Dale R. Corson; kept peace at Cornell protest in 1969

Associated Press/file
Armed students occupied a building at Cornell University in 1969, demanding that a black studies program be established.

NEW YORK - Dale R. Corson - a nuclear physicist and Cornell University administrator who was instrumental in defusing a potentially explosive standoff with armed student militants in 1969, then brought relative peace to the campus as the university’s president during the 1970s - died Sunday in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 97.

Chris Hildreth/Cornell University

His son David confirmed the death.

Dr. Corson, who had been provost since 1963, was named acting president in 1969 after the resignation of James A. Perkins, who had been roundly criticized as having been too lenient with the protesters.


Though Dr. Corson and Perkins had been in full agreement during the crisis, the university’s trustees chose Dr. Corson because of his proven ability to connect with students and faculty across the political spectrum, colleagues said.

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“He had contacts among the militants, as well as the respect of faculty and administrators,’’ said Elaine Engst, the Cornell archivist. “He brought the temperature down.’’

As provost, Dr. Corson had invited incoming freshmen to drop by anytime to talk, and many did, including several of the 100 or so students who later occupied Willard Straight Hall on April 19, 1969, demanding that a black studies program be established.

The occupation, one of many campus protests across the country, began after a cross was burned one night outside a black women’s dormitory. The protesters refused to leave the hall until the university agreed to set up the department. White fraternity members tried to take back the building and were repulsed, prompting the occupiers to arm themselves with weapons from a Sears Roebuck store.

Meanwhile, hundreds of police officers from Rochester and Syracuse, summoned by the local police, were in downtown Ithaca, and some university officials were urging Perkins to call the authorities in.


Dr. Corson counseled against it, and many people involved said his credibility with both the militants and the hard-line faculty and administrators was crucial to Perkins’s decision to resolve the crisis by giving the militants what they wanted.

A national uproar ensued. President Nixon called the militants “ideological criminals.’’ A photograph of armed students leaving the building was on the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Newsweek, under the headline “Universities Under the Gun.’’

Demonstrations and occupations about racial tensions and the war in Vietnam continued after Dr. Corson was officially named president in 1970. But Dr. Corson, who was willing to wade into crowds of angry protesters, was credited with keeping the protests from escalating out of control. He stepped down in 1977 and was chancellor until he retired in 1979 at 65.

Homer Meade, who was an occupier of Straight Hall and is now an executive for an educational services firm, said Dr. Corson had had an acute understanding of “how close we were to a Kent State,’’ referring to the killing of four students by Ohio national guardsmen the next year.

Dale Raymond Corson was born in Pittsburg, Kan., to Harry and Alta Hill Corson. He graduated from the College of Emporia in Kansas and received his master’s degree at Ohio State and his doctorate in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. During World War II, he worked with British scientists in developing radar. He began teaching at Cornell in 1948.


Besides his son David, he leaves his wife, Nellie; two other sons, Bruce and Richard; a daughter, Janet Corson-Rikert; and six grandchildren.

As dean of Cornell’s College of Engineering, Dr. Corson helped start the university’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope in the world at the time, and a particle accelerator on campus.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Corson belonged to a team of physicists credited with discovering the radioactive element astatine, among the least stable elements of the periodic table.