Alumnus Reflects on Takeover
March 12, 2009
By Ben Eisen
This is the first in a series of four interviews with people involved
with the Willard Straight takeover of 1969, in which armed black
students took over the Straight to demand greater equality for black
students at Cornell. The interviews, along with a newspaper
supplement and panel discussion in April, will commemorate the 40th
anniversary of the Takeover.
Robert Gottlieb '72 vividly remembers the day students walked out of
the Straight wielding rifles and demanding justice. As one of the
first students to serve on the Board of Trustees student
participation on which was a direct result of the takeover Gottlieb
continued to fight for students during these tumultuous times. Now a
defense attorney in New York, Gottlieb found strong comparisons
between the takeover at Cornell and the takeover of a building at New
York University earlier this year. In fact, Gottlieb called to offer
his legal council to the NYU students in the midst of their
demonstration. The Sun chatted with Gottlieb about student activism
in the 60s, activism today, and the current state of our country's
The Sun: You were a freshman when the Takeover took place at Cornell.
What was your memory of the event and the context in which it took place?
Robert Gottlieb: Cornell was still governed under the old rules. The
takeover was indicative of the main problems that were facing Cornell
at the time involving African American students and the need for
African American studies. But at that time there was also growing
resentment against the war, so there were demonstrations and tension
involving the efforts to stop the war in Vietnam. There were also
calls already under way to divest Cornell's moneys from companies
that were doing business in South Africa.
At the time, the campus was already beginning to be divided within
itself, not only involving racial issues but national issues
concerning the war in Vietnam and national issues concerning how we
were supporting countries that were oppressive.
Sun: Since the takeover ended, do you think Cornell has made progress
in meeting the demands of the students?
RG: I don't know how far Cornell has come since then. I do know that
at the time, immediately following the takeover, my sense was that
the powers that be at Cornell were forced to become more sensitive to
the problems faced by African American students and faculty.
As far as and as well as future students, immediately in the
aftermath my sense both as a student and a student trustee when I
became privy to internal conversations on the Board of Trustees
there was a sense that Cornell was beginning to reflect a more
sensitive and enlightened approach to African American students and
Following the Straight takeover, we were able to pass legislation
requiring the Board of Trustees to allow four students to serve on
the board as voting members, and one student had to be appointed to
the executive committee where all the important decisions were made.
Sun: So the initiative to elect students to the Board of Trustees
resulted directly from the takeover?
RG: No question about it, because what the Straight takeover did was
it burst the false image of a tranquil University with an idyllic
campus. In addressing the problems, that came to the floor loud and
clear, because the Straight takeover and the Board of Trustees were
required to address other long-festering problems. One of which was
that no matter what the social issue of the day is, the appropriate
way to address the problems within the University community is to
have a real cross-section on the Board of Trustees, the governing
body. You can't have a real understanding of the problems on campus
affecting students unless the students are in a position to have the
ear of the men and women who are going to ultimately vote on various proposals.
My concern today is, my understanding is that Cornell has retreated
from that significant change. My understanding is that today it's not
a requirement that there be a student on the executive committee as a
voting member and I don't think there are four students on the Board
The reality is that every important decision is made by the much
smaller Executive Committee. That's why to really have a significant
impact on students, a student should be on the Executive Committee.
(Editor's Note: There are currently two student Trustees, neither of
whom serves on the Executive Committee).
Sun: Amidst such a powerful group of people, were the student
trustees able to make their voices heard?
RG: Yes, there's no question. We all had our own styles, but we were
all very outspoken. It's no question there was a great deal of
tension between us and the majority of Board members. You have to
remember that there were very few women on the Board back then. There
were very few minorities, so you had an overwhelming majority of
white older men who came primarily from the investment and financial
field, who were quite wealthy, who really looked at the students
having a seat next to them as something that in their wildest
imagination they thought would never have thought possible.
Sun: There must have been a lot of resentment to the changing of the old order.
RG: I think there was a great deal of resentment, and I think many of
the Board of Trustees had to be brought along kicking and screaming.
Sun: So, for all of the fighting to get students on the Board, what
was the biggest accomplishment?
RG: There is no question that the biggest accomplishment was just
being there. Governance of any institution, whether it's a country,
whether it's a university, in order to be legitimate, must be
comprised of all segments of the community. By forcing ourselves on
them, by them having to allow us to sit side by side with the same
voting and speaking rights, that was the major accomplishment.
That's not to say that just being there is sufficient as time goes
on, but there is no minimizing the significance that in 1970; that
was a very significant step forward.
Sun: Jumping ahead 40 years, what about the NYU takeover jogged your
memory of the Straight takeover?
RG: Two things. Many of their demands were similar to the demands we
made during the time of the Straight takeover, including that there
be student voting members of the Board of Trustees. They also
included wanting to have an impact on the investments that NYU makes.
So there were many similar demands, but just as important, and was
the reaction of the administration to the students who occupied the
building. And that was: what would their parents think if they knew
that instead of studying for exams, they were occupying a building,
treating it almost as a joke and not taking students seriously. That
was the same exact reaction by many both within and outside the
Cornell community back in the '60s, that students should really stick
to studying and spending their time in Olin Library, and how dare
they tell the powers that be how to run the educational institution?
The response in 2009 was the same response that I saw back in 1969.
Sun: What does that make you think about how far our society has come?
RG: I don't think this country has come far enough, but I'm not sure
it ever can. What I mean is that, in any society, in any community,
the people who have the influence and the power do not easily or
readily share it with others unless they are forced to. That's human
nature, and how you then force people with power to share their power
and influence determines whether or not we're really civilized. If
you can debate it and talk out your differences and then find a
common area of support, that's civilized. If you cannot reach an
agreement, and there continues to be insensitive wielding of power,
that's what creates in many instances tensions that often erupt into
violence, or civil disobedience.
Sun: How were you involved with the NYU takeover?
RG: I was following it in the news and I reached out to people who I
heard were involved to let them know that I am a criminal defense
attorney here in [New York City], and I knew that there was a real
potential of arrests, and that they were certainly entitled to
representation should they be arrested. That's what I do; I wanted
them to know that they could call me, so I reached out to them.
Sun: Do you think that NYU will eventually change in the same ways Cornell did?
RG: I don't know. I'm not as optimistic because the times are
different today. In 1969, in 1970, when student demands, as well as
faculty who were supporting the students, but back then, that was in
the context of the entire country, the entire power structure was
going through the throws of real change. It wasn't only on university
campuses, it was also in Congress. It was like an earthquake, and you
didn't know where it was going to end. Today it is more isolated.
There is not a general upheaval going on even though, quite frankly,
the election of Barack Obama may be the most wonderful earthquake
that's come along in a long time. But I don't know if the overall
environment is as conducive today as it was in the '60s to real
change in an institution like NYU.
Sun: One of the biggest things that came of the NYU takeover was the
media coverage. Do you think that might set off some sort of domino
effect on college campuses?
RG: It really does remain to be seen. We are living in a different
era. Back then we didn't have the internet, we didn't have live
coverage. We didn't need that kind of live coverage to have an effect
nationwide. The act itself reflected, I believe, what was going on in
the nation, which was a different sort of revolution than occurred in
the 1700s. The country was changing, and Cornell was part of the
country, and suffered through the same pains that the country
suffered. It's not the coverage that affects areas like this, whether
other universities will follow. Its whether or not policies in the
Congress, in state legislature, reflect the hopes and dreams of
students attending college today.
Sun: Do you think our country right now could take a lesson from the '60s?
RG: The reality is, and I'm not speaking hyperbole, I think the
election we just went through reflects one of the effects of our
entire history, which includes the tensions, the disruptions that
Cornell suffered during the '60s and '70s. Without having gone
through that back then, I don't think Obama would have been elected today.
I left Cornell my senior year, in January of 1972, to work for
Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman to run
Everything that happened in 1972 when Chisholm ran for president,
everything that Cornell went through, Columbia went through, Berkeley
went through, back in the '60s and '70s, all of that was part of the
process that resulted in the election of Barack Obama. But it's not
one demonstration, it's not one issue that brought the country to
where we are today. It's our entire history. Its been a slow history,
its been a painful history for so many people, but it all ultimately
affects the future.
Sun: I'm sure you would agree that we still have a long way to go.
What would be your advice for the students of today?
RG: The lesson then and the lesson today for everybody is that you
have to stand up and be counted. You cannot cede your dreams, your
moral beliefs to someone else. And that's what the country did with
George Bush. We let him, we let Cheney, we let Rumsfeld, steal our
country for us. And thankfully, the country took it back with the
election of Barack Obama. But the lesson is that you can never fall
asleep at the switch, or else we're gonna lose this country.
Sun: What would you say is the biggest issue facing us today?
RG: I deal with it in the courts all the time, I represent
defendants, some of whom are charged with most unspeakable crimes.
I've often said that when I represent them, I'm not representing the
individual, I'm representing the Constitution. I truly believe that
the most important issue for this country is whether or not we will
continue to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States
in all respects. Equality. Real freedom. Religious freedom. Because
it has been under attack unmercifully for too many years.
And I see day in and day out, this country should never believe that
there aren't people out there who would love to destroy our
Constitution for their own narrow purposes. It's up to students and
faculty and employees of Cornell to continue to fight the good fight.
Student of Straight Takeover Reflects on Cornell Activism
March 26, 2009
By Ben Eisen
This is the second in a series of four interviews with people
involved with the Willard Straight Takeover of 1969, in which armed
black students took over the Straight to demand greater equality for
minority students at Cornell. The interviews, along with a newspaper
supplement and panel discussion in April, will commemorate the 40th
anniversary of the takeover.
The takeover had a lasting impact on everyone who was associated with
Cornell at the time. For Steve Wallenstein '69, currently a professor
at Duke, he made peace with the event by researching and writing a
600-page manuscript detailing the history of the takeover. The book
was never published, but currently has a "cult status among the few
Cornellians who know of it," according to the book, Cornell '69. The
Sun chatted with Wallenstein about his manuscript, his Cornell
experience and his assessment of the takeover.
The Sun: You graduated from Cornell just as racial tensions at
Cornell boiled over in the form of the takeover. What was that like?
Steve Wallenstein: Yeah our final exams, I think, were canceled.
There were all these things going on on college campuses. Ithaca is
very isolated, and Ithaca was in some sense an unlikely place for
what happened, given that there may have been 50 blacks on campus,
and Ithaca was not a metropolis, and it was just sort of tucked away.
When the black students took over the student union and brought in
guns, I think that was sort of over the top. I guess it was a lot of
stuff building and things sort of finally took center stage. And, you
know, 40 years ago we didn't even dream of having a black president.
I think the black students at Cornell felt particularly out of place,
given that there was no community in Ithaca. And I guess the
political climate was just crazy.
There were a lot of professors that I was sort of close to in terms
of the research, and some of whom were considered fairly right wing.
A lot of the government professors were really outraged by the
University response. In not pursuing charges and claiming it a
victory when the black students left the Straight. Well, Perkins
didn't last, right? He was sort of forced out because of the way he
handled the situation
Sun: What was the defining moment of the takeover for you?
S.W.: I think I was outside watching because I was so fascinated.
They had encouraged students to stay away. And you could see from a
distance the black students walking across the campus with the guns,
with the ammunition, that was an amazing moment. It was such a sense
of relief that the incident ended without any shots being fired or
anyone getting hurt because it was so crazy that they had machine guns.
Sun: When the takeover happened, did it immediately occur to you that
this was history in the making?
S.W.: Yeah, sure. It was on the front page of The New York Times.
Sun: What led you to turn your experiences into a book?
S.W.: I was on the faculty committee for student affairs that had
disciplined the students [involved with the takeover] from the
beginning, and I was intrigued by the reaction of the government
department and the resignations of some of the professors who I had a
lot of respect for, since I was a government major, so I was trying
to figure out why some people reacted the way they did.
And the political climate was just unbelievable. We had Nixon as
president. Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. The Vietnam War
was going on, people were burning draft cards, and Cornell was a
hotbed of that radicalism, with David Burak from [Students for a
Democratic Society] and so on. I remember counterculture, pot
smoking, the usual.
There was all this stuff going on, and I probably wrote the book
because I was trying to sort it out in my own mind. I think I had an
oral history grant from the library or something to do oral histories
with people that summer. And I think that sparked my interest.
The New Yorker was interested in publishing the book as a two part
series. There is an edited version that I can no longer find. It was
edited by The New Yorker, and there was all this pressure on The New
Yorker not to publish it by Cornell, because Cornell didn't want all
the press. They didn't want more disdidn't want all the press. They
didn't want more discussion about it. I was also in graduate school,
and then I took some time off to try to finish it. Then I gave up and
went to law school.
Sun: Even though the book was never published, it is said to have a
cult-following. How many people have seen the manuscript?
S.W.: I think there are probably a fair number. I mean a
'cult-following' is cute. What are we taking about, maybe 50-75,
people? Not a lot. It's not like we have secret meetings or anything.
Sun: But there are a lot people who are really into the history of
S.W.: I think you're right, absolutely. I think people were really
affected by it. A president resigned, professors resigned. A
professor became so depressed that he killed himself over this. He
was in the government department, and [he] supported [President James
Perkins' decisions during the takeover] initially, and he received
the scorn of a lot of his colleagues. I think that [he] became very
isolated and depressed and killed himself.
Sun: So who is this group of takeover followers?
S.W.: I think it's, you know, a bunch of liberal Jewish kids from New
York, for whom SDS was just a little too radical in terms of burning
draft cards and going off to live in a commune. But we were
sympathetic because of the war and the draft and all of that terrible
stuff. And there was this war in Vietnam going on, and they were
drafting people really out of college. There's really nothing like it today.
Sun: So did all of the activism of the '60s make a difference?
Sun: What was the most lasting change?
S.W.: I think that it probably had a lot to do with the end of the
war in Vietnam and the resignation of Nixon. I think it sort of
helped change American foreign policy.
Sun: With the NYU building takeover in January, do you think activism
is coming back?
S.W.: As economic times get hard and as jobs become really difficult
for people like you, who are graduating –– and the unemployment rates
are really high for young people –– it's usually that sort of thing
that drives it and makes a movement out of it. So perhaps we will see
Sun: Can you tell me about how you put the book together?
S.W.: I had interviewed everybody I could find. I guess I interviewed
a lot of people for this oral history project. I was influenced by
some of the government professors. I talked to people in the
administration. I talked to students.
I guess I had this opinion. I was really sort of skeptical about the
way that it was handled and the opportunistic nature of, well,
certainly bringing guns. It's one thing to take over a building, it's
another thing to bring in guns. And then, you say you bring in the
guns in self-defense. If you're afraid you can always leave and get a
police escort or something like that. Some of the people like Tom
Jones, who were the real leaders of this, who I think are brilliant
oratory kind of guys, took advantage of a radicalized situation for
their own agenda.
I think it didn't have to be dealt with this way. The things that
were being protested, they were questioning the whole legitimacy of
the system and you know, the system had students on it. I think it
was a tremendous overreaction to whatever the disciplinary action
was, which I don't recall, but taking over the Straight with guns was
certainly a world of excess to the proper reaction.
I was relieved when the book never got published because it wasn't
politically correct. It was going to be a more balanced version of
things than just one side. The white student leaders also took
advantage of the situation. It was a real power thing; it was way overboard.
Sun: Was this ever said it your manuscript or is this your personal conclusion?
S.W.: That was the conclusion of doing all the research, and the book
was skeptical. I was confused. I was 22-23 years old, and I was
trying to interpret a reality that I had just lived through, and that
I knew was important and so on, but I think in the process of writing
it, I didn't know what to believe.
Sun: So this was more of a personal discovery for yourself than anything else?
S.W.: I think that's a good way to put it.
Read excerpts of Wallenstein's book in the Straight Takeover
Commemoration Issue to be published on April 16.
This article incorrectly stated the year of the Kent State massacre,
which in fact occurred on May 4, 1970. In addition, the article
stated that John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated. In fact,
Prof. Wallenstein, the subject of the article's interview, had been
referring to the death of Bobby Kennedy, whose assassination had
contributed significantly to the context in which the takeover took place.