During the mid- to late-1960s, students at Syracuse University had become increasingly involved in anti-Vietnam War activity and support for civil rights initiatives. They also took part in widespread advocacy for an end to the in loco parentis style of university governance that had long prevailed on American college campuses. University attendance was generally treated by college administrations as a privilege, not a right, with students often having little say in the administrative and curricular decisions that structured their institutions.
The growing social and political activism of many members of the Syracuse University student body coincided with a significant change in the University’s administration. Following the retirement of Chancellor William P. Tolley – whose administration had often met student activism with strict disciplinary action – the University appointed John E. Corbally, Jr. to its top office in early 1969. In his first remarks to the University community on March 15, Corbally stated that “[a] university should remain an open institution, so no one has to tear the place apart to be heard.” This approach and student leaders’ expectations for a new era of shared governance and productive engagement with campus activism would soon, and frequently, be put to the test.
On March 14, 1969, more than 100 Black students and representatives from six Black student groups held a peaceful demonstration in front of the University’s Administration Building and met with Vice Chancellor and Provost Frank P. Piskor to discuss a slate of demands that would address the needs and experiences of Black students at Syracuse University. The activism of these students led to the establishment of the African American Studies Program in 1969, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in 1971, and the Community Folk Gallery (now Community Folk Arts Center) in 1973.
Following what many students and other campus community members viewed to be a unilateral decision by Chancellor Corbally regarding the status of the ROTC program and recurring conflicts about governance generally, students staged protests and occupied the ROTC offices and the Administration Building. As the debate grew, Corbally agreed to an unprecedented Town Meeting to discuss university governance. The meeting was held at Manley Field House on February 26, 1970, and was attended by over 3,000 people. The agenda included three official speakers: psychology professor Eric Gardner for the University Senate, Chancellor Corbally for University administration, and Student Government president David Ifshin for the student body.
Syracuse University students, like other students nationwide, were frequent participants in anti-Vietnam War and anti-draft protests. Many of the campus and local protests were coordinated by Student Government president David Ifshin, who had become a campus leader of student activism. While his term as Student Government president ended in April 1970, Ifshin remained active in anti-war protests and other direct action both on and beyond campus.