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Cornell perpetuates ‘colonialism, slavery, racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism,’ school’s website states

Cornell University perpetuates “settler colonialism, indigenous dispossession, slavery, racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, antisemitism, and ableism,” according to a statement posted on its School of Integrative Plant Science’s website.

The statement appears to have been posted in March 2021 but remains up to this day and recently drew some criticism, chiefly from Randy Wayne, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, or SIPS, a division of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The statement (pictured) is attributed to the SIPS Diversity and Inclusion Council, which formed last October. The council stated it “recognizes that our institution was founded on and perpetuates various injustices.”

“We seek to address and repair the harms caused by these intersecting forms of oppression,” according to the council’s vision statement.

The statement is not the first time some in the Cornell SIPS community have expressed such sentiments.

In June 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd, the SIPS Executive Committee published an “Action for Racial Justice” statement that pledged to “effect change, oppose racism, and support social justice. We have challenged ourselves, as leaders of the School of Integrative Plant Science, to seed a culture of change.”

On Wednesday, Professor Wayne wrote to Chelsea Specht, associate dean for diversity and inclusion for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to voice concern about the council’s posted diversity statement:

Dear Chelsea,

I write to you as the new Associate Director of the School of Integrative Plant Science.

The article entitled, “SIPS Community Commits to Diversity and Inclusion” on the CALS website states that “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.” I do not believe that the sentences I have put in bold are true. If you believe that these statements are fact and not fiction, true and not false, would you please provide me with your evidence so that I too will believe what is factual and truthful?

I am attaching a link about James Sumner: https://chemindigest.com/james-b-sumner-1887-1955/ He was a Cornell professor who had one arm. I assume that when he was hired, Cornell was not ableist. Good thing. He went on to prove that enzymes were proteins and won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I teach about Sumner’s work in Plant Cell Biology. I show my students and let them hold his Nobel medal which is in the Rare and Manuscript Collection at Cornell. Sumner ended his Nobel lecture by saying, “We can sum up by saying that as the result of discoveries in the field or enzyme chemistry some questions have been answered and many new questions have arisen. We live in an expanding universe in more senses than that of the astronomers.” I would like to believe that one of the senses of the expanding universe today is in gaining a more truthful rather than a false understanding of the world around us. Your answer to this email will help me clarify how the universe is expanding.

The email was provided to The College Fix by Wayne. He told The Fix he sent the same email to Benjamin Houlton, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in mid-August.

On Thursday, Specht replied to Wayne that she would meet with him to discuss the issue.

“We can talk about the role of mindset in building an inclusive culture, and perhaps find some shared values that are not about fact or fiction, true or false, but about recognizing the role we can each play in ensuring an equitable future – for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students,” she replied in part, according to a copy of the email provided to The College Fix.

Meanwhile, the diversity statement has been shared among some in the Cornell community.

Carl Neuss, a prominent alumnus, told The College Fix via email Thursday that it “is a great tragedy that Cornell’s current leadership now holds this view of the university’s founding and its wonderful 160-year legacy.”

“Cornell’s top leadership is new to the university – and was never part of the faculty or student body. It is a huge tragedy and disservice that this leadership allows such extreme denigration and disparagement of Cornell – a place so many of us have dearly loved and cherished. Such statements badly damage the reputation and standing of Cornell,” Neuss said.

“What is the message being sent to alumni, students, parents, and staff? This is so very discouraging to donors,” he added. “Cornell is tarnishing its own brand – and its alumni. It is besmirching itself. Such statements are terribly hurtful to alumni who have devoted their time, treasure, talent, and loyalty to the institution.”

Cornell’s award-winning motto is “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” It first appeared in a letter written by Ezra Cornell, who also used the motto in his inaugural address in 1868, Cornell News reported.

Neuss said he believes the plant sciences diversity statement attempts to redefine Cornell’s history and legacy. He pointed out that, living up to its “Any Person … Any Study” motto, that Cornell was the first Ivy League institution to admit a woman, in 1870, and the second after Harvard to admit a black student, in 1869.

Asked to weigh in on the diversity statement, Cornell University law professor William Jacobson told The College Fix he fully “support[s] Cornell’s freedom of speech to engage in self-criticism, even if that self-criticism amounts to inaccurate self-abasing virtue signaling.”

But, he added, “Cornell is not the place portrayed in that statement, and it’s bizarre to me that a Cornell academic unit would use such a description of our campus and community.”

MORE: Feds spend $2.1M in taxpayer dollars to ‘root’ out oppression in plant sciences

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.