Celebrating 150 years of protest at Cornell

By Melvin Li

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Karen Tsai

For many people around the world, February 2015 marked the start of the Year of the Sheep—a time of peace, promise, and prosperity. But at Cornell University, that month turned out to be something else altogether.

On February 5, 2015, President Skorton sent a lengthy email to all Cornell students announcing that, beginning in the fall, any student not enrolled in the University’s Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) would have to pay an annual fee of $350. Skorton said that the new fee would help pay off massive debts incurred by Cornell’s Gannett Health Services.

Four days after Skorton’s announcement, a large group of around 300 students gathered in Willard Straight Hall as classes ended at 12:05 p.m. to protest the new fee. After distributing pamphlets and making a few speeches, the protest leaders rallied around 150 students and marched them directly to Day Hall. Only 40 managed to enter the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost on the third floor. The rest of the protesters spread out and made themselves comfortable, setting up camp in various hallways and offices throughout the building. They took selfies, messaged friends, gave speeches, ordered pizza, blasted music, and most importantly, refused to leave until Skorton had heard their grievances. The protesters vacated the building after four hours, but since then, the fight has continued with teach-ins, demonstrations, and meetings with the administration.

This year’s Fight the Fee protests are the boldest demonstrations against University authority in recent memory, but they are neither the first nor the largest. Student protests have transformed universities all over the world throughout history. Cornell, with its own lengthy past, is most certainly no exception. In honor of Cornell’s sesquicentennial, let’s examine three of Cornell’s most important student protests of the 20th century and see how each of them helped build the campus we are familiar with today.

1958: Showdown at Sage

Here’s a story for all the Thirsty Thursday fans out there who stumble to their dorms at two in the morning. In the ’50s, the concept of open parties and mixers off campus as we know them today was essentially nonexistent at Cornell. Compared with other universities, Cornell was rather slow at responding to rapidly changing sexual norms in the decade following World War II. Female students in particular were not permitted to attend unchaperoned parties off campus and had to observe a 12:30 a.m. curfew at night. With the inauguration of the socially conservative Deane Malott as Cornell’s sixth president in 1951, it seemed like this would never change.

But the restrictions on off-campus parties were becoming very unpopular with students. According to Cornell: A History, 1940-2015 by Cornell professors Glenn Altschuler and Isaac Kramnick, President Malott was furious that the Faculty Committee was relaxing restrictions on unchaperoned apartment parties and seized control of it in May 1955, beginning what Altschuler and Kramnick call “Malott’s moral crusade.” After the accidental death of an intoxicated student on May 11, 1957, the President’s Committee declared that from 3 to 7 a.m. on Saturdays and 4 to 8 a.m. on Sundays, students of different genders could not be in the same room both on or off campus.

Student opposition finally exploded in May 1958, when the Student Council was informed that the President’s Committee was seriously considering a full ban on off-campus parties. On Friday, May 23, history major John Kirkpatrick Sale ’58 and engineer turned English major Richard Fariña ’59 rallied 1000 students at Willard Straight Hall and led a march around the Arts Quad that ended at Day Hall to confront Malott, who managed to leave before they arrived. The students were disappointed, but Sale swore they would prevent female students who lived in Sage Hall from observing curfew that night as a final message to the administration. That night, the protest continued as promised outside Sage Hall, where 100 female residents broke curfew to join over 3000 male protesters, bringing flares, torches, firecrackers, and even an effigy of Malott that they hanged and burned in a nearby tree. Although Sale tried to stop them, about 1000 students proceeded to march to Malott’s residence where they trampled his lawn, smashed his windows with eggs and stones, and even set off a smoke bomb. Sale and Fariña were suspended for the protest and were eventually placed on parole, but the protest put a decisive end to Malott’s moral crusade, costing him crucial support on the Board of Trustees. Malott’s conservative executive assistant Lloyd Elliot was replaced with the progressive John Summerskill, who immediately restored the faculty to power in the Faculty Committee.

In the fall of 1958, the deans of the seven undergraduate colleges concluded that “the University cannot undertake to act in loco parentis, if this means maintaining concern for and supervision over all aspects of the student’s life—social, moral, religious as well as intellectual.” The responsibility of writing student behavior codes was soon given to a student governing body. Altschuler and Kramnick believe that the “apartment riots” of 1958 not only ended a ban on off-campus parties at Cornell, but also triggered a wave of similar protests throughout American universities that eventually ended curfews and social behavior restrictions on most college campuses. So the next time you collapse into bed after making (or perhaps in the process of making) questionable life choices off campus, whisper a little “thank you” to Sale and Fariña—the two students who made your night out possible.

1969: Willard Straight Hall Occupation

Ever wonder how Cornell’s program houses came to be? The story of some of these residences began with drastic student action. Almost a decade after the small army marched to Malott’s house, Cornell stood as one of the most racially progressive universities in the United States. Under President James A. Perkins, who succeeded Malott in 1963, Cornell became the first of major universities to aggressively recruit minority students. This particularly benefited African Americans, who had been attending Cornell since the 1880s in only negligible numbers. But as racial tensions intensified throughout the ’60s, many black college students across the nation began demanding that their schools create independent black studies programs.

The tensions that led to the Willard Straight Hall occupation had been brewing for over a year. Cornell’s Afro-American Society (AAS) had long complained about what it saw as a lack of adequate progress towards a black studies program at Cornell. Although Perkins and the Board of Trustees had actually authorized such a program just days before the occupation, many AAS members were still in favor of direct action, recognizing the structural nature of the racial issues at Cornell. This recognition was heightened throughout the semester, when African American students were punished for various protests while their white classmates were not. The last straw fell on the morning of April 18, when a group of white students burned a cross on the porch of Wari Cooperative, a house for black women students. According to protest spokesperson Tom Jones ’69, the AAS voted that evening to carry a full-scale occupation of Willard Straight Hall the next day. Although Jones was against any building takeovers, “the majority thought it was necessary to do something that would shock the University, grab its attention. Parents’ Weekend would be a perfect time. The Straight would be a good target.”

According to Donald Alexander Downs’s Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University, the first AAS members began filtering into Willard Straight through the back door at 5:00 a.m. on April 19. They scuffled with food preparation employees for the keys to the building, and within 30 minutes, rounded up the Straight’s custodial staff. At 6:15, shortly after releasing the custodians, the students took hold of the Cornellian-run Ithaca radio station, WVBR, so that AAS president Edward Whitfield ’71 could announce the takeover to the community. Around the same time, the students forcefully evicted the people sleeping upstairs—who were mostly visitors in town for Parents’ Weekend.

Whitfield originally planned to continue the occupation for just a few hours to send a message to the administration. But at around 9 a.m., 25 white Delta Upsilon brothers entered the Straight through an unguarded window on the south side to confront the AAS, only to be driven back through the same window. Soon afterward, the AAS decided to smuggle in the rifles they purchased earlier to defend themselves against future attacks, beginning the

first armed occupation of a building on an American college campus. Outside, the Students for a Democratic Society formed a defensive picket around the building in support of the occupation. Altogether around 80 AAS members barricaded themselves within Willard Straight for 36 hours.

Vice President Steven Muller and Vice Provost Keith Kennedy helped negotiate a peaceful end to the occupation on April 20, which included amnesty for all occupiers and an investigation of the Wari House cross burning. Tensions rose on April 21, when the faculty voted to nullify the University’s agreement with the AAS and punish the protesters. This vote, however, was reversed two days later, sparking a deep rift in the faculty that culminated in the resignation of several professors and Perkins himself within weeks. As part of the agreement, Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center was created that year at 320 Wait Avenue. However, the building burned to the ground on April 1, 1970, in the midst of heightened racial tension. The ASRC was temporarily relocated to Low Rise 8 before being moved to its present day location on Triphammer Road. In 1972, Ujamaa, a residence hall celebrating the lives of black people around the world, was created in Low Rise 10—one of Cornell’s oldest program houses today.

1993: Four Days at Day Hall

If you’ve ever felt tempted to carve your name onto the strange glass needle that stands on the Arts Quad, be glad you didn’t. The vandalizing of public artwork caused a four-day occupation of Day Hall in the fall of 1993. The Johnson Museum of Art had collaborated with the Hispanic American Studies Program to expose Cornell’s campus to the work of Latino artists. Eight large pieces of artwork were temporarily installed across campus as part of an exhibition. One of them, created by Daniel J. Martinez and called, “The Castle is Burning,” proved very controversial. The piece included several tar-covered wooden walls about eight feet in height, set up along the paths across the Arts Quad, forming small rectangular “castles” and dividing the quad into many parts. Standing on top of these walls were two feet tall letters which spelled out messages including: “In a rich man’s house the only place to spit is in his face.” In November, a number of vandals drew a swastika and wrote racial slurs on one of the walls before tearing down several of its panels and letters.

Many Latino students were outraged by the vandalism, and when no University action was taken to identify the perpetrators, the students decided that they needed to protect the artwork themselves. On Friday, November 19, around 100 students, most of them Latino, formed a human barricade around Martinez’s entire installation. Protest leader Eduardo Peñalver ’94 eventually marched the group to Day Hall to speak with President Frank H. Rhodes about what they felt were longstanding issues for Latino students at Cornell. Tensions between Latino students and the University had been steadily growing long before the vandalism took place.

At Day Hall, the protesters presented administrators with a list of nine demands, requesting that the University devote more courses to the study of Latino-American history, purchase more library resources on Latino-American culture, host more Latino guest speakers and visiting professors, recruit more Latino tenure-track professors, and finally, create a special residence hall devoted to Latino culture. Larry Palmer, Vice President for Academic Programs and Campus Affairs, quickly phoned President Rhodes, who was in Philadelphia attending the 100th football game between Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. Rhodes told Palmer to set up a private appointment between him and the students on December 3—the last day of the semester. The students, however, suspected that the administration wouldn’t keep promises made behind closed doors and demanded that Rhodes discuss the matter with them in public. Led by Peñalver, the protesters refused to leave Day Hall until they could meet with the president and the senior administration.

The sit-in at Day Hall lasted for the next four days. Immediately after the employees left on November 13, Cornell Police blocked off all entrances to the building but made no attempts to remove students already in the building. A crowd of supportive students gathered around the building that night to hold a candlelight vigil in honor of the protesters inside. The crowd eventually stormed the main entrance, forcing the officer guarding the door aside. The next day all phone access from Day Hall was cut off, preventing students inside from calling local media outlets. In response, a second group of students with fresh supplies pushed their way through the main entrance, injuring an officer and hospitalizing another. Rhodes was forced to cut his Philadelphia trip short and returned to Ithaca on November 21—the third day of the occupation. On November 22, the students finally vacated Day Hall after Rhodes agreed to a series of meetings with protest leaders.

Because the protesters were unarmed and made no threats against the University, suspension charges against Peñalver were dropped. On March 19, 1994, the Board of Trustees approved the creation of the Latino Living Center on West Campus. In 2000, the LLC was moved to Anna Comstock Hall on North, joining program houses such as Ujamaa (1972) and Akwe:kon (1991). On March 18, 2014, almost 20 years after the takeover, the University announced that Peñalver would be serving as the 16th Dean of the Cornell Law School, making him the first Latino dean of an Ivy League law school.

The Result of Action

Before the 2014 Homecoming laser light show kicked off, I and thousands of others around me were shown a brief video of two students traveling back in time and visiting the University immediately after its founding 150 years ago. While it’s a cute idea, I doubt such a visit would be as enjoyable as it was shown to be. As we look back and celebrate Cornell’s 150th birthday, we must realize that our beloved university wasn’t always the familiar place we walk today. From parties to program houses, the Cornell we know was slowly hatched over the course of a century and a half with the help of student action. The three student protests I have just described and the many others I haven’t mentioned have all helped to forge the university we know today. So as you enjoy Charter Day weekend, remember the alumni who surrounded Sage, stormed Willard Straight, and sat down in Day. 150 years is a long time—let’s strive to give those who arrive in another 150 more to celebrate.


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