April 16, 2009

Takeover Debate Leaves Prof. Rossiter ’39 Ostracized

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“Here was a man who truly loved Cornell: who gave to an institution far more than he received in return; whose entire life was committed to the spirit and values of the educational mission embodied by this University. There can be no doubt that his imprint will endure. Yet bereft of his presence, Cornell can never be the same.”
– From the official faculty obituary of Professor Clinton Rossiter ’39

As relative stability returned to campus in the months following the Straight Takeover, the Cornell community celebrated the fact that no lives had been lost, despite the ubiquitous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of gun-toting students ending the occupation. With tensions high, the takeover came perilously close to being remembered like the Kent State shootings of the following year. However, 15 months after the takeover, the events on Cornell’s campus became linked with one tragic loss of life. On July 11, 1970, Professor Clinton Lawrence Rossiter III ’39 took his own life through an overdose of sleeping pills.
Rossiter arrived in Ithaca to study classics in 1935, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother. He quickly distinguished himself among his classmates as a scholar and a leader. By his senior year, he had served as editor-in-chief of the Freshman Desk Book (a handbook for all new students) and manager of the freshman football team. His academic excellence was rewarded with membership in Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa honoraries, and he was elected vice president of the Quill & Dagger Society. Following graduation, Rossiter earned a doctorate in only three years at Princeton University and joined the U.S. Naval Reserves as a gunnery officer in World War II, advancing to the rank of lieutenant.
After a brief teaching stint at Michigan, Rossiter returned to Cornell in 1946 as an instructor. He was promoted to full professor in only eight years, and chaired the Department of Government from 1956 to 1959, when he was named the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions. He was a prolific author while on the faculty, completing more than 15 major publications and establishing himself as the foremost expert on the U.S. presidency. His Seedtime of the Republic (1953) won the prestigious Bancroft and Woodrow Wilson Foundation Awards, and The American Presidency (1956) remains one of the seminal works on the subject. His edition of The Federalist Papers (1961) became the standard text for classrooms throughout the country.
In his own classroom, Rossiter inspired students with his dynamic teaching style and his passion for and knowledge of the subject matter. His introductory Government 101 course of around 650 students was among Cornell’s largest classes for years, and his upper level seminars on the presidency and political theory were popular forums for student discussion. In addition to his teaching and writing, Rossiter volunteered for countless department, college and University committees.
In part because of his popularity and position as a respected and well-known member of the faculty, Rossiter became deeply embroiled in the debates surrounding the Straight Takeover. In the takeover’s aftermath, Cornell’s faculty was asked to nullify official reprimands placed on the records of three black students for a relatively minor demonstration in support of a black studies program. The reprimands had become symbolic of the greater concern that the needs of minority students were not being understood or served by the university. In a meeting of around 1,200 faculty members, Rossiter spoke strongly against nullifying the reprimands, and the faculty agreed on the belief that Cornell could not capitulate under duress; policy should not be made based on building takeovers and firearms. The faculty’s decision intensified the campus crisis as thousands of students gathered afterward, many calling for further action against the Cornell administration. The following evening, a speech by Straight takeover participant and Afro-American Society spokesman, Tom Jones ’69, was broadcast over the radio, singling out Rossiter and other key faculty as “racists,” threatening their lives, and giving Cornell University “three hours to live.”
The faculty assembled once again as Cornell unraveled further into chaos the next day, and it was Rossiter who motioned for nullification, reversing his stand from the previous meeting. Although the motion passed overwhelmingly, Rossiter and his colleagues were branded by opponents as cowards who had succumbed to fear and threats. But in his role as an unofficial spokesman to the press after the meeting, Rossiter denied being influenced by the personal threat, calling his decision “a moral gamble” to ensure the future of the University. “I feel assured that an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect will prevail on campus.”
The national press, which had not witnessed or truly understood the escalating tensions on campus, generally condemned the faculty’s decision. Rossiter’s role in the faculty reversal made him the target of angry phone calls, letters and articles that compared him to Neville Chamberlain. In the following months, Rossiter was ostracized by faculty colleagues and former friends who felt that he had betrayed academic freedom itself. He, however, remained confident in his decision, feeling he had done what was best for the students and University that he loved so dearly.
But over the next year, Rossiter slowly faded from prominence. His attempts to mend old friendships failed, and even the student body rejected him, choosing not to elect him to the newly formed University Senate. In an editorial less than two months before his death, The Sun listed “anybody but Clinton Rossiter” in its Senate endorsements. He began to show up to class with alcohol on his breath and, in May 1970, the dean asked him to take a leave of absence. Rossiter refused. He took his own life two months later at the age of 52.
The Cornell community was quick to link his death to a “loss of faith in American institutions” that he had spent his life defending, citing events and issues like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers, the Vietnam War and the crisis at Cornell. Sun columnist A.J. Mayer ’71 wrote: “When the nation embarked on a course that seemed to run counter to the philosophies of its founders – the very men who Rossiter so admired and about whom devoted his life to teaching and writing — he felt betrayed. And when the university to which he had devoted the bulk of his academic career began regarding him with disdain and contempt, he felt pushed even further out into the cold.”
But according to Rossiter’s son Caleb ’73, these issues played only a minor role. In Caleb’s book The Chimes of Freedom Flashing, he contended that Rossiter had been beset by severe depression for at least the last 20 years of his life. To Caleb, there was no explanation for his father’s death beyond the disease; it was inaccurate to connect it to his disappointments with the times.
Regardless, Rossiter and his tragic end have been indelibly linked to events surrounding the Straight takeover. In the book Cornell ’69, Donald Downs ’71 wrote that “of the several victims of the crisis, none was more prominent than Clinton Rossiter.” Forty years later, it is fitting that the Cornell community remember Rossiter for his accomplishments and contributions. A brilliant scholar and a beloved teacher, Rossiter loved his alma mater and fought valiantly to preserve it. His dedication to his country and Cornell has been vindicated.
Perhaps Rossiter was best summed up in a eulogy by Professor Emeritus Alfred Kahn: “He was a man of intense loyalties — to his family, his friends, his teachers, his students, to every school he ever attended, but above all to Cornell, and to his country. … He was an immensely complicated man — in a way noble, in a way intensely human and vulnerable. He was a famous man, and deservedly so.”