• Thomas Jones

Talking About Cornell University's Website


Cornell University's School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) has a Diversity and Inclusion Council which publishes the following statement on the university website. "The Council's vision is for an inclusive SIPS community that flourishes because it values and supports diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. It recognizes that our institution was founded on and perpetuates various injustices. These include settler colonialism, indigenous dispossession, slavery, racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, antisemitism, and ableism. We seek to address and repair the harms caused by these intersecting forms of oppression." (https://cals.cornell.edu/news/sips-community-commits-diversity-and-inclusion)

This rhetoric is a good example of why many elite universities, including Cornell, are losing their claim to moral leadership in America. Let me explain.

I have a long affiliation with Cornell University and I know its history well. I am not aware of any role played by Cornell or its founders in "settler colonialism, indigenous dispossession, or slavery". I am not aware of how Cornell "perpetuates" the injustices cited by SIPS. I do know that Cornell's founders articulated a noble and egalitarian purpose -- "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study". I know that the founders demonstrated their commitment to that visionary ideal by admitting the first African American student in the second freshman class in 1869; and admitting the first female student in 1871 -- both events were rare and unusual in that era. I know that Cornell had enough African American students so that America's first African American intercollegiate fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded at Cornell in 1906. I know that Cornell had a large and thriving Jewish community by the 1930's. I know that Cornell was a national leader in the 1960's by aggressively expanding recruitment and enrollment of African American students.

I also know it's indisputable that American history is infected with the various injustices listed by SIPS Council, and undoubtedly there were Cornellians who embraced those practices. But wouldn't it be more thoughtful for SIPS Council to assess and evaluate Cornell's position on the moral spectrum, rather than issue a blanket indictment?

With regard to the broader American context within which Cornell operates, my reading of history says that, at their worst, American practices were consistent with prevailing global moral codes in their era. And at their best, American moral aspirations reached for noble ideals which were far above prevailing social mores. That is why the language "...All Men Are Created Equal..."in America's Declaration of Independence is so important. High ideals are a key reason why America has progressed against injustice in every generation, and America has slowly become a better country more closely aligned to its founding ideals. My reading of history says that America and Cornell at their best were, and still are, beacons of hope to much of the world.

The societal gap between the ideals we profess to believe, and what we do in practice, is not too different from a similar gap in each of our individual lives. For example, those of us who profess religious faith and commitment, as I do, rarely live in practice to the high standards we profess. Should our shortcomings therefore become justification for our condemnation? No. I pray every day in thanks for the good I'm able to do, and to ask forgiveness for my shortcomings.

I pose a challenge to the SIPS Diversity and Inclusion Council. Who among them lives in accord with a high moral bar? Who among them does not need forgiveness for their shortcomings? By what moral calculus do they deny forgiveness to prior generations for not being better than the prevailing standards of their era? Perhaps the first "harm" SIPS Council should "address and repair" is their smug and self-righteous defamation of Cornell. The Cornell board of trustees would be wise to free the university from the swarm of administrators who foster, feed and perpetuate this harmful ideology. Cornell should have higher standards for what is allowed on the university website.

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