September 16, 2005

Backspace: Carl P. Leubsdorf '59

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Backspace appears biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column features a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Carl P. Leubsdorf ’59 was associate editor of The Sun. He has been Washington Bureau Chief for The Dallas Morning News since 1981 and has been writing about Washington politics since 1960. – MK

Those of us who attended college in the 1950s became known as the silent generation, more docile and accepting of authority than our younger brothers and sisters just a few years later.

That may have been true early in the decade. But the Cornell student body was anything but silent when the University’s administration took advantage of a weekend marked by excessive drinking and vandalism to assume authority and impose strict new social rules.

In fact, one can even make a case that the protests which climaxed with the nationally headlined demonstrations at Cornell in May 1958 were a precursor of the uprisings on many campuses that paralleled the civil rights revolution of the far more turbulent 1960s.

The specific issue that precipitated the protests was whether university women could visit men’s apartments off campus. But the overriding issue was the overall thrust of President Deane W. Malott’s administration.

Many students felt the University’s leaders had overreacted to Spring Weekend 1957, in which normal campus rowdiness was accentuated by several incidents, including the death of a student who fell from a fraternity house porch and broke his neck.

Two years earlier, the Board of Trustees gave the administration the faculty’s traditional power to regulate student life. That December, an administration-dominated panel voted to impose a new social code with specific rules in place of prior generalized standards.

All four student members dissented.

The panel then considered revoking a five-year-old rule permitting Cornell women to visit male students’ apartments under specific conditions.

A poll by the Women’s Student Government Association showed that more than half of those sampled broke the new rules. The Sun noted that, “when half the people violate a provision there is more likely to be something wrong with the provision than with the people.”

Dean of Men Frank C. (Ted) Baldwin reacted differently, saying, “A lot of people thought in 1953 that the rules were too liberal, and maybe they were right.”

The committee’s comments to the Student Council on May 20, 1958, were incendiary. For example Theresa R. Humphreyville, professor of home economics and the panel chair, said that the “apartment situation is conducive to petting and intercourse.”

The Sun accused the administration of trying to subject students “to a group standard in conformity with the morals of middle class, small town America.”

Students planned to demonstrate that Friday morning outside Day Hall.

Ironically, the tide had probably turned already. Lloyd Elliott, Malott’s executive assistant and a catalyst for the restrictive agenda, had been named president of the University of Maine. His successor, not yet announced, was to be the far more liberal John Summerskill, an authority on student psychology who gained national prominence as president of San Francisco State University during the 1960s.

On May 23, about 1,000 students protested the administration’s rules. J. Kirk Sale ’58, The Sun’s former editor-in-chief, told the group the issue was the entire pattern of restrictive actions by the administration, not just the “apartments question”.

A few eggs were thrown, but the rally was generally peaceful.

That night, a second demonstration got out of hand. The crowd shouted down Student Council President K. Peter Kellogg ’59 when he tried to announce that Elliott had decided to oppose a total ban on apartment visits.

As the crowd swelled to 3,000, an effigy of Malott was burned. Several hundred students marched on his house in Cayuga Heights, where, past midnight, eggs and rocks were thrown and obscenities were shouted.

The protests split students, including those on The Sun. Its new editors, led by David A. Engel ’59, felt the unruly second demonstration had jeopardized the good gained from the first.

The prior staff under Sale, who was briefly suspended along with several others, wrote in the graduation issue, “We feel that the demonstrations were right, and that they succeeded in their purpose.”

Despite the damage to Cornell’s image from the spectacle of students burning its president in effigy, history suggests the net result was positive.

Within a year, Summerskill had reversed the ruling. Authority was returned to the faculty and student government, and social rules were liberalized.

The episode epitomized the divisions of the time. The students represented a drive for greater freedom, both legally and sexually, that manifested itself nationally with the civil rights and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. The administration sought to maintain a status quo that was already becoming a thing of the past.

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