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June 7, 2024

COY | Today’s Campus Protests Stir Old Memories for This Sunnie

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Editor’s note: The following column appeared in The Sun’s Reunion Edition issue which was published June 7, 2024 for Reunion Weekend.

When I read this spring about the protests at Cornell over Israel’s war in Gaza, I was reminded of a protest I covered in April 1978, when I was a junior and the newly elected editor-in-chief of The Sun. I still have the bound volume of issues from that semester. Re-reading The Sun’s coverage of the protests and my editorials about them got me upset all over again. Campus protests aren’t light theater. There is pain, anger and confusion.

 The trigger for the protests was an interview that Stuart Berman, the managing editor, and I did with Robert W. Purcell ’32, then outgoing as chairman of the Board of Trustees. Purcell, who was a financial adviser to the Rockefeller family, said he was thinking of redirecting the income from a $1 million gift he had given to Cornell so all of it would go to minority scholarships and none to the Africana Studies and Research Center, which he thought could or should be disbanded. Purcell told us, “The real solution to … the black situation … is a greater degree of integration of the black community into the white man’s world.”

Stuart and I realized this was explosive material. Stuart wrote up the interview for the edition of Friday, March 31, and ran it at the top of the front page, above the masthead, to signal its importance. Day Hall realized it was explosive, too. By the Monday edition, Cornell’s provost, David Knapp, was telling The Sun that the University would replace any funding for the Africana Studies and Research Center that Purcell stopped providing.

A week later, on April 10, James Turner, the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center, spoke in front of the Straight and condemned what he called Purcell’s “careless, reckless, unfounded statements.”

The next day, about 40 students gathered at Ujamaa, a residential college celebrating Black heritage. They marched to Day Hall and then to the Johnson Art Museum, where Rhodes and key trustees were meeting to discuss the university’s investment policies. By that time there were about 200 protesters. They had multiple objectives, including to defend the Africana Studies and Research Center, to get Cornell to divest from South Africa and to protect COSEP, which was designed to increase African-American enrollment at Cornell.

At the museum, things started getting crazy. Seemingly spontaneously, the students forcibly detained Rhodes and the trustees inside. After a while, some of their leaders urged them to lift the blockade, but the rank-and-file felt otherwise. 

The blockade ended up lasting 90 minutes. When Rhodes and Charles Stewart, the chairman of the trustee Executive Committee, tried to leave, “they were pushed back by protesters and a short shoving match ensued between Rhodes, Stewart, safety officers, and the students,” The Sun reported the next day. Toward the end of the blockade, as things were beginning to calm down, Turner accused Rhodes of pushing him. “’I’m not pushing you,’ Rhodes hotly replied,” according to The Sun’s account.

“Demonstrators Detain Trustees” was the banner headline. At the bottom of the page we ran a photo of Rhodes and Turner. Rhodes, a bit disheveled, appears to be trying unsuccessfully to force a smile and is starting to reach for a handshake. Turner, impassive, has his hands on his hips, not yet extending his own hand. Behind Turner and to his right in the photo stand I, with a troubled look on my face. I was hard to crop out of the photo, I guess.

I wasn’t good at conflict. I was a reformer, not a fighter. My discomfort with what had gone down showed through in the editorials I wrote for the next three issues of The Sun. “We call on everyone involved to take time out to think and cool off,” I wrote in the first. The next day I parceled out blame: the protesters for the blockade, the trustees for initially blowing off the protesters and Rhodes, who I said “did much to lose his reputation as an unflappable Britisher who handles crises well.” The day after that I defended the Africana Studies and Research Center and reiterated The Sun’s support for divestment from apartheid South Africa, but ended by saying that the museum blockade “created an atmosphere of ill will” that could put the protesters’ goals “further from reach.”

Looking back on those anguished editorials 46 years later, I see that I took the easy way out by calling the museum blockade counterproductive. The more interesting question is what if it was productive, in the sense of achieving the protesters’ goals. Would I have supported it then? I think I’d still say no because I still almost instinctively oppose the use of force for political purposes, even though I think the protesters were on the right side of history.

How far protesters should go to achieve what they think is right has been a recurring question at Cornell, from the Straight takeover of 1969 (and before) down to this past semester. I still think universities should be held to a high moral standard, but I also still think that the right thing to do is not always clear and unambiguous. Bertrand Russell once said, “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” I think he was right about that. Although I might be wrong.

Peter Coy ’79 was editor-in-chief of The Sun in 1978-79. He is currently a writer for the Opinion section of The New York Times.