Shut It Down: The 1970 Student Strike at Syracuse University

Corbally’s Bluff

Following the sit-in at the Administration Building, Chancellor Corbally and other members of the University’s leadership team felt it was time to bring the Strike activities of the past week to a resolution. In a locally televised speech on May 8, Corbally announced that, unless formal classes resumed for the final week of the semester beginning Monday, May 11, the University would be forced to close and discontinue both regular and Strike activities on campus. Corbally later described this announcement as a “colossal bluff.” His bluff largely succeeded despite resistance from the Strike Committee. By Monday morning, students were working to reopen the University despite bomb threats and low attendance at most formal classes. With classes resuming, the University agreed to accommodate ongoing Strike workshops and provide grade alternatives for students who wished to conclude their formal semester.

One of the stated goals of the Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition had been to shut down Syracuse University’s formal academic and business operations to hold a multi-week teach-in. Although some formal instruction resumed, the Strike partially fulfilled this goal with the temporary cancellation of classes, subsequent relocation of traditional courses, and continued offerings of Strike-related workshops during the final weeks of the spring 1970 semester.

Press Release regarding options for the remainder of the semester, 10 May 1970. Syracuse University News and Public Affairs Records, University Archives.

Statement of the Strike Committee in response to Chancellor Corbally’s public statement, 9 May 1970. Syracuse University News and Public Affairs Records, University Archives.

Front page of the Daily Orange, 11 May 1970. Daily Orange Collection, University Archives.

The Strike Committee held a meeting at Hendricks Chapel on the evening of May 10 to discuss the reaction to Chancellor Corbally’s ultimatum.

Flyer for a sit-in on the chancellor’s lawn, 10 May 1970. Syracuse University Academic Affairs Melvin A. Eggers Files, University Archives.

In resistance to Chancellor Corbally’s statement that the University would adopt a modified schedule beginning Monday, May 11, students rallied for a sit-in on the lawn of the chancellor’s residence on Sunday, May 10. Only 25 or so students participated in this action.

List of class completion options by schools and colleges, 11 May 1970. Syracuse University News and Public Affairs Records, University Archives.

In addition to attending alternative workshops and teach-ins, students were offered grade options for the end of the spring 1970 semester. These included: taking an incomplete; taking a class standing grade as of May 4; or taking their final exam or writing a final paper. Some schools and colleges also offered a pass/fail option for all classes.

Photograph of final examinations, Freshman English, 25 May 1970. Syracuse University Photograph Collection, University Archives. Photograph by H.F. La Chanse.

Many students chose to take one of the grade alternatives and leave campus early instead of completing final examinations. Faculty reported that many of their classes for the final days of the semester were seeing attendance rates of 25% or lower.

Listing of Strike activities from the Daily Orange, 13 May 1970. Daily Orange Collection, University Archives.

Facilitated through a network of action groups, the Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition engaged in a range of outreach activities. They offered workshops to educate a primarily white student body about the Black Panthers and Bobby Seale’s defense fund, formed a high school liberation planning group, and hosted anti-draft workshops, to name only a few. These workshops and teach-ins happened alongside continued demonstrations such as burning “Captain Amerika” in effigy.

“Strike Goes On but Education Lives” flyer, May 1970. Syracuse University Student Activities Reference Collection, University Archives.

Part of what became known as the “Open University,” Strike workshops and teach-ins primarily were led by members of the University community, including graduate students like Donna Shalala G’70, H’87 who would later serve in the United States Congress and the administrations of Presidents Carter and Clinton, and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.