March 12, 2009

Alumnus Reflects on Takeover

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This is the first in a series of four interviews with people involved with the Willard Straight takeover of 1969, in which black students took over the Straight to demand greater equality for black students at Cornell. The interviews, along with a newspaper supplement and panel discussion in April, will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Takeover.

Robert Gottlieb ’72 vividly remembers the day students walked out of the Straight wielding rifles and demanding justice. As one of the first students to serve on the Board of Trustees — student participation on which was a direct result of the takeover — Gottlieb continued to fight for students during these tumultuous times. Now a defense attorney in New York, Gottlieb found strong comparisons between the takeover at Cornell and the takeover of a building at New York University earlier this year. In fact, Gottlieb called to offer his legal council to the NYU students in the midst of their demonstration. The Sun chatted with Gottlieb about student activism in the 60s, activism today, and the current state of our country’s education system.

The Sun: You were a freshman when the Takeover took place at Cornell. What was your memory of the event and the context in which it took place?
Robert Gottlieb: Cornell was still governed under the old rules. The takeover was indicative of the main problems that were facing Cornell at the time involving African American students and the need for African American studies. But at that time there was also growing resentment against the war, so there were demonstrations and tension involving the efforts to stop the war in Vietnam. There were also calls already under way to divest Cornell’s moneys from companies that were doing business in South Africa.
At the time, the campus was already beginning to be divided within itself, not only involving racial issues but national issues concerning the war in Vietnam and national issues concerning how we were supporting countries that were oppressive.
Sun: Since the takeover ended, do you think Cornell has made progress in meeting the demands of the students?
RG: I don’t know how far Cornell has come since then. I do know that at the time, immediately following the takeover, my sense was that the powers that be at Cornell were forced to become more sensitive to the problems faced by African American students and faculty.
As far as and as well as future students, immediately in the aftermath my sense both as a student and a student trustee — when I became privy to internal conversations on the Board of Trustees — there was a sense that Cornell was beginning to reflect a more sensitive and enlightened approach to African American students and all minorities.
Following the Straight takeover, we were able to pass legislation requiring the Board of Trustees to allow four students to serve on the board as voting members, and one student had to be appointed to the executive committee where all the important decisions were made.
Sun: So the initiative to elect students to the Board of Trustees resulted directly from the takeover?
RG: No question about it, because what the Straight takeover did was it burst the false image of a tranquil University with an idyllic campus. In addressing the problems, that came to the floor loud and clear, because the Straight takeover and the Board of Trustees were required to address other long-festering problems. One of which was that no matter what the social issue of the day is, the appropriate way to address the problems within the University community is to have a real cross-section on the Board of Trustees, the governing body. You can’t have a real understanding of the problems on campus affecting students unless the students are in a position to have the ear of the men and women who are going to ultimately vote on various proposals.
My concern today is, my understanding is that Cornell has retreated from that significant change. My understanding is that today it’s not a requirement that there be a student on the executive committee as a voting member and I don’t think there are four students on the Board of Trustees.
The reality is that every important decision is made by the much smaller Executive Committee. That’s why to really have a significant impact on students, a student should be on the Executive Committee.
(Editor’s Note: There are currently two student Trustees, neither of whom serves on the Executive Committee).
Sun: Amidst such a powerful group of people, were the student trustees able to make their voices heard?
RG: Yes, there’s no question. We all had our own styles, but we were all very outspoken. It’s no question there was a great deal of tension between us and the majority of Board members. You have to remember that there were very few women on the Board back then. There were very few minorities, so you had an overwhelming majority of white older men who came primarily from the investment and financial field, who were quite wealthy, who really looked at the students having a seat next to them as something that in their wildest imagination they thought would never have thought possible.
Sun: There must have been a lot of resentment to the changing of the old order.
RG: I think there was a great deal of resentment, and I think many of the Board of Trustees had to be brought along kicking and screaming.
Sun: So, for all of the fighting to get students on the Board, what was the biggest accomplishment?
RG: There is no question that the biggest accomplishment was just being there. Governance of any institution, whether it’s a country, whether it’s a university, in order to be legitimate, must be comprised of all segments of the community. By forcing ourselves on them, by them having to allow us to sit side by side with the same voting and speaking rights, that was the major accomplishment.
That’s not to say that just being there is sufficient as time goes on, but there is no minimizing the significance that in 1970; that was a very significant step forward.
Sun: Jumping ahead 40 years, what about the NYU takeover jogged your memory of the Straight takeover?
RG: Two things. Many of their demands were similar to the demands we made during the time of the Straight takeover, including that there be student voting members of the Board of Trustees. They also included wanting to have an impact on the investments that NYU makes. So there were many similar demands, but just as important, and was the reaction of the administration to the­ students who occupied the building. And that was: what would their parents think if they knew that instead of studying for exams, they were occupying a building, treating it almost as a joke and not taking students seriously. That was the same exact reaction by many both within and outside the Cornell community back in the ’60s, that students should really stick to studying and spending their time in Olin Library, and how dare they tell the powers that be how to run the educational institution? The response in 2009 was the same response that I saw back in 1969.
Sun: What does that make you think about how far our society has come?
RG: I don’t think this country has come far enough, but I’m not sure it ever can. What I mean is that, in any society, in any community, the people who have the influence and the power do not easily or readily share it with others unless they are forced to. That’s human nature, and how you then force people with power to share their power and influence determines whether or not we’re really civilized. If you can debate it and talk out your differences and then find a common area of support, that’s civilized. If you cannot reach an agreement, and there continues to be insensitive wielding of power, that’s what creates in many instances tensions that often erupt into violence, or civil disobedience.
Sun: How were you involved with the NYU takeover?
RG: I was following it in the news and I reached out to people who I heard were involved to let them know that I am a criminal defense attorney here in [New York City], and I knew that there was a real potential of arrests, and that they were certainly entitled to representation should they be arrested. That’s what I do; I wanted them to know that they could call me, so I reached out to them.
Sun: Do you think that NYU will eventually change in the same ways Cornell did?
RG: I don’t know. I’m not as optimistic because the times are different today. In 1969, in 1970, when student demands, as well as faculty who were supporting the students, but back then, that was in the context of the entire country, the entire power structure was going through the throws of real change. It wasn’t only on university campuses, it was also in Congress. It was like an earthquake, and you didn’t know where it was going to end. Today it is more isolated. There is not a general upheaval going on even though, quite frankly, the election of Barack Obama may be the most wonderful earthquake that’s come along in a long time. But I don’t know if the overall environment is as conducive today as it was in the ’60s to real change in an institution like NYU.
Sun: One of the biggest things that came of the NYU takeover was the media coverage. Do you think that might set off some sort of domino effect on college campuses?
RG: It really does remain to be seen. We are living in a different era. Back then we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have live coverage. We didn’t need that kind of live coverage to have an effect nationwide. The act itself reflected, I believe, what was going on in the nation, which was a different sort of revolution than occurred in the 1700s. The country was changing, and Cornell was part of the country, and suffered through the same pains that the country suffered. It’s not the coverage that affects areas like this, whether other universities will follow. Its whether or not policies in the Congress, in state legislature, reflect the hopes and dreams of students attending college today.
Sun: Do you think our country right now could take a lesson from the ’60s?
RG: The reality is, and I’m not speaking hyperbole, I think the election we just went through reflects one of the effects of our entire history, which includes the tensions, the disruptions that Cornell suffered during the ’60s and ’70s. Without having gone through that back then, I don’t think Obama would have been elected today.
I left Cornell my senior year, in January of 1972, to work for Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman to run for president.
Everything that happened in 1972 when Chisholm ran for president, everything that Cornell went through, Columbia went through, Berkeley went through, back in the ’60s and ’70s, all of that was part of the process that resulted in the election of Barack Obama. But it’s not one demonstration, it’s not one issue that brought the country to where we are today. It’s our entire history. Its been a slow history, its been a painful history for so many people, but it all ultimately affects the future.
Sun: I’m sure you would agree that we still have a long way to go. What would be your advice for the students of today?
RG: The lesson then and the lesson today for everybody is that you have to stand up and be counted. You cannot cede your dreams, your moral beliefs to someone else. And that’s what the country did with George Bush. We let him, we let Cheney, we let Rumsfeld, steal our country for us. And thankfully, the country took it back with the election of Barack Obama. But the lesson is that you can never fall asleep at the switch, or else we’re gonna lose this country.
Sun: What would you say is the biggest issue facing us today?
RG: I deal with it in the courts all the time, I represent defendants, some of whom are charged with most unspeakable crimes. I’ve often said that when I represent them, I’m not representing the individual, I’m representing the Constitution. I truly believe that the most important issue for this country is whether or not we will continue to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States in all respects. Equality. Real freedom. Religious freedom. Because it has been under attack unmercifully for too many years.
And I see day in and day out, this country should never believe that there aren’t people out there who would love to destroy our Constitution for their own narrow purposes. It’s up to students and faculty and employees of Cornell to continue to fight the good fight.