Cornell Should Have Done More in 1967

Cornell Fire, 1967 Cornell Fire, Cornell Dorm Fire

A tragic fire broke out at Cornell in 1967 that left eight students and one professor dead (photo credit: Eustress).

A couple of years ago, Georgetown University publicly acknowledged the university’s past ties to slavery. In an effort to atone for the sins of its past administrations, the university chose to offer preferential treatment to the descendants of the men, women, and children it enslaved. Universities, particularly ones whose roots trace back centuries like so many of our nation’s most elite schools, can make grave mistakes that cause great harm to our fellow humankind. They can enable miscarriages of justice. They can do evil just as they can do good. Georgetown cannot erase the school’s historic ties to slavery — nor should this history ever be wiped away. But it can make every effort in our time to pave the right way forward. Other schools that have in their histories not always done right — which means all schools across America — should heed the example of Georgetown University.

Cornell’s Response to a Tragic Fire in 1967

A recent piece of investigative reporting in “The New York Times” by N.R. “Sonny” Kleinfield entitled “Never Solved, a College Dorm Fire Has Become One Man’s Obsession” focuses on a fire that broke out at a Cornell University residence hall back in 1967. Nine members of the Cornell community were killed in this fire, including eight students and one heroic professor. The dorm was home to students in a then-experimental fast-track Ph.D. program — for students who wished to pursue their bachelor’s and doctorate degrees all in six years. As Kleinfield’s piece details, arson was suspected at this residence hall, particularly since two subsequent fires would break out in places where members of this experimental program would move. Kleinfield’s piece focuses on how Cornell did very little for these seemingly forgotten members of their community. As Kleinfield reports, “A spokesman for Cornell said that ‘the current administration is far removed from any response the University made at that time and how those actions may have affected some of the students in the program.'” It’s quite a far cry from the words of Georgetown’s current administration who — might we add — didn’t happen to live during the time of slavery but wished to atone for the university’s sins nonetheless.

Cornell Should’ve Done More, It Still Must Do More

And while the university all these decades later seems reluctant to unearth its past, a Cornell alumnus — who was not a member of this experimental program — has become somewhat of a gumshoe detective, digging through archives and fire and police reports as well as tracking down victims and their families in the hope of getting to the bottom of just what happened on that fateful April night in 1967. He’s even zeroed in on a potential suspect. We encourage our readers to read this outstanding piece of investigative journalism by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sonny Kleinfield. While Cornell University is one of our nation’s most prized universities, this story serves as a lesson that all of our nation’s schools — no matter their prestige — will in time come face to face with scandal. That’s inevitable. But it’s how these schools respond that matters. Cornell didn’t do nothing, but the school should’ve done more. And the school still can — and must — do more.

 
 

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