When Dale Corson became Cornell’s eighth president on Sept. 5, 1969, he inherited a university rife with tension, torn by new demands to include women and minorities on campus.
Shortly before he accepted the position, a group of African American students took over Willard Straight Hall in what would become known as the 1969 Takeover, the event that led to the ousting of his predecessor, President James Perkins. Eight years later, at the end of his tenure, Cornell was virtually unrecognizable, faculty and administrators said.
Era-defining events — such as nationwide riots against wars in Cambodia and Vietnam and the civil rights and women’s rights movements — continued to pose challenges for Corson.
Corson, who died Saturday morning, encouraged students and administrators to make the University a place for “free people to take their own position on any issue” and made strides toward returning stability to a campus beset by racial and political strife.
“Cornell considers education for black students an obligation and an unprecedented challenge,” Corson said at a Cornell Constituent Assembly meeting on Sept. 14, 1969, a few months after the Straight Takeover. “At Cornell, we shall encourage free discussion; we shall gladly tolerate protest; we shall not tolerate coercion and violence. Our institutions today, including our universities, are far from perfect; but to cripple them, to destroy them, will solve nothing.”
After he was voted president, Corson said he was aware of the difficulties he would face.
“When they asked me to serve, I reluctantly agreed,” Corson told The Sun in a Sept. 9, 1969, interview. “I can tell you, there are a lot more other things I could be doing that would be a lot more fun.”
Despite his initial apprehensions, Corson began his term by asserting his commitment to bolstering the University’s standing.
He worked to bring about “the changes that would make Cornell a model for the modern American university,” according to Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, who founded the Africana Studies and Research Center shortly before Corson became president.
During his tenure, Corson led the development of the Africana Center.
He devoted resources to Africana that made it a permanent entity on campus, and he turned over control of Africana’s funds to the center’s director, according to Turner.
“We worked with [Corson] throughout his tenure in the development of the Africana Center,” Turner said.
After the Africana Center was destroyed on April 1, 1970, in what was believed to be an act of arson, Corson met with a delegation of African-American students to hear their concerns and reassert his commitment to the center’s growth.
“He was very active in increasing the number of African Americans at Cornell through his relationships with African American students between 1960 and 1969,” Prof. Emeritus Walter LaFeber, history said. “They trusted Corson and talked with Corson.”
In 1971, Corson called for the University to double its funding for minority education in order to establish an office for minority affairs. Additionally, he sought to maintain the student body’s minority population at eight percent to reflect that of the U.S. as a whole.
“Much remains to be done if the University is to contribute its share of leadership and resources toward solving the major social problem of of our time,” Corson said in a March 24, 1971 statement on minority education.
Corson’s commitment to diversity also extended to equal rights for female students and faculty. He presided over the creation of the women’s studies program in 1972 and appointed the first woman to an administrative position in Day Hall, according to Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government.
In 1973, Corson published a report on equal opportunity employment at Cornell that cited the need for “increased funding and training programs for female and minority groups.”
“He was instrumental in the expansion of the number of women admitted to the University, into the student body,” as well as opening up positions “for women in the administration and faculty,” Turner said.
In addition to supporting minorities, Corson publicly spoke out against the war in Vietnam, a decision that Kramnick called “unusual” and “very brave.”
In an unprecedented speech for a University president, Corson condemned the Vietnam War on Oct. 15, 1969, in front of a crowd of 2,500 students, faculty and community members on the Arts Quad.
“The war’s impact on our colleges and universities threatens to impair their effectiveness for years to come,” Corson said. “The war demoralizes our students, polarizes our professors, and diverts from higher education the financial support which only the federal government can provide.”
While the University took no official stance on the war, Corson said he spoke out as “a citizen of the community” rather than as a University president.
Several faculty members said they admired Corson’s vocal stance on the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
“By 1976, the war in Vietnam was over ... many of the goals of the civil rights movement were realized and Cornell was a much quieter place,” LaFeber said. “There was one major reason for that, above all others, and that is that many people at Cornell, and Cornell alumni, trusted Corson.”
Kramnick added that it was faculty and students’ trust in Corson that led to much progress at the University.
“His healing capacities were so perfect for great upheaval and restoring confidence and … winning support of faculty and of students — black and white students and female students,” Kramnick said.
Manu Rathore, Utsav Rai, Jinjoo Lee, Michael Linhorst and Jeff Stein contributed reporting to this story.