Douglas Dowd, a former Cornell professor of economics and a staunch anti-war activist who once called Cornell “boring and wasteful” and said fraternities and sororities “retard the development” of young students, died on Sept. 8 in Bologna, Italy. He was 97.
His wife said Dowd, who joined Cornell in 1953 and taught at the University through 1970, died of congestive heart failure, The New York Times reported.
Dowd served as chairman of the economics department. He organized antiwar sit-ins, teach-ins and non-violent protests on campus and led voter registration drives in Tennessee with Cornell students during the civil rights struggle.
A critic of capitalism, Dowd said universities were intellectual institutions that could promote social and political change during the Vietnam War. Dowd wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 1971 that while universities were “an integral and functioning part of an American socio-economic-military system,” radical groups failed to confront real world issues beyond the college campus.
Dowd told students that a Cornell education was “boring and wasteful” in 1969, The Sun reported at the time, and said, “people are being crippled here.” The only thing that makes life interesting, he said, is the “ability to use your mind,” and he blamed the culture of Cornell largely on students and faculty.
The activist professor criticized what he said was Cornell’s method of hiring “a lot of stars” to its faculty, which he said was ineffective, and said changing the academic structure must result from “student and faculty support for change.”
Dowd, in 1969, also told students that “fraternities retard the development of young men and sororities of young women.”
The ultimate responsibility of the university, Dowd wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 1971, is to provide a space where “re-examination, uncertainty, change and conflict become an integral part of what is studied,” which teachers are “reluctant or unable to see.”
“There is much dispute about whether the university can afford to involve itself in political affairs,” he wrote. “It seems irrefutable, instead, that the university was always, is, and must always be, political to its very core in the deepest sense of ‘political.’”
“The problem today is that the status quo politics of the university are under attack, for the larger status quo is under attack,” he wrote.
In 1970, when The Sun reported that anti-war protesters smashed six panes of glass and two signs in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps office in Barton Hall, Dowd spoke out against the tactics.
“Don’t for God’s sake, use the tactics of those whom we oppose,” he told the Cornell community.
The responsibility of social scientists, Dowd told his students at Cornell in 1957, is to “see what is wrong with a society, to decide why these wrongs exist and to propose what is to be done.” That task makes social scientists unpopular, he said.
Dowd lived through the Great Depression as a teenager, survived World War II as a bomber pilot in the Pacific and managed the former 1948 Vice President Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential campaign in Berkeley, California, according to The Times.
Dowd also mentored budding academics and dissidents, The Times wrote, including Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who gave the newspaper a secret government history of the Vietnam War, which became known as the Pentagon Papers after publication in 1971.
“As I could say also of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn: there’s no one in my life from whom I’ve learned more than my friend and mentor Douglas Dowd,” Ellsberg said.
In 1970, Dowd, as co-chairman of the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, joined Chomsky and other anti-war spokesmen on a trip to North Vietnam. Later that year, the House Internal Security Committee named Dowd as one of 65 “radical and/or revolutionary” campus speakers who promoted revolutionary activity among students.
Dowd graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1949, and later received a doctorate there. He taught at several California schools, including Berkeley.
He was also nominated in New York for vice president by the Peace and Freedom Party, a group of radical leftists and Black Panthers, as Eldridge Cleaver’s running mate. Dowd agreed reluctantly to the nomination in order to thwart the nomination of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, whom Dowd disliked.
When Rubin tore into Dowd in front of delegates, questioning whether the Peace and Freedom Party would be led by a “man in a pinstriped suit with a martini in his hand,” Dowd responded humorously.
“He was characterizing me as a stuffy old goddamn professor who’s wandering around with his grey flannel suit … and his cravat,” laughed Dowd. Due to various election law changes, Dowd and Cleaver never made it onto the ballot.
Dowd also authored over a dozen books, many of which deliver perspective on the United States’ role in the world economy, as well as criticism of capitalist development in the United States.
In his “The Broken Promises of America: At Home and Abroad, Past and Present- An Encyclopedia for Our Times,” Dowd wrote that America has failed to live up to its moral and ethical potential as a powerful nation.
“The bitter truth is that although we have had every opportunity to become a truly wonderful society,” he wrote, “we have failed to shed our past faults and are now evolving toward something the opposite of wonderful: The gap between our realities and our ideals, despite important changes now and again, widens to resemble the Grand Canyon.”