Campus Maximus

Early on the morning of Saturday, April 19, 1969, in a heavy mist that would soon yield to freezing rain, five students in Cornell University’s Afro-American Society entered Willard Straight Hall, the school’s student union, through a back door left unlocked the night before. Seizing keys from an overnight janitor, the students briskly evicted guests from their hotel rooms on the building’s third floor, most of them visitors in town for that semester’s Parents Weekend. After taking control of radio station WVBR, located in the basement of the Straight, occupiers announced the takeover to the Ithaca community, broadcasting their plan to hold the building for several hours as a means of “demonstrating our discontent,” as AAS member Cleveland Donald later put it. At the same time, AAS issued a series of non-negotiable demands to Cornell administrators, calling for more equitable judicial proceedings, a Black Studies program, and dedicated residences for students of color. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation escalated rapidly, as delineated afterward in a series of oral history interviews conducted in 1969 and 1970 and archived at Cornell’s Kroch Library. Incensed by AAS’s actions, even more by the presumption of its demands, white fraternity members stormed the Straight with knives and pool cues, only to be driven back with ease by AAS occupiers—“it was a matter of minutes,” Donald would explain to interviewers, “and they were getting their rumps beaten.” In response, AAS armed itself with rifles, handguns, and other weapons smuggled in over the course of that day. By nightfall, nearly one hundred members had barricaded themselves inside the Gothic-turreted building, sending Ithaca residents and Cornellians into panic and confronting authorities, both civic and academic, with an unprecedented crisis in public safety.

The culmination of years of AAS advocacy, the Straight takeover constituted a watershed moment in U.S. higher education. Never before had students introduced firearms into campus dissent at a modern American university, a decision that not only guaranteed widespread media attention but made Cornell “a harbinger,” as historian Donald Downs has argued, of cultural clashes “that have rocked American universities” ever since. Boldly challenging the role of the university in a democratic society, the takeover engaged at its core questions that tracked vertiginously, and continue to track, to the heart of American culture, for among the demands levied by AAS and its allies was the implementation of certain policies—speech codes, summary dismissal of instructors—that ran contrary, many believed, to the premise of liberal education. “Although such policies are often well-intentioned,” Downs contends, they “stifle honest and critical thinking about . . . race, gender, and equality and thus challenge the conception of the university as an institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth.” Dean of the Cornell Law School Norman Penney put the matter more bluntly in his own post-takeover interview. “If you start telling me that I can’t speak,” Penney stated, “that I’m a honky bastard who can’t be allowed to make racist statements, as the Blacks interpret them, then I’m going to fight. Now if that’s a conflict between social justice and academic freedom, then so be it.” 

If we recognize these statements, from the vantage of our own cultural moment, as limited in their assessment of liberal education—if we acknowledge, that is, that free inquiry and the claims of social justice need not prove irreconcilable—such recognition itself testifies to the legacy of 1960s activists. No longer, these students made clear, could the university be cordoned off from broader social issues, quarantined in the yards and quads and college towns we have come to identify, as if they were an armed camp, as an “ivory tower.” No longer could value-neutral “rational discourse” nor “art for art’s sake” aestheticism precede students’ lived experiences. No longer, as Cornellians were beginning to perceive that morning, through the fog and freezing rain, could politics end where the campus began.


The first time I laid eyes on Willard Straight Hall, oblivious, as a first-year graduate student, to the events that had taken place there, I nonetheless imagined the building as a kind of impregnable Carolingian keep. This impression was reinforced when I returned fourteen years later, in the summer of 2021, to listen onsite to the hundreds of statements, hearings, and interviews comprising the Challenge to Governance Oral History Project. I thought on both occasions that the Straight was a redoubt ideally suited—with its sheer crenellated walls, its parapets, its portal-like entrances barred by heavy wooden doors—to defending with a small band of determined militants, as indeed, in 1969, AAS had defended it.

Such considerations were not, I am slightly mortified to admit, unusual for me. As a child, fluently versed in LEGO and G.I. Joe military strategy, I would pass the unendurable hours of mass or gym class or choir practice determining the fewest troops with which I might, if put to the task, successfully defend a given space. Except for its stained-glass windows, St. Mary’s could be secured with a handful of soldiers. The gymnasium at Pleasant Elementary, I suspected, would prove far more indefensible. Willard Straight itself was a citadel, its flagstone terraces affording a clear view of the approaches, its floor plan labyrinthine. On those occasions when I bought lunch at its Okenshields dining hall, I inevitably wrong-turned and doubled-back and dead-ended before I stumbled upon the restaurant’s mezzanine-level entrance. “The Straight is first of all a bastion,” vice president for academic affairs Stuart Brown described after the takeover. In three years at Cornell, I never once found the building’s restroom.

There may have been no apter symbol, then, of the inhospitable ivory tower—and no more appropriate target for AAS activists—than Willard Straight and the Cornell campus generally; like Harvard Yard or the River Cam, the setting embodies geographically an institutional isolationism that itself refracts more profound ruptures in U.S. culture. Bounded at its northern and southern peripheries by Fall Creek and Cascadilla Gorge, the campus sits on East Hill nearly four hundred feet above Ithaca proper, looking out like some baronial estate on the town and on Cayuga Lake beyond; quite materially, and in multiple senses of the term, Cornell does not communicate with outsiders, its academic peerage engaged in finer and more dignified pursuits, the optics suggest, than the serf-like locals below. If the campus evokes a sort of architectural neo-feudalism, Willard Straight is its manor house, its battlements and bluestone façades modeled after fourteenth-century Dartington Hall in Devon, a gift from Richard II to the Duke of Exeter. The Straight’s views of town and country alike resemble the sublime landscapes of the nearby Hudson River School of American painting, its unobstructed vistas registering in visual form—as did the work, most notably, of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole—an epistemological and economic mastery. To see, from such a vantage, is to see through, not only to discern but to dominate. It was this vision that AAS challenged. Indeed, archival photos from that weekend reveal occupiers peering out from mullioned windows at the authorities below, AAS having assumed by force, if temporarily, the positions of mastery for which they had long campaigned.

As Cornell went, furthermore, so went the nation. As the American university’s garden idyll yielded to real-world considerations, the boundaries that walled off campuses from surrounding communities grew significantly more contested across the 1960s and ’70s, often in ways that complicated longstanding dissension between “town” and “gown.” Though invisible, these boundaries—of caste and culture, of labor and lifestyle—in fact defined overlapping, intersecting, and continuously fluctuating lines of force, organizing at the same time, as at Cornell, a theater of cultural action characterized by crossed signals and misperceived alliances. The critique of Cornell advanced by Donald and AAS, for instance—namely, that the university promoted exclusionary values—paralleled the conviction of Ithaca “townies,” many of whom, though not all, viewed Cornell as elitist in both structure and sensibility. To residents, however, wary of a broader social combativeness encroaching on their demesne, AAS represented merely one more expression of an emboldened academic Left, confederate with the very faculty and administration AAS had denounced and no more commendable, it seemed to those Ithacans, than folk singer and provocateur Joan Baez, who had visited Cornell ten months earlier. One of the many ironies entailing from the Straight takeover, then, was that a historically contentious town-and-gown divide would be bridged—albeit to limited extent, and in sometimes unrecognized ways—by shared opposition to AAS radicalism. Though the rhyme resonates, neither “town” nor “gown” would prove, in Ithaca or elsewhere, entirely monolithic entities.

Across the nation, similar mésalliances had already turned deadly. At South Carolina State the previous February, highway patrolmen had opened fire on a group of student activists protesting segregation in rural Orangeburg, killing two undergraduates and one high-schooler, all of them Black. In New York two months later, officers had used billy clubs, riot shields, and tear gas to drive Columbia students from campus buildings, occupied in protest of university construction on land rightfully belonging, students claimed, to Harlem residents. That December, the SFPD had employed similar tactics to quash protests at San Francisco State, where students responded by arming themselves with trash cans and furniture, while President S. I. Hayakawa enjoined them that “if you want to make trouble, stay right there.” “The police,” Hayakawa crowed, “will see that you get it.” On the horizon, of course, was Kent State. On the horizon was N.C. A&T, where Guardsmen would debut a new counterinsurgency technique to evict student occupiers, sweeping low over Scott Hall in a Sikorsky H-19 “Chickasaw” helicopter. So prevalent, during this period, were building seizures, draft riots, and other forms of campus unrest that university architecture seemed to many to reflect their influence, from the fortress brutalism of Davis Hall (1968) and Evans Hall (1971) at the University of California, Berkeley to administration buildings at Cornell accessible only, as I discovered one afternoon, by private elevator. As the outside world intruded, and as shifting allegiances and poor public relations muddled a historically bilateral town-and-gown divide, U.S. universities hardened themselves against the populations they were founded to serve, pulling up their drawbridges, sometimes quite literally, against both students and the public of which they were supposedly part.

In Ithaca, as the crisis at the Straight grew more serious, long-held resentments took material, and increasingly violent, form. Exasperated by a lack of transparency from administrators up the hill, mayor Jack Kiely summarily deputized four hundred police officers in a downtown parking lot, many of them residents of Ithaca and surrounding communities. “Don’t create some damn problem for us,” Kiely raged afterward, “and then say ‘gee, we need your help.’ We’d like to be consulted, and be able to give you our side of the picture.” Armed with sawed-off shotguns and what Kiely described as the city’s “beefed-up” riot equipment, these janissaries held technical jurisdiction in any armed conflict on the Cornell campus. Afterward, one official described the potential for disaster. “They had allowed the young rednecks from the hills to be deputized on the Woolworth’s lot,” he stated. “And they were loading shotguns with double-0 buck and saying, ‘Tonight we’re going to get us some n—— and them Jew commies.’ ” As the horrifying portrait suggests—objectifying Cornell’s diverse student constituency into a single chimeric adversary—the Straight takeover doused already volatile class and cultural tensions with the lighter fluid of racial resentment; many of these officers, as must have been obvious, were reactionary locals all too keen to exact their own brand of justice on the rebellious Ivy Leaguers.

Kiely himself, a Cornell dropout, harbored significant animosity toward both students and administrators. Responding to AAS charges of racism on the part of townspeople, Kiely maintained that he had “seen no evidence of racism other than Black racism in this community,” contending that “there has been an overreaction and an overuse of this particular word.” While such a sentiment might have led to meaningful collaboration, that weekend, between the mayor’s office and Cornell administrators, Kiely would later explain that there could be “no respect” for administrators among Ithaca residents, at least “until they can make rules that they’re willing to enforce.” Kiely seems even to have envisioned imposing martial law at Cornell, exploiting the school’s dramatic geography to strategic effect; the campus was “easy to control when you have enough people,” he reasoned, “because of the limited egress caused by the gorges and what have you . . . we can control it.” Unthinkable in a contemporary context, the statement laid bare Kiely’s fantasy of Jacobean-like revenge—of a coup d’école, one might say—on the institution from which he had failed to graduate, a reprisal that entailed nothing less than the forcible detention of citizens within a militarily circumscribed zone. By 1969, this apparently seemed to him not unreasonable public policy.

Taking his lead from his commanding officer, one Ithaca deputy reflected afterward on the Straight crisis with a similar appeal to military strategy: a “Rubicon,” he called the boundaries of campus, alluding to the Italian river that Julius Caesar, on January 10, 49 B.C., after precise orders not to, crossed with a single legion on his way toward invading Rome. The moment, embedded in our language as cliché, precipitated one of the bloodiest civil wars in antiquity. By mid-February, the key towns of Ariminum and Arretium had fallen. In four years, Caesar would be dictator. Before him, as Suetonius reminds us, the Senate fled.


If my childhood imagination, shaped by the Gulf War militarism of my G.I. Joe action figures, seems lamentably prophetic in an age of mass shootings and routine terror, it also suggests why I gravitated from a young age to what I perceived as the security and insularity of college campuses. Closed off from the outside world, the campus seemed idyllically removed from those sources of felt dread—from first-grade bruiser Joey W. to the Highway of Death outside Baghdad—that loomed threateningly beyond its borders. At my parents’ college reunion, I marveled at the Georgian dorms and manicured quads of Miami University, its stone bridges and palatial libraries and lakes and neo-classical colonnades suggesting a kind of realm out of time, transported, I imagined, from a distant and more exquisite past. It was a brochure world. Its meandering walkways seemed wondrously inefficient, its glades of oak and magnolia, tempestuous in their summer siennas, as impractical as the grotesques and finials adorning the main administration building. To a young boy enamored of the Boxcar Children and My Side of the Mountain, the college campus, a province solely dedicated, as I imagined it, to reading and to the life of the mind, shimmered with all the allure of Terabithia. It was hardly incidental, I now recognize, that fifteen years later I was drawn for graduate school to the charmed pastoralism of Cornell, nor that my career afterward would isolate me, for much of my adult life, securely within the confines of the American university.

Even early observers of that institution marveled at its romance. Traveling through New England in the fall of 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville found the college campus a wellspring of that “tranquility needed for deep intellectual investigation,” contrasting collegiate repose with the “widespread upheaval, this repeated grating of opposed interests” he noted elsewhere. Of 1930s Vassar, Le Corbusier wrote that “the American university is a world in itself, a temporary paradise, a gracious stage of life.” Such impressions owed in part to the priorities of college founders. Steeped in nineteenth-century agrarianism, educational leaders felt that only the purity of nature, guarantor of virtue and academic excellence, could counteract American cities’ moral turpitude; so ingrained was this belief that even urban universities went to great lengths to simulate rural seclusion, most notably in the 1904 construction of a brick and wrought-iron fence around Harvard Yard. Not content with founding their school 150 miles south of Chicago, in the heart of the state’s vast prairie and treeless swamps, trustees at the University of Illinois, where I currently teach, located the institution on a “self-contained . . . island” midway between the towns of Champaign and Urbana, hardly bustling metropolises in the first place. To reach either town, students of the late nineteenth century had to walk several miles or catch an inter-urban street railroad which ran only on the hour.

In subsequent generations, this self-imposed isolation would contribute in distinct ways to the radicalism of both students and faculty, a social and political intransigence to which—in its early 2000s form, and as an arriviste from Nick Carraway’s Midwest—I was both attracted and allergic. If student radicals of the 1960s began to perceive the university as a microcosm of society, no longer isolable from broader societal shortcomings, they also walled themselves off, as locals had recognized, within an academic echo chamber, drawing the campus into a feedback loop which seemed only to amplify its own values. At Cornell, I envied my classmates’ ease with Marx and Merleau-Ponty, the assurance with which they diagnosed the contradictions of late capital and the hypocrisies underlying western liberalism. At the same time, there seemed something wildly out of touch in their conviction, for instance, that to capitalize one’s name was to endorse “phallogocentric” systems of oppression or that voting constituted a hegemonic exercise of class privilege. As academic historian François Cussett points out, “in universities increasingly disconnected from their towns and struggling to communicate with the outside world, it seemed that the only way to achieve real results was by concentrating their efforts on the symbolic realm.” AAS member John Garner identified a similar insularity in what he called the “playpen revolution” of the Straight takeover, leaving Cornell soon afterward to work as a community organizer. And Cleveland Donald, who could on one hand commit himself to “making the university exist within a constant state of crisis,” could on the other acknowledge that “it’s a game, I think, that was being played.” “A game had developed,” Donald repeated. “Black students would make a demand, the university would fail to meet that demand, and Black students would be forced to make an even more radical demand.” In this light, and despite my childhood affinity for its seclusion, the campus and its politics have proven not so much fantasy as farce, satires of themselves lifted straight, it would seem, from the pages of a David Lodge novel.

But Donald’s game had its charm. As the Straight takeover entered its second day, with administrators and townspeople growing more restless by the hour, students themselves were swept up in what they perceived as the romance of the AAS protest. More than one compared the events to the recently released The Battle of Algiers, in which North African guerrillas lead an insurgency against French colonial occupiers. In the wake of the takeover, copies of Che Guevara’s Guerilla Warfare were snatched up from Cornell libraries. One onlooker described the campus with reference to the French Revolution. “There is a glow over people,” he reported, “like figures in a frieze or a historical painting. I now see why Delacroix painted that way. . . . Events have become historical, romantic.” Refigured as sport and cinematography, the events of late April 1969 became one more expression of the relative frivolity of college life in general, a period bracketed for many from conventional mores and responsibilities. While geographic isolation contributes to this state of exception at many schools, so too do their impeccably maintained campuses, their largely dispensatory rules systems, and their affinity for esoteric rituals in everything from football and frat life to course registration and commencement. “Everything,” Cussett writes, “ensure[s] that this transitional space—a veritable moratorium between the teenager’s insouciance and the grown-up’s struggle for survival—is a world . . . distinctly separate.” We have a name for that world, of course, telling shorthand for the romance and inconsequence of students’ charmed four years: the college experience.

While I sensed the mystique of that experience from a young age, it wasn’t until Cornell that I truly understood its potency. Graduate of a second-rate liberal arts college in the suburbs, I felt little prepared for the seemingly revolutionary tenor of Ivy League life, awed as I was by its heady swirl of Marxist and postcolonial theory, its sexual libertinism, and its panoply of activists hawking their politics in Ho Plaza. Even its landscape seemed to sequester me from the life I had known, its steep gorges and cat’s cradle bridges a Rubicon from which, having once stepped beyond it, I could never turn back. In a figuration of the university that eerily evokes the topography of Cornell, Cussett too insinuates that academic life takes place to a profound degree behind a cordon sanitaire. “The structural isolation of the American intellectual domain,” he contends, leaves “scant bridges of communication between the university and the outside world.” The “sheer radicalism” of campus politics, Cussett goes on, “did not give birth to a community-bridging network.” Damning in its indictment of a gulf between Main Street and Main Quad, Cussett’s imagery suggests that Cornell’s campus—crossed by no fewer than fourteen bridges, including the Thurston Avenue bridge separating student dormitories from administration buildings—may indeed constitute the paradigmatic landscape of American discourse. 

Beneath that landscape, of course, beneath the bridges that might once, if only in imagination, have spanned increasingly precipitous cultural divides—and as the tenor of Cussett’s rhetoric indicates, and as we are learning anew, I suspect, with each successive squabble over something like “identity politics” or “critical race theory” or “cultural appropriation”—lies that final and fundamental ground of all discourse, academic and otherwise: the abyss. 


Our own cultural moment, however, in which campus politics both refract and rearrange broader social ruptures, traces its contentiousness back to the earliest of academic initiatives. Plato intended his Academy, established in 387 B.C., as an intellectual sanctuary removed from the bustle and moral viciousness of urban Athens. Medieval undergraduates, unfamiliar with regional dialects and conspicuous because of their distinct customs and eccentric attire, regularly made enemies with less affluent townspeople, laborers who resented their neighbors’ youth, student privileges, and debauchery. Indeed, the enclosed quad that would become synonymous with U.S. collegiate life served, in earliest form, as a defense against the citizens of Oxford and Cambridge, dissimilar neither in form nor function from the notorious British infantry square. The metonym “gown” dates from this era, referring to haute vestments adopted by medieval students to symbolize their exemption from manual labor. Quite literally, early collegians wore their social privilege on their sleeves.

Then as now, many disputes between students and community members arose at drinking establishments frequented by both groups. On February 10, 1355, a riot broke out at Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford after two students complained about the quality of the wine. Incensed by the students’ presumption, armed gangs poured in from the surrounding countryside over the next three days, many carrying black flags and chanting “Havoc, havoc! Smyte fast, give gode knocks!” As the townspeople raided university dormitories, they murdered over sixty students and faculty, scalping several and helping themselves to the alcohol in students’ rooms. At Harvard in 1667, on the night before Thanksgiving, drunk undergraduates pilfered the turkeys of their Boston neighbors. In 1896, the county sheriff burst into a University of Illinois trustees meeting to arrest administrators for failing to fly the American flag over campus, an ostensible violation of state law. With more laudable objectives in mind—and in stunning, if inverted, anticipation of the events of January 6, 2021—students at Howard University endeavored to hold a sit-in at the U.S. Capitol on March 17, 1934, protesting an unwritten but long-observed rule barring non-white patrons from the House’s public dining room. They were violently repulsed.

My own experience with town-and-gown antagonism, if less dire, nonetheless testifies to the endurance and variegation of such conflicts. While the town of Ithaca has come to pride itself on its leftist inclinations—“15 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality,” the bumper stickers read—this commitment often extends little further than Subaru ownership, conspicuous yard signage, and Tibetan prayer flags strung from residents’ front porches. Meanwhile, Ithacans warily police property values in most neighborhoods, using zoning ordinances, real-estate watch groups, and discriminatory rental policies to restrict both low-income and student housing as well as those industries—namely bars and bubble tea cafés—that cater to students. As I was reminded on a recent visit, moreover, surrounding counties remain militantly conservative in the face of campus liberalism. Driving north on Route 13 from Elmira, one encounters billboard after trailer after barnside dedicated to Donald Trump’s 2024 reelection, a clear provocation of students and faculty, given that the highway is one of only three routes into and out of town. No doubt sympathetic to such displays, a Champaign resident asked me at a bar last week, as he appraised my pink running shorts and long hair, if I was “from around here” and whether or not I’d been “vaccinated like the other sheeple.” Though he’d tried to square off with me as I left, the encounter pales in its seriousness, I imagine—I am, after all, a white male—to those forms of harassment endured by students and faculty of color in towns like Ithaca, Champaign, College Station, and West Lafayette.

Ironically, many of these residents find meaningful and comparatively well-paid work with the very institutions the students and faculty of which they sometimes beleaguer. Their nineteenth-century predecessors, moreover, typically numbered among the most vocal advocates for locating a school in a given locale. Eager to attract investment and employment opportunities, local boosters pitched trustees on their town’s low cost of living, easy credit, virtuous and indefatigable workers, and any other advantages with which they might influence official sentiment. While Ezra Cornell privately founded his university on his own farmland, the University of Illinois found its way to Champaign-Urbana only through considerable graft, a tradition that prevails to this day in state politics. Throughout the legislative session during which the school’s fate was debated, Champaign County boosters rented a suite of rooms at Springfield’s opulent Leland Hotel, plying trustees and political leaders with liquor, oyster lunches, quail dinners, and theater tickets to that season’s most popular shows. It was only after the university proved less remunerative than anticipated—enrollment remained low for decades, construction on the prairie bottomland proceeded slowly—that many townspeople became disillusioned with the school and those affiliated with it.

To this day, as in many college towns, Illinois students live in ramshackle neighborhoods isolated socially and structurally from the broader life of Champaign-Urbana, including from their professors. Dominated by slumlords and corporate management offices, Campustown developed in ad hoc fashion as owners subdivided nineteenth-century residences into two- and three-bedroom apartments; such structures, braced with fire escapes, paint peeling off in thick curls, stand side by side with contemporary high-rises marketed to wealthier students from East Asia, India, and the more affluent Chicago suburbs. On Green Street, the neighborhood’s principal thoroughfare, one can find on a single block concerns peddling everything from legalized marijuana and custom tee shirts to poke bowls, axe throwing, late-night cookie delivery, bibimbap, shawarma, and cell-phone repair, alongside, of course, standard college-town dives with names like Kam’s, Legends, and Red Lion. Surrounding neighborhoods, tamer in both cuisine and culture, are also greener and less populated, making Campustown a kind of miniature metropolis rising from the Illinois prairie. At Cornell, the student enclave of Collegetown—site, during the Straight takeover, of a delirious panic that spread like contagion through its warrens of shacks and boarding houses—has become as dense today as parts of Brooklyn and San Francisco, a result of the city’s suspension of height limits in the 1990s. Across a ten-year period, more than a dozen high-rise apartment buildings were constructed just south of the Cornell campus, a district hemmed in by historically protected cemeteries and which looms ominously over nearby faculty bungalows.

If the sequestration of these neighborhoods, along with the campuses they serve, suggests more significant cultural divisions, however, it must also be said that the college town as a phenomenon possesses at times a characteristic charm that distinguishes it from towns of a similar size. Leafy, easily bikeable, with cobblestone streets and art theaters and food co-ops and craft breweries, to say nothing of respectable healthcare and university-sponsored public transportation, towns like Ithaca and Champaign-Urbana offer the amenities of “big-city life,” as their PR departments boast, without inconveniences such as traffic, crime, and high costs of living. Because employment is dominated by a single large institution, moreover, residents share a common set of professional experiences that work to allay differences of class and culture; it has been for me a source of inestimable consolation to lament with my neighbors, administrative professionals at Illinois, the byzantine systems of oversight we are tasked with negotiating on a daily basis. And while animosity among students, faculty, and townspeople remains a real and potentially violent phenomenon, college towns can sometimes prove more tolerant than surrounding communities. Though the seizure of the Straight galvanized some Ithacans against what they perceived as the hubris of Cornell undergraduates, that sentiment was hardly universal; upon learning of the takeover, resident Irving Grossman walked uphill to Anabel Taylor Hall, where he joined other townspeople in preparing meals for AAS protestors, presaging the leftward turn the town would take in the coming decades. “There are great awakenings taking place,” Grossman said later. “The young people and the energetic Black people together are going to insist on a healthier, better future.” At times, and even during the Straight takeover, the college town embodies that future.

Nowhere has the charm of the college town been more apparent to me, and nowhere has it seemed more efficiently to annul the rancor among Ithacans and Cornellians—conspicuous, too, during my time there as a graduate student from 2007 to 2010—than at the gorges separating the Cornell campus from Ithaca proper. It was there, where Fall Creek plunges over Ithaca Falls, that students and townies would gather in the Ithaca summers to hurl themselves, in defiance of county ordinance, into the freezing water below. Before authorities cracked down in 2009, I would clamber up a narrow path in the gorge and gaze down, while I mustered my courage, at the summer tableau arranging itself on the shoreline. In the shallows, townie kids shotgunned Bud Ices and Genesee Lights. Undergrads reclined in their Ray-Bans. From portable radios, Slipknot boomed over the indie-pop on students’ iPhones, each group cheering its gorge-jumpers as if they were ancient champions entering the arena. Inner tubes bumping softly, beers passed among them with nigh utopian generosity, students and townies seemed in those moments an ideal image of the American demos, that society toward which—according to Grossman at least, and with the caveat that Ithaca summers were themselves, like most summers, an arcadia unrealizable in everyday life—the nation’s history had begun to evolve in the 1960s.

At the top of the gorge, I would watch in awe as townies contorted themselves into backflips and flying squirrels. Tying my shoes, I stepped back for a running start. While footwear absorbed much of the water’s impact, it also complicated the exit afterward, since, combined with one’s entry speed, waterlogged shoes acted like anchors on the jumpers who wore them. Townies never did. It could feel, I had learned, as if one were being pulled endlessly into Cayuga Lake below, down through its stratified thermal layers, through the silt and kelp forests reaching up from its depths, down even and impossibly through the Cargill salt mine beneath the lakebed, its silica drifting in fluorescence, its vaults and chambers a kind of underworld waiting to take us in—down, finally, through time itself to a world made simple by compression, by the weight of everything above.


Two stories beneath Cornell’s Kroch Library, on audiotapes stored in polypropylene boxes in climate-controlled vaults, the Challenge to Governance Oral History Project affords striking insight into the events of that April, punctuated as the Project is with the kind of intimate details omitted from wire reports and radio newscasts. As the school’s vice president for student affairs, Mark Barlow, discloses, for instance, administrators abandoned their offices in Day Hall soon after learning of AAS’s actions, fearing that the organization might direct its attention toward buildings of greater symbolic and structural value. Describing what became known as “the university in exile,” Barlow explained to interviewers that “we set up an alternate command post” first in the A. D. White Museum and later in an engineering building with “an internal core that was protected from the outside.” It was this makeshift administrative citadel to which, as the crisis reached fever pitch on its second day, workers at Cornell’s nearby Statler Hotel delivered a gallon of pre-mixed martinis, a “thoughtful gesture,” Barlow admitted, but “potentially a very dangerous one.”

Of particular import in these interviews, and likewise unaccounted for in local and national coverage, are details regarding the ultimate resolution of the conflict near nightfall on Sunday, April 20. Eager to preempt violence from Ithaca police, and conscious that Mayor Kiely’s “deputies” had been advancing up East Hill toward campus, vice president for public affairs Steven Muller entered the Straight to negotiate with AAS leaders, describing the building afterward in terms evocative of Gothic fiction. “Here you have Willard Straight in the middle of campus,” Muller reported, “a dark, eerie building with a commanding view.” There was “a premium,” he went on, “on getting AAS out of that building.” As he tried to assess the number and temperament of occupiers, Muller found himself disoriented in the building’s maze-like interior, wandering “past the Ivy Room and into the cafeteria to the program office, God knows what door of that damn building that is.” Though AAS had targeted the Straight for its symbolic resonances, such architecture likely reinforced their bargaining power. Enlisting to their advantage both the imposing setting and impending darkness—and manipulating, as they did, administrators’ fears of violence—occupiers pressed for and were granted virtually every one of their original demands; not only would Cornell establish a more equitable judicial system, a degree-granting Black Studies program, and culturally themed undergraduate housing, but AAS would receive unconditional amnesty for the takeover itself, allaying student fears of reprisal from either the university or the city of Ithaca.

Occupiers were also permitted—and it was this concession, more than any other, that would come to divide Cornell and the wider public in their perception of the takeover—to retain indefinite possession of their firearms in the name of self-defense. “Black students had to leave as men,” Cleveland Donald told one interviewer, “and that meant holding those guns in your hand” and presenting “an image of manhood to the Black community.” For Muller, who asked—but could hardly enforce—that occupiers unload any weapons they removed, AAS resembled at that moment less an initiative for social justice than a “paramilitary formation,” a “cowboy encampment” with “armed outriders” protecting the group from attack. That image would become a defining one. Memorialized in Steve Starr’s Pulitzer Prize–winning below-the-fold photograph in Monday’s New York Times, occupiers exited the Straight with guns raised and bandoliers loaded, provoking widespread outrage in Ithaca and beyond. While Cornell students and even some faculty members heralded what Donald called “the new revolutionary position being adopted by young Blacks,” beyond the boundaries of campus, much of the U.S. public recoiled at the leniency afforded AAS and its allies.

For these critics, the Straight takeover embodied in succinct form a moral desuetude that had grown more alarming over the past decade, a failure of nerve, they charged, to stand up to the misguided ideologies of the university’s enfants terribles. As Downs explains, “to most of the world outside Cornell, allowing students with guns . . . to dictate the terms of agreement was difficult to justify.” “This was a horrid mistake,” Mayor Kiely bemoaned. “We stressed to the nth degree that [AAS] must not come out with weapons, that this would be a horrible thing. Everybody went into orbit down here.” Intrinsic to objections like Kiely’s, widespread on op-ed pages and radio call-in shows, as well as in virulent letters to Cornell administrators, was the belief that students of color had been granted special exemption to violate community standards of behavior: the weapons were unlicensed, town and gown had been subject, many believed, to domestic terrorism, and AAS itself walked away with significant gains underwritten by the tuition of white students. In this light, Cornell’s response to AAS ultimatums seemed to observers on the other side of its gorges—in the town, we might say, of public opinion—a clear instance of the “reverse discrimination” with which universities would be charged throughout the affirmative-action and race-theory debates of our own era. 

Even some members of the Cornell community found AAS’s legal exemption unsettling; while the organization maintained that institutionalized legal procedures—the lack of students of color on university judiciary boards, for example—were themselves the product of systemic racism, AAS’s detractors excoriated such leniency as a threat to the pillars of liberal education. “[I]ntellectual freedom, intellectual honesty, and a commitment to the standards of evidence . . . became suspect,” Downs glosses, in the wake of Willard Straight, subordinated to “a new vision of the university as a vehicle for moral regeneration.” At a faculty meeting that May, government professor and Vietnam War protestor George Kahin argued that “a generation which has never seen [academic freedom] challenged cannot be expected to be aware of it.” Kahin had come to Cornell “as a man already well-smeared by McCarthyism,” he said. “Let me assure you that calling a man a racist does not make him so, any more than McCarthy calling him a Communist made him a Communist.” Less objectionable, perhaps, than criticisms raised by Kiely and other townspeople, Kahin’s comments suggest that in addition to complicating a rupture between Ithaca and Cornell—and complicating relations within those institutions—the events of that April revealed fundamental flaws in the idea of liberal education, rending the gown of the American university in ways that remain conspicuous.

As I listened, in fact, to hour after hour of interviews in the sub-basement of Kroch Library, the air-conditioning whirring on high blast, fluorescent lights blazing, I came to recognize in my opinion of the takeover the same ambivalence I feel with respect to the politics of higher education in the present day. On one hand, the demands of social justice remain as important—and, I suspect, as imperiled—as they did in the 1960s, and the momentum behind certain contemporary social justice initiatives testifies powerfully to the university’s capacity for reorienting the arc of American social and cultural discourse. Headphones clamped tight, tapes wheeling on the desk in front of me, I often found myself nodding in awed concurrence with the moral conviction—and with the charisma and forcefulness and ideological consistency—of Donald and his colleagues. The takeover was “not a question of right or wrong,” he explained, since “in a revolutionary setting all values are turned upside down.” I recognized this position, and others like it—“you can’t have a revolutionary group within an establishment institution”—as fundamental to Marxist and postcolonial thinking, but on the tapes it seemed brought to life with an urgency I had rarely appreciated, charged with the same romance that had electrified students’ imaginations in 1969. In those moments, I understood that romance. In those moments, I could have taken the Straight myself.

On the other hand, I remain astounded anew, each year, by the inability of campus activists to communicate their priorities beyond the quads and college towns in which those priorities originate, to promote their values among segments of the population that might be persuaded that those values are also their own. At a moment, for instance, when the precarity of adjunct labor might be shown to dovetail meaningfully with corporate union-busting and soaring compensation for C-suite executives, academic activists, breathing the thin air of their moral high ground, have concentrated their efforts on sometimes farcical interventions; to anthropomorphize tree limbs, as any student of the humanities knows, is to compromise the “alterity” of the natural world, while acronym usage, according to one Duke instructor, tends in its implicit biases to perpetuate white supremacy. Students and faculty “live in a world of ideas,” as one Cornell administrator put it in 1969, “and confuse the outcome of a debate with outcomes in the world,” a statement suggesting still further divisions between realpolitik administrators and their more radical wards. As much as it reorients U.S. culture toward realization of its democratic ideals, in other words, the university also delimits the reach of those ideals, extending, as if into extra innings, what Donald and AAS identified as the “game” of campus politics. This game is particularly injurious because it is one that the American Left has been losing for some time. As campuses walled themselves off, across the 1960s and into the 1980s, with theoretical extremism and cultural nationalism, millions of Americans turned their attention to an emerging and less critical image of the United States, one which spoke from their tv screens of union more than disunion, of hope rather than hegemony: that image was Ronald Reagan. 

That campus radicals have ignored these developments speaks in part to the nature of college life itself. As I watched tape after tape unreel across the spindles—spiraling all the way back, it seemed, to April 1969—I encountered time and again a frustration among AAS activists that their work would begin all over again in the fall, as new members joined and as graduates left to pursue other ambitions; if campuses are forever young, they are also forever re-educating themselves on the causes for which they have campaigned. At the same time, students’ increasingly limited historical awareness speaks too, as many have argued, to a presentism that has marred U.S. culture since the nineteenth century. Americans “have only a lukewarm regard for learning,” Tocqueville perceived, “and hardly a spare thought for . . . Rome or Athens. They insist on hearing about themselves.” In more than a decade as an instructor in higher education—and at the risk, duly admitted, of hasty generalization—I have been astonished at the extent to which students fail to recognize that in fact we have lived this moment before, in all its emancipatory potential, in all its righteous hope. We have played this game. We have seen how the inning ends.

When I came up from the Kroch Library archives, my ears crackling with the static of late-sixties recording technology, attendants closing up at the circulation desk, the August sun had just begun to slip below West Hill across Cayuga Lake. In the boulevards of Ho Plaza, warped shadows lapped across the concrete, the Straight itself lit up like something out of Brontë or Walpole. The plaza was empty, cicadas grinding in the oak trees, but as I walked south toward Cascadilla Gorge I imagined all the students who had passed beneath those same trees, across those same stones, in the century and a half since the school’s founding. I thought of Donald and the AAS marching across this very plaza with their weapons. I thought of Cornell’s first freshman class, students who, in 1856, entered campus across a rickety footbridge spanning what one described as the “rushing white current of the waterfall below”—they were dead now.

Roaring that evening with the tumult of history itself, the current, I knew, was sweeping even then through Ithaca and Cayuga Lake to the Seneca River, onward, then, to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, to the Atlantic, and to the one ocean in which—touching Rio, touching Rome—we are all forever adrift. It seemed, as I walked past, that I could hear that water cascading back, beyond all walls and borders and boundaries, to its single ancient and indivisible source. Of course, I know, I could not.


Christopher Kempf is the author of the poetry collections What Though the Field Be Lost (LSU Press, 2021) and Late in the Empire of Men (Four Way, 2017), as well as of the scholarly book Craft Class: The Writing Workshop in American Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022). Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.