I just received word from the Dean’s office in CALS that I have been appointed the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell! This is a huge honor, and I am thrilled and excited.
Embarrassingly enough, I didn’t know who he was. J.A. Perkins, who passed away 20 years ago, was the 7th President of Cornell. Here is an excerpt from his page on Wikipedia: “Perkins served as president of Cornell from October 4, 1963, until his resignation on May 31, 1969 in the wake of the occupation of Willard Straight Hall by armed African American students. In 1995 Thomas W. Jones, a trustee of the university who had been a leader of the building occupation, established the James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony in his name.” A great article on the Willard Straight occupation and fallout is from the Cornell Chronicle here. Perkins was a champion of increasing diversity in higher education in general, and at Cornell in particular. See also his obituary in the NY Times.
This endowed chair was established in 1992 and the past professor to hold it was Eloy Rodriguez, a retired Cornell chemical ecologist. Eloy conducted research in many realms, but was most well-known for developing the concept of zoopharmacognosy, the notion of animal self-medication with plants. Who knew, but monarch butterflies are one of the few insect groups that are known to self-medicate!
I remember James Perkins.
In the late 1960s I was involved with the Students for a Democratic Society on campus. We were passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam, and to the American institutions that were complicit in the war effort. Cornell was one of them. There was a lab in Buffalo associated with Cornell that was doing weapons research for the Pentagon. There was ROTC. We had a list of grievances against the university, and James Perkins was the The Man who stood, in our minds, for all the ways that the respectable establishment, through its supine obedience, enabled the war mongers to perpetrate their crimes. He was the enemy.
Of course his failure publicly to denounce the war was not what doomed his presidency. The Willard Straight takeover must have been insufferable to the trustees. It was obviously a great embarrassment to the institution, even though Perkins resolved the crisis without violence, and probably should have received a medal, rather then his head on a platter. But there was that famous picture on the cover of Time showing a black man walking out of the Straight with a rifle in his hands. Someone had to pay, even if there could have been no better outcome, and even though there was nothing James Perkins could have done to prevent the incident in the first place.
In retrospect I have only a little sympathy for my younger self. Perkins was a man interested in education, and at a loss, perhaps, with how to deal with the outsized passions of the era, and the way that universities became politicized, for which there was little or no precedent. This was way beyond food fights and fraternity hi-jinks. I suspect that he was an excellent man, but unfortunate to hold the position he held at the time he held it.
He was shown the door with such dispatch that the trustees did not have the leisure of a long search for his successor. They selected a professor in the physics department, a fellow named Dale Corson. I think they named a building after him.
Rock on Tim. Thank you for this awesome recollection and commentary. I need to interview you about Professors Root and Feeny when I return to Ithaca!