Three decades ago, racial tensions on campus reached a breaking point, as 35 hours in the spring of 1969 permanently altered University minority affairs.
The Willard Straight Hall takeover is forever ingrained in the collective mind of Cornellians, and the James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony pays homage to this memory and gives recognition to those who strive to make Cornell a more inclusive and diverse university.
The annual Perkins Prize grants five thousand dollars every spring to honor an individual, a program or an organization that is working towards shaping Cornell into a more inclusive, welcoming place.
“The winner takes the prize and invests it into further interracial understanding and harmony at Cornell … putting it towards similar work which originally won them the award. It furthers the goals of interracial understanding and harmony,” said Edward Hershey, director of Cornell communications strategies.
The prize is awarded in honor of President Emeritus James A. Perkins, who helped bring about greater diversity of the student body while serving as the University president from 1963 to 1969. Still the prize’s history stretches far beyond Perkins. Hershey explained how the background behind the prize is a moving story in itself.
A leader of the 1969 campus protests, Cornell Trustee Thomas W. Jones ’69 established the prize in 1994 to honor Perkins. Perkins was the University president during the campus civil rights movements and the Straight takeover and left office in the aftermath of the protests.
While in office, Perkins accomplished such endeavors as founding the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP), engineering a 25-fold increase in Cornell’s minority undergraduate student body, and establishing the Black Studies Center — leading to the creation of the African American Studies and Research Center.
“Announcement of the prize in 1994, reuniting Jones and Perkins, was a moving occasion and a testament to the idealism of both,” Hershey said.
Last year’s winner was the Campus Climate Committee (CCC) for outstanding efforts to raise concerns on campus for Cornell unity. CCC’s projects included organizing the open forum “Cornell ’69: Key Issues Then and Now,” composing and adopting the University’s statement on diversity “Open Doors, Open Hearts, and Open Minds” and distributing free mouse pads on campus marked with the diversity statement.
James Robert Cooke, dean of faculty, who founded CCC, emphasized the importance of winning the award last year, how it was of great significance to the committee and merely just the beginning of a long journey towards a more racially, culturally and intellectually diverse campus atmosphere.
This year, “the committee really wants to maximize the number of applicants so every person or program worthy of consideration is seen and given a chance,” Hershey said.
Nominations can be sent to Sue McNamara in the Office of the Dean of Students, and they can be accessed at the Dean of Students website at http://www.dos.cornell.edu/dos/perkinsprize.html.
Applications must be received Feb. 23, and the Perkins Prize will be presented on Apr. 18.
Archived article by Julia Macdonald