and factions among administrators and faculty. He clearly details the complex, rapidly unfolding events, which embodied contested notions of progressive education, academic freedom, racial justice, and identity politics and which made the Cornell uprising more significant than most American student revolts of the 1960s. Readable, at times fast-paced, and based solidly on interviews and primary sources, this is highly recommended for academic libraries.ACharles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Thirty years have passed, it is true, but the whole ugly episode is worth recounting because it presaged so much of what was to come on campus: race-conscious admissions, identity politics, the regime of political correctness, the radicalization of the curriculum, the "tradition" of student protest. -- The Wall Street Journal, Daniel J. Silver

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (February 25, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801436532
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801436536
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #852,511 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Peter Lorenzi on June 1, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The dust cover picture of armed students leaving Cornell's Straight Hall in April 1969 tells a story close to my heart in time and geography. Downs' wonderful study of student power shows the inevitable problems that emerged when well-intentioned university liberals surrendered their fundamental academic principles in the name of compassion. Downs illustrates the unintended consequences of affirmative action, from students who did not want so much to learn from the institution...they wanted to radically change the institution.
The students understood politics, public relations and the power of the "big lie". While they may not have been competent to lead Cornell through needed change, Downs makes it clear that neither was the Cornell administration ready or able to manage change.
Once the violent takeover began, what little control President Perkins had was lost. The subsequent finger-pointing and resignations were unavoidable. Yet questions remain: Was it institutional racism fostered by a priest or political correctness that set off the furor? Who burned the cross in front of the African-American residence hall? Did the administration have a hand in the fraternity "counterattack" on Straight? Was this a spontaneous act out of frustration by African-American students or an SDS plot to radically reform Cornell? After it was over, did Cornell learn any lessons?
I could not put it down. A must read for baby boomers, especially those intent on understanding events that formed the ideology of those in the White House today.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Peter Lorenzi on June 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Cornell campus events in April 1969 ran beyond the power of university administrators to manage them. The world witnessed the decline of docile, gentle student behavior, managed by old white men in tweed coats. Students found new, forceful ways to express themselves, and opened an era of campus struggles.
Downs demonstrates that students know enough to know they don't want to learn some of the things that there teachers are teaching, yet they are also young and naive enough to stumble about agressively and sometimes irrationally for a solution. And the senior professors, save a few stalwarts, had no capacity to deal with this new breed of students.
Based on Cornell's desire to "do good", to promote social justice, to provide meaningful educational opportunities, and to add diversity (before there was such a common, abused term on American campuses), the Trustees approved a plan to enroll disenfranchised students from urban areas at their bucolic campus. Cornell was Ivy League, yes, but more rural than sophisticated, more agricultural than urbane. Cornell was to provide a strange environment for a noble experiment. Did it work? After the takeover of the administration building by armed students, most Americans never looked at university education the same way again.
Meticulous archival research of previously unsurfaced or unpublished records brings life and details to a college's uncomfortable history.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 10, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I was a junior at Cornell in April, 1969, and only after having read this book did I really understand what events happened that weekend. I'm not sure I understand even now what the significance of those events has been, but this book has put my own history in perspective for me, along with Cornell's.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful By David Thomson on September 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Donald Alexander Downs may very well feel uncomfortable with the conclusion that I've reached after reading Cornell `69. He has convinced me, whether he likes it or not, that envy dominated the motives of the radical Afro-American student movement. Racial issues per se were of secondary importance. Many of the black students were unable to scholastically compete with their fellow white classmates. Everyone should turn to page 52 and read the following:

"The Robertson report was less positive: `we've been told by some [professors] that the optimistic academic reports given on the report so far are suspect for two reasons,' it stated. Some professors, `for whatever reasons, have tended to mark black students easier than whites; and some blacks were allowed to stay in school longer than whites with similar records would be.'"

Complaints of racism were simply a phony excuse to indulge in violent rhetoric and actions. These black students were placed in an awkward predicament by guilt tripped white administrators. Deep in their guts, they knew that their inflated grades were fraudulent. Inevitably, the students turned to radical politics to overcome their justified feelings of inferiority. Employing the race card conveniently allowed these below average students to feel morally superior to their white classmates.

This particular sentence on page 280 also caught my attention:

"Throughout the crisis, professors in the natural sciences were less upset at what happened than those in the liberal arts, perhaps because their teaching and research were less threatened in the politicized climate."

The hard science departments cynically wanted to stay out of harm's way. Live and let live became their unofficial motto.
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