March 30, 2009

Art Spitzer ’71, ACLU Legal Director, Reflects on Straight Takeover

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

Art Spitzer ’71 has the unique perspective of having served on several University committees leading up to and following the Straight Takeover. For the past 29 years, he has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and currently serves as the legal director of the ACLU’s National Capital Area office.
The Sun: What was your involvement with the Straight takeover?
Art Spitzer: My involvement was more in the events leading up to it. [I was] one of two student members of the Faculty Committee for Student affairs, which was the faculty’s main decision-making body in charge of non-academic student life on campus. The committee had the final say on student discipline matters.
In the spring of 1969, there was a controversy about whether any discipline was appropriate for a group of African American students who had committed some fairly minor vandalism in Goldwin Smith Hall.
The appeal eventually came to [our] committee, and probably at any other time this would have been a minor matter of no great concern to anyone except the students involved. But, [this was at a time when there were African-American students] feeling that campus wasn’t treating them fairly and wasn’t making Cornell a comfortable place for them to be.
So the issue came to us and the committee took it very seriously and eventually decided by a non-unanimous close vote to uphold the discipline. I think that was [one of] the spark[s] that led to the takeover. It was sort of the final straw. It was a short period of time between the committee’s announcement of its decisions and the takeover of the Straight.
Sun: What was your reaction to the takeover?
A.S.: I wasn’t a lawyer yet but I had sort of enough of the lawyer in me as a matter of personality to think that mob rule wasn’t a good way to make decisions. I had a lot of sympathy for people on the faculty who felt that in a sense that the faculty was losing control of the University and the faculty probably ought to be in control of the University.
In retrospect, given what the situation had come to, very likely what the faculty and the administration ultimately did was the smartest thing to do. People worried that this would be damage that could never be undone and I think that was an exaggeration. I think looking back on 40 years, I guess some people think that there was damage that still hasn’t been undone but it doesn’t seem that way to me.
Students come and go in a very short period of time, yet the faculty [remains]. So the real question more is: did the faculty recover its feeling of being a collegial body with the best interest of the University at heart? I assume it did. There were some faculty who left over the incident and how it was handled but nobody is irreplaceable.
Sun: Do you think the changes that occurred after the Straight would have happened anyway?
A.S.: Certainly the big changes in what the student body looks like between the 1960s and today would have happened anyway. You can look at other universities that didn’t have this kind of spasm, and their student bodies now look like what Cornell looks like … The civil rights movement had been happening, and Cornell was, I think, ahead of the curve in terms of Ivy league and other major prestigious universities in recruiting African-American students and trying to provide facilities and programs that would make them feel like they were welcome on the campus. I think we were ahead of that curve, but it was also happening around the country. Did our African-American studies center get bigger [and] faster because of the straight incident? Probably. But would it have gotten to the same place in a decade? [It’s] very likely it would have.
Sun: Do you think changes in campus governance were the most significant effects of the Straight takeover or did it produce more important social changes?
A.S.: Well I wasn’t here long enough after to really know. There were enormous social changes happening on campus in general and happening in the country in general. When I got here, most fraternities had a rule that you showed up for dinner with a jacket and tie on. That was certainly gone by the time I left. When I started here, women had curfews every night. Men couldn’t visit in women’s dorms or women in men’s dorms. All those kinds of rules were disappearing here because the world was changing outside.
Those changes have certainly been more permanent — the demographics and the social atmosphere around the University, but I don’t think the Straight [takeover] had anything to do with that.
[As for] the idea that students should be a real part of decision making at a University, I don’t know. Do students feel that they are a real part of decision making now? Is there a mechanism for that? That was something that was very much in the air at the time.
Sun: How would you gauge student reaction immediately after the takeover? To what extent were students aware of this event’s significance?
A.S.: I’m sure there were some people who didn’t pay much attention to the takeover. But, when the black students left with the guns and the bandoleers, I think everyone found out about it if they hadn’t been paying attention before. So certainly it was a big thing and the cancellation of final exams for the Spring Semester was a big thing.
All of this was the topic of conversation for the rest of the semester on campus. But, that may have been true for the people I knew. It probably was not true for most people who still cared more about what was going on in their personal life, and what was going on the basketball court or whatever else.
It was a big thing for most faculty. Whatever side they were on, they saw this as a real turning point in the University. Some people saw it as a real blow to academic freedom. Some people saw it as a real victory to moving toward a more inclusive, egalitarian society between blacks and whites and between students and faculty.
Sun: What do you mean by a blow to academic freedom?
A.S.: It had more to do with the feeling that faculty were supposed to be in charge here and this mob rule of students taking over was a bad thing and that got discussed under the heading of academic freedom.
A lot of faculty saw how the administration gave into what happened at Barton Hall. There were some long and bitter faculty meetings happening at this time and some more conservative — though not politically conservative — faculty felt that what was going on at those meetings was not a discussion that was seeking truth and justice but was a discussion that sort of said, “There is a gun pointed at our heads, we have to give into it or they’re going to be burning buildings here.” So the idea of the University as a cloistered haven of research and debate was being shattered. It was an attack on the idea of the University as being removed from the street fighting of politics in Chicago.
Sun: What do you think the effect of the Straight was outside of Cornell?
A.S.: The fact that the photo of the black students leaving the Straight was on the front cover of Newsweek magazine and I think the front page of The New York Times gave it an impact that it otherwise wouldn’t have had … But, I think it was a blip on the national radar screen. It was one more incident in a period of several years that were full of this kind of stuff.
Students had taken over a building at Columbia [University] the year before, that got much more coverage than this did, for days and days. There were other takeovers at other colleges. And far more [important] was what happened after Martin Luther King got assassinated and Washington D.C. erupted in flames and other cities had major riots … So I think [the Straight takeover] was one brick in a big pile of bricks.
I imagine that a bunch of other universities looked at what happened here and said we ought to be doing more to integrate African American students, to bring them to our campus, and be sure that we do provide them with programs. It would certainly make sense that other university administrations and faculties … looked at what happened [and said] what can we do to integrate our campus better and also avoid what happened at Cornell.
Sun: The Straight Takeover demanded equal rights and changes through violence and physical protest. At the ACLU, you demand some of the same changes, but do so through the courts and legislatures. Do you think violent protest is warranted in some cases?
A.S.: I mean I think that there are certain cases where revolution is warranted. I don’t think we are in one now, or have been in my lifetime, but they ought to have one in Burma. I certainly think there is a place for active protest, and part of what we do is protect people’s rights to engage in acts of protest. There are people who can make their ideas and their [feelings] affectively known in society without engaging in street protests because they own a newspaper or are the head of a major corporation or union, but there are lots of people who don’t have any way to make their ideas known except by joining with others and marching down the street. I think that’s important both because it gives them a way to effectively express their views and also because it allows society to receive and take account of those views, which I think it needs to do. That’s not to say that every time you have a big march down the street, you should get what you want, but society ought to know about it and that’s just as important a part of how a democratic society works as it is to have free newspapers and universities with academic freedom.
Sun: How would you rank the new administration in terms of civil liberties?
A.S.: Too soon to say. I think we’re all tremendously optimistic about what they’re going to do. They’ve been disappointing already in a few instances like continuing to say state secrets in some cases where we thought they should stop saying state secrets. But I don’t have any doubt that they’re going to be a lot better than the Bush administration was. But I also don’t have any doubt that they’re going to be times when we disagree with them. We’re not going to stop suing the federal government, I’m sure.