Perhaps no phenomenon more vividly epitomizes America’s cultural revolution than the student uprisings that swept across college and university campuses from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. What began in 1964 with demonstrations by members of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley soon engulfed hundreds of campuses and made front-page news everywhere. The ostensible political issues—the Vietnam conflict, curricular reform, housing arrangements for racial minorities, university investment policies, and so on—were quickly assimilated to a much broader emancipationist program. Students may have marched to protest the presence of the ROTC on campus, university rules governing political activism, or U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. But in the end such issues were mere rallying points for a revolution in sensibility, a revolution that brought together radical politics, drug abuse, sexual libertinage, an obsession with rock music, exotic forms of spiritual titillation, and a generalized antibourgeois animus.

It is difficult at this distance to recapture the suddenness and fury of those insurrectionary episodes. The consternation of early press accounts—at the beginning, even The New York Times was aghast—shows that the assault, like a kind of cultural Pearl Harbor, caught the nation totally unprepared. Our complacency, as we look back on those events, is one measure of how successful the revolution turned out to be. The whole cultural climate of America, including the climate of higher education, was transformed by that radical assault. What had been a society defined and guided by allegiance to classic liberal ideals—the ideal, for example, that distinguished sharply between disinterested academic inquiry and political activism—suddenly found itself at the mercy of a distinctly illiberal radicalism. If American universities these days are rarely scenes of serious student unrest, that is primarily because there is little that the radicals demanded that they did not get.

Consider, to take just one example, the near universality of so-called “affirmative action”—i.e., preferential treatment based on race, sex, or some other approved badge of minority status. That this bit of Orwellian Newspeak has passed unchallenged into the language is itself an enormous victory for the forces of radicalism. Among other things, it has allowed radicals the luxury of institutionalizing discrimination under the banner of progressive activism. Henceforth, discriminating against certain classes of people can be taken as a means of ending discrimination. In the academy, the result of this mendacity has been to politicize not only college admissions policies, but also hiring and promotion practices for the faculty, decisions about the curriculum, grading, methods of teaching, and student life. In every case, bedrock liberal principles—that preferment ought to be based on merit, that everyone is equal before the law—were shamelessly abandoned in the face of political pressure. (Perhaps the greatest victory of this sort for the radicals was to popularize the idea that everything is political—a conviction that eats away at the very heart of classical liberalism.)

The complex story of student protest movements in this country yields a series of cautionary tales. One of the central dramas concerns the fate of liberalism itself. The disheartening spectacle of liberal university administrators abasing themselves and their institutions before law-breaking radicals signaled not simply a failure of nerve but, even more troubling, a profound crisis in the fundamental principles upon which higher education in Western, democratic societies had always rested. Whether this bespoke an essential weakness in liberal ideology or only a failure of particular men faced with difficult decisions is perhaps an open question. Critics of liberalism will note that its tendency to let tolerance and openness trump every other virtue renders it peculiarly impotent when faced with substantive moral dilemmas: absolutized, “tolerance” and “openness” become indistinguishable from moral paralysis. In any event, one thing is certain: that the liberal capitulation of university administrators in the Sixties and Seventies helped enormously to establish—and to legitimize—the radical ethos of the counterculture.

The basic outlines of this capitulation were present from the beginning. As the sociologist Nathan Glazer observed in “What Happened at Berkeley,”[1] the agitation for “free speech” that erupted at Berkeley in 1964 contained a strong element of hucksterism: “Those of us who watched the Free Speech Movement (FSM) daily set up its loud-speakers on the steps of the administration building to denounce the president, the chancellor, the newspapers, the Regents, the faculty, and the structure and organization of society in general and universities in particular, could only admire the public-relations skill exhibited in the choice of a name for the student movement.”

The catalytic issue at Berkeley was the disposition of a twenty-six-foot strip of land owned by the university at the entrance to campus. The Free Speech Movement wanted to use this bit of university property to proselytize and collect money on behalf of various political causes; the university sought to regulate political activity there as it did elsewhere on campus. The confrontation produced endless rallies, marches, protests, and vigils, some of which involved upwards of seven thousand people and which brought the university to the edge of collapse.

The slogan was “free speech.” But the real issue, Glazer pointed out, was not free speech but “the student demand that the university allow them facilities for full political action and give up its right to discipline them for what it consider[ed] improper use of these facilities.” In other words, the demand for “free speech” was really a demand that the university transform itself from an academic community into a haven for political radicalism. A pamphlet distributed in January 1965 by the FSM put it this way: since “politics and education are inseparable,” the “main purpose of the university” should not be “passing along the morality of the middle class, nor the morality of the white man, nor even the morality of the potpourri we call ‘western society.’”

The authors of this pamphlet were a bit fuzzy about what they thought the “main purpose” of the university should be. Rebelling against the “excessive greed” and “machinery” of the educational establishment was clearly a prominent ingredient. For anyone not caught up in their rhetoric, however, such animadversions tended mostly to reinforce a point that the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset made in his introductory essay to The Berkeley Student Revolt. “A high incidence of intense student political activity,” Lipset noted, “is in some sense an indication of the failure of a university as an academic community, particularly since in most cases such activity involves a rejection of the intellectual leadership of the faculty, a denigration of scholarship to a more lowly status than that of politics within the university itself.”

Living as we do at a time when virtually all cultural institutions have been politicized by the radical imperatives of the counterculture, it may be difficult to appreciate how thoroughly traditional Lipset’s encomium to academic independence is. It was not so long ago, in fact, that an insistence on the autonomy of intellectual work in the academy was a prime tenet of liberal orthodoxy. The diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, for example, gave expression to this conviction in his once-famous essay “Rebels Without a Program,”[2] published in 1968 at the height of the radical assault on the universities:

There is an ideal that has long been basic to the learning process as we have known it… . It is the ideal of the association of the process of learning with a certain remoteness from the contemporary scene—a certain detachment and seclusion, a certain voluntary withdrawal and renunciation of participation in contemporary life in the interests of the achievement of a better perspective on that life when the period of withdrawal is over.
That this ideal of scholarly seclusion had lately been abrogated on campuses across the country was something that Kennan regarded with profound concern. “The fact of the matter,” he noted, “is that the state of being enragé is simply incompatible with fruitful study.” We shall have occasion to return to Kennan’s essay below. For now, it is worth noting to what extent it represents a species of liberalism that has been undone by its accommodation with countercultural radicalism. Today, no academic liberal would be caught dead repeating Kennan’s analysis. In this sense, his essay serves as a marker of how much liberalism has lost.

The battles precipitating that loss were being waged in the months before and after Kennan published “Rebels Without a Program” in 1968. At Harvard, radical students seized buildings and issued a series of “non-negotiable demands.” At Columbia, a dean was held hostage, the president’s office was occupied, and his files were looted. Similar outrages were occurring at campuses large and small, distinguished and undistinguished, across the country. Taking over buildings and smashing up property had, as Time magazine put it in April 1969, become a “deplorable custom.” The general pattern that emerged was irresponsible, self-aggrandizing license on the part of students; fretful collaboration on the part of faculties; and pusillanimous accommodation on the part of administrations. Of course, there were a few exceptions. Edward Levi, for example, president of the University of Chicago, managed to diffuse student protests by rallying the faculty to his side and refusing to provide an audience for grandstanding protesters. But few administrators possessed Levi’s level-headed strength of character. Among the hundreds of incidents, events at Cornell University in April 1969 and Yale University in April 1970 stand out. There were more violent and destructive protests elsewhere. But nowhere was the behavior of administrators and faculty more craven. The protagonists of both events deserve a special place in the annals of liberal capitulation.

In terms of simple collapse of principle, James A. Perkins, then the president of Cornell, must take the palm. Perkins had come from the Carnegie Foundation in 1963 to assume the presidency of Cornell. A Quaker, Perkins was, as Newsweek put it at the time, “the liberal president of a liberal institution.” He came brimful of good intentions and fatuous misunderstandings of human nature. One of his first orders of business was to create a Committee on Special Educational Projects to recruit black students whose SAT scores were well below (175 points below, as it happened) the average of Cornell’s entering class. Perkins wanted to show what a bit of liberal education could do by way of social engineering. So what if these black students, many of whom were from urban ghetto areas, came totally unequipped to take advantage of an ivy-league education? All it took were a few liberal clichés about the transforming power of education to overcome any objections on that score.

The results of Perkins’s experiment ran entirely according to script. The number of black students at Cornell rapidly rose from twenty-five to about two hundred and fifty. Completely at sea, they banded together to form an Afro-American Society. They then began issuing demands: for separate, black-only living quarters; for an Afro-American Studies Program, again, for blacks only; finally, they demanded that Cornell create an autonomous degree-granting college-within-a-college for the exclusive use of black students, the aim of which was to “create the tools necessary for the formation of a black nation.” One statement informed the world that “whites can make no contributions to Black Studies except in an advisory, non-decision making or financial capacity.”

Of course, such segregationist militancy was totally at odds with Perkins’s liberal principles. He had brought these blacks to Cornell to integrate them into society, not to watch them reproduce a segregated environment. But liberal principles, at least in the hands of men like Perkins, turn out to be remarkably pliable. The demand for the autonomous college was presented as an ultimatum. After a certain amount of tergiversation, Perkins acceded, noting petulantly that he was “extremely reluctant to accept this idea of a college exclusive to one race, but [that he was] not finally opposed to it; it would involve a lot of rearranging of [his] own personality.” In “The Assault on the Universities: Then and Now” (1997), the political philosopher Walter Berns, a professor at Cornell in the 1960s, noted that “in the event … [Perkins’s] ‘personality’ needed no rearrangement.” Temperamentally, he was primed to capitulate. As Perkins himself put it later, “There is nothing I have said or will say which will not be modified by changing circumstances.” Events, which began to unfold rapidly, showed that he was not exaggerating.

In 1968, black students at Cornell charged a visiting professor of economics with racism because he had dared to judge African nations by a “Western” standard of development. The administration required an apology from the professor; he complied, but the students were not satisfied and took possession of the economics department, holding the chairman and his secretary prisoner for eighteen hours. The students were never punished. An investigating dean exonerated the professor but charged Cornell with “institutional racism.” As Walter Berns noted, what began as an attack on “racism” “quickly became an assault on the integrity of the academic enterprise, an assault that was bound to succeed because it was met with only nominal resistance on the part of the faculty and none at all from the administration.”

The following months saw an escalating pattern of “non-negotiable demands,” vandalism, and violence. Buildings were occupied, hostages taken, college property destroyed. In December 1968, a white reporter for the college newspaper was beaten up by a black student. When black students requested seventeen hundred dollars to buy bongo drums for Malcolm X Day, the administration compromised by offering them a thousand dollars and flying two students to New York City in the college plane to buy the drums. In February 1969, at a symposium on South Africa, Perkins was challenged to defend Cornell’s investment policy, which included holding stock in banks that lent money to South Africa. During his talk, a black student leaped onto the stage, grabbed Perkins by the collar, and seized the microphone from him. When the head of Cornell’s security force rushed to Perkins’s aid, he was held at bay by another black student wielding a two-by-four. According to the college newspaper, blacks in the audience responded by beating on the bongo drums the university had so graciously bought for them while Perkins was heard to whisper, “You better let go of me, you better let go of me!”

Matters came to a crisis in the spring of 1969. On Saturday, April 19, during parents’ weekend, some one hundred black students walked into Willard Straight Hall shortly before 6:00 A.M. and gave the occupants ten minutes to leave. Eleven doors were broken down with crowbars when occupants were slow in responding. Some thirty parents and forty college employees were forcibly ejected from the building. University officials then stood by passively while the black students armed themselves with knives, rifles, and ammunition. With militants from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) forming a protective guard outside, the blacks settled down for what turned out to be a thirty-five-hour occupation. According to a broadcast on a student radio show, the protest had been undertaken because of Cornell’s “racist attitudes” and because it “lacked a program relevant to the black students.” When some white students broke into the building later in the day, a scuffle ensued that sent several students to the infirmary. One black shouted out the warning that “if any more whites come in … you’re gonna die here.”

Central to the demands issued by the occupiers was that disciplinary action against three black students involved in an earlier incident be dropped. Steven Muller, vice-president for public affairs at Cornell, promised to recommend to the faculty that they vote to nullify the reprimands. An agreement was worked out and signed, and the black students, in an image that made the front page of newspapers across the country, vacated the building clutching rifles and sporting ammunition belts, their clenched fists raised in defiance.

On Monday, the deeply divided Cornell faculty voted, by a margin of 726 to 281, not to dismiss the penalties. “The presence of arms and the seizure of Willard Straight Hall,” the motion read, “make it impossible for the Faculty to agree at this meeting to dismiss the penalties imposed on the three students.” In response, white and black radicals joined forces and occupied a faculty building. Soon they had attracted some twenty-five hundred students. Thomas W. (Tom) Jones, one of the gun-toting blacks involved in the Straight Hall takeover, informed them that the faculty had voted for a “showdown.” The next day, speaking on a local radio station, Jones threatened that seven faculty members and administrators would be “dealt with.” “If you believe in your principle sufficiently,” he warned, “then be ready to die for it.” In response, several professors moved their families to motels for the night. Jones, demanding that the faculty meet again and nullify the penalties, declared that “Cornell has three hours to live… . We are moving tonight.”

In the event, Jones waited, with the two-thousand or more students occupying the building, until the faculty met the next day to reconsider the demand for nullification. Not all of the professors were cowards. James J. John, for example, a professor of history, eloquently argued that “if we had a good reason for not dismissing the charges on Monday, … we have a stronger reason for not doing so today… . This university, I believe, can survive the expulsion or departure of no matter what number of students and the destruction of buildings far better than it can survive the death of principle.” But apparently a vast majority of the faculty agreed with Max Black, the Sage Professor of Philosophy, who, declaring that “I don’t need to be intimidated,” assured students that “we want to be your friends.” When a voice vote was taken, nullification passed by an estimated seven hundred to three hundred. As Tom Jones observed when addressing a crowd of students after the vote, “That decision was made right here. They didn’t make any decision; they were told from this room what to do.”

There were other humiliations. That evening, when Perkins went to address the students, he was publicly mocked by a black student leader who ostentatiously kept him waiting to speak. A white student “picked his way across the crowded stage, grabbed a can of Pepsi-Cola that Perkins had been drinking from, and lifted it high for all to see. Then he drank from it and handed it back to the president.” Perkins’s response, when he was finally allowed to speak, was to salute the meeting as “one of the most positive forces ever set in motion in the history of Cornell.”

And what was the upshot of this disgusting episode? Several of Cornell’s most distinguished professors resigned, including Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Allan P. Sindler, chairman of the government department. There was some justice. Perkins resigned—or was forced to resign (accounts vary)—and went to a foundation job in New York. But Steven Muller went on to become president of Johns Hopkins University. And Tom Jones, one of the most militant of the black radicals, eventually became the president of TIAA-CREF, the world’s largest pension fund. In 1993, Jones was appointed to the Cornell board of trustees. And in 1995, in a final surreal twist, he made a large contribution to Cornell to endow the annual Perkins Prize “for the student, faculty, staff member or program that has done the most during the preceding year to promote interracial understanding and harmony on campus.” (Readers nervous at the thought of Jones at TIAA may rest easy: he is now at Smith-Barney.)

These grotesque events were bad enough in themselves. But their real significance was as a prelude to similar depredations elsewhere. As Allan Bloom noted at the time, when the Cornell faculty caved in, students discovered that “pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom could, with a little shove, be made into dancing bears.” While it would be a mistake to saddle Perkins with responsibility for all the horrors that have been visited upon higher education since his tenure at Cornell, his capitulation to the totalitarian demands of the student radicals had ramifications far beyond Ithaca, New York. As Walter Berns pointed out, “by surrendering to students armed with guns,” Perkins

made it easier for those who came after him to surrender to students armed only with epithets (“racists,” “sexists,” “elitists,” “homophobes”); by inaugurating a black studies program, Perkins paved the way for Latino studies programs, women’s studies programs, and multicultural studies programs; by failing to support a professor’s freedom to teach, he paved the way for speech codes and political correctness; and of course he pioneered the practice of affirmative action admissions and hiring.
In other words, by his capitulations, Perkins did a great deal to politicize the university and undermine its claims to intellectual independence.

The pusillanimous collapse of Cornell’s administration and faculty when faced with threats of violence was in some ways the most depressing spectacle of the whole student protest movement. But perhaps equally, if more subtly, significant for the future of higher education was the rally-cum-university-wide-strike that took place at Yale University in the Spring of 1970. By that time, the antics of student radicals not only had become a well-established, almost habitual, part of university life, but also had forged strong links with radical elements elsewhere in American culture. The dramatis personae were nearly always the same: on one side a dithering administration and faculty that was only too willing to compromise on essential principles of academic integrity in the quest to be hip, liberal, “with it.” On the other side was a student body increasingly inflamed by drugs, puerile political slogans, and the astonishing realization that their elders were prepared to countenance almost any outrage as long as it was suitably packaged as an expression of anguished idealistic passion. Indeed, as the decade unfolded, those elders went from countenancing adolescent “idealism” to embracing it themselves. The maturation of the student protest movement turned out to be part of the infantilization of the American intelligentsia.

Like the Cornell debacle, the story of the New Haven rally and Yale strike forms a complex tale with many actors and subplots. The whole story is admirably laid out by John Taft, a student at Yale at the time, in Mayday at Yale: A Case Study in Student Radicalism (1976). Here it is enough to recount a few highlights.

In the background was the murder trial in New Haven of Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther party, and eight other Panthers. The Panthers, in collusion with radicals at and outside of Yale, began fomenting unrest in the Yale community and planning a rally to support Seale and his co-defendents. In April, early on in the proceedings, a judge charged two Panthers who were sitting in the visitors’ section with contempt of court and jailed them. This galvanized radical elements in and around Yale, who began complaining loudly that the Black Panthers could not get a fair trial. Fresh from his stint defending the Chicago Seven, William Kunstler—a classmate and old friend of Yale’s patrician president Kingman Brewster—came to New Haven to speak at a Panther fund-raiser held at Yale’s Woolsey Hall. Doug Miranda, area captain of the Black Panthers, began his remarks by asserting that Yale (“one of the biggest pig organizations”) clearly had “something to do with the conspiracy” against the Panthers.

Tensions grew quickly. At a meeting of campus radicals on April 15, 1970, various proposals to help the Panthers were floated, from kidnapping Kingman Brewster and shutting off New Haven’s water supply to demanding an immediate moratorium on classes and requiring that the Yale Corporation donate half a million dollars to the Panther Defense Fund. A few days later, Miranda told a group of students that they had the “power to prevent a bloodbath at Yale.” He proposed calling a student strike and having Yale demand that the Panthers be released. “There’s no reason the Panther and the Bulldog [the Yale mascot] can’t get together!” The slogans came fast and furious. “Shut it down, or burn!” “If Bobby dies, Yale Fries!”

The two Yale officials who figured most prominently in this drama were the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., the university chaplain, and Kingman Brewster. Coffin— like the Berrigan brothers—was one of those self-infatuated radicals who poached on the authority of religion to bolster his sensation of righteousness. He was never happier than when organizing acts of civil disobedience. Accordingly, he proposed a march to the New Haven Courthouse, where the demonstrators would then peacefully submit to arrest. Declaring that the trial was “legally right but morally wrong,” he suggested that the Panthers should be set free.

For his part, Kingman Brewster was a model of cunning equivocation. With a symmetry that historians of hypocrisy will admire for decades to come, he showed himself capable of the ultimate pliability. On April 19, a few days before the faculty was to vote on whether or not to strike, Brewster solemnly affirmed Yale’s official neutrality noting that “it would not be proper to assume that justice cannot be dispensed by the courts in this state.” On April 23, as a crowd of about a thousand students and Black Panthers gathered outside, the faculty met. With what might be deemed Perkinsian bravura, Brewster addressed the faculty: “I am skeptical,” he said “of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” According to Taft, this declaration—which instantly gained nationwide notoriety—was greeted by the faculty with “thunderous applause.” Brewster then suggested various changes in language: the black demand for a “suspension of normal academic function” would be altered to a “modification” of “normal expectations”; the proposal that faculty “should suspend their classes” would be changed to “should be free to suspend their classes.” This was promptly adopted, voted on, and passed. But as one dissenting faculty member observed, “A compromise was absurd. Either a university continues to operate as a university or it doesn’t, and to say we shall stop being a university, but just for a while, compromises principles so much that it leaves no basis for existing.” The bottom line, as Taft comments, was that the faculty had “voted overwhelmingly to compromise the neutrality of the university. In response to intimidation, they had placed themselves in the hands of an administrator who, in the crunch, took a strictly pragmatic view of his duties as the head of an academic institution.”

The liberal capitulation at Yale was perhaps not quite so ostentatiously fainthearted as the one at Cornell. But in some ways it may have been even more fateful. Yale is the more prominent institution. In 1970, the entire nation had its eyes fixed on events in New Haven, which, involving as they did a major criminal trial, implicated the legitimacy of our entire system of justice. Then, too, Kingman Brewster was a more commanding figure than James Perkins. Rich, handsome, articulate, he came to the Yale presidency with impeccable liberal credentials, above all in the area of civil rights. Had Kingman Brewster chosen to take a stand, the faculty might well have backed him up. The history not only of Yale’s involvement in that sordid affair but also of American higher education in the decades that followed might well have been different. Like Perkins, Brewster aided in selling out the American university to forces that were inimical to its very essence. If colleges and universities continue to thrive today, they do so grievously compromised by political allegiances that stand in direct opposition to the ideals of academic independence and scholarly disinterestedness.

As for William Sloan Coffin’s infatuation with law-breaking acts of civil disobedience, that, too, has cast a long and obfuscating shadow on American society. Coffin was prominent among those establishment liberals who taught their followers that contempt for the law was fine as long as one was certain of one’s own higher virtue. It is an attitude that has taken hold throughout our society, and with disastrous results. As George Kennan observed in “Rebels Without a Program,” one cannot purchase leave to break the law simply by being willing to pay the price:

The violation of law is not … a privilege that lies offered for sale with a given price tag, like an object in a supermarket, available to anyone who has the price and is willing to pay for it. It is not like the privilege of breaking crockery in a tent at the county fair for a quarter a shot. Respect for the law is not an obligation which is exhausted or obliterated by willingness to accept the penalty for breaking it.
William Sloan Coffin and his like-minded peers did a great deal to delegitimize not only the laws and policies they disapproved of, but also the very ideal of respect for law.

At the deepest level, the liberal capitulation signaled a crisis of confidence that was at the same time a crisis of values. It was not surprising that failures of authority were soon challenged by hostility. As the sociologist Edward Shils noted in “Dreams of Plenitude, Nightmares of Scarcity” (1969), “Where authority abdicates through failures, ineptitude, and weakened self-confidence, it invites aggression against itself.” A culture increasingly in thrall to politics is the fruit of that aggression.

Allan Bloom once observed that “the liberal university appears to be both the highest expression of liberal democracy and a condition of its perpetuation.” The former, alas, has ceased to be true; and so anyone who cares about the future of this society must hope that the latter is untrue as well.


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  1. This essay was first published in Commentary in February 1965 and reprinted later that year in The Berkeley Student Revolt: Facts and Interpretations, a collection edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Sheldon S. Wolin. Go back to the text.
  2. Kennan’s essay, first delivered as a speech at Swarthmore College, was published in The New York Times Magazine on January 21, 1968, where it generated enormous controversy. It was reprinted, with thirty-odd responses, as Democracy and the Student Left. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 5, on page 4
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