This weekend the Cornell University Board of Trustees is meeting in New York City amid a spiral in Cornell’s brand approaching the spiral that befell Harvard leading up to the resignation of Claudine Gay as President.
“Approaching” but not as bad as the Harvard spiral, yet.
In each case, campus antisemitism post October 7 was the trigger, but the underlying cause was an embrace of DEI creating a toxic campus environment. I’m less familiar with the depth of DEI at Harvard, but Claudine Gay was the DEI President. She was the messenger for the DEI agenda at Harvard.
At Cornell, President Martha Pollack’s signature campus achievement was imposing on the campus an Ibram-Kendi-inspired “antiracism” initiative in July 2020, in an emotional reaction to the death of George Floyd. That initiave is delivered through a DEI bureaucracy and programming more extenstive that what I have seen at almost any other major university. DEI training was imposed on staff immediately, and there was an attempt to force it on faculty that failed, and on students which has mostly succeeded though taken longer.
In the sixteen years I’ve been a Cornell I’ve never seen the atmosphere so bad, even before October 7, and there’s no evidence the president’s DEI fixation has helped anything. Yet it remains her obsession, and she has recommitted to DEI.
At both Harvard and Cornell, the administration was in denial and chose to double down on DEI. In each case, a prominent alumnus and donor stepped forward to shout that DEI was smothering the core university missions of equality, free speech, and open inquiry – in Harvard’s case Bill Ackman, in Cornell’s case Jon Lindseth, who has been all over the media with his call to Fire The Cornell President And Get Rid Of DEI.
“President Pollack and Provost Kotlikoff have allowed their headlong support for DEI policies to take root at the expense of the four essential pillars of Cornell University: 1) Open Inquiry; 2) Academic Freedom; 3) Viewpoint Diversity; and 4) Free Expression. This is an inexcusable violation of their fundamental duty to Cornell. Therefore, they should resign their positions effective immediately.”
But Bill Ackman was a bigger name with a large social media following. Ackman could move media coverage and narratives. Jon Lindseth is every bit as heroic, maybe more so because he was not previously a public media figure.
There is one big difference between the Harvard and Cornell cases, so far. Claudine Gay self-destructed on national TV during a congressional hearing and was exposed as a serial plagiarist. The damage to Harvard’s brand was so extensive and growing that it galvanized the people who mattered to the Harvard Trustees, the mega-donors and big name alumni, to lose confidence in her.
Cornell’s president Martha Pollack has not testified before congress yet, and it’s unclear if that will happen. There is no academic scandal surrounding Pollack as there was with Gay. But there are signs that Pollack and Cornell are in the sights of the House, as Cornell joined Harvard, U. Penn, and MIT, as the subject of a congressional requests for records. So Cornell is in an exclusive club, but not yet a national TV spectacle.
Pollack also is keeping a low profile, no doubt on the advice of Cornell’s very strategic PR and communications operation and/or outside consultants and attorneys. Cornell excels at PR control, so this doesn’t suprise me. If Pollack is called to testify in Congress, all bets are off.
So far, I’m not aware of any other major Cornell donors who have publicly pulled funding and denounced the administration. I have heard that a senior development administrator and the senior vice president for strategy are traveling the country meeting with major donors, so clearly Cornell is hearing from alumni donors even if only Lindseth has gone public.
There is a growing and increasingly influential alumni organization, the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, which issued a report calling on the administration to advance free expression, and which has taken up the cause that DEI is one of if not the main source of the current problems. [Disclosure: I’ve been tangentially involved in CFSA at their request, but I am not in key leadership, a decision-maker, or a driving force.] CFSA seems to have done much to galvanize alumni, and its efforts seem to be picking up momentum.
I’d like to think that my relentless focus on the problems caused by DEI has provided an intellectual base that has contributed to the current movement against DEI at Cornell, but I doubt anyone in the senior administration or Board of Trustees really cares what I think or say. They do care what major donors and alumni think.
And they will care if the Cornell brand takes the kind of hit the Harvard brand took. Cornell is not there yet, but the ball is rolling down hill. The Trustees can stop the downward spiral by adopting the measures I proposed in my October 20, 2023, Call To Action For The Cornell Board of Trustees, and those actions proposed by Linseth in his Open Letter earlier this week.
It’s a time of choosing, to borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan’s famous speech, for the Cornell Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees can continue on its current DEI path and join the senior administration in doubling down on DEI, or it can choose another path that restores the fundamental values of equality, freedom of speech and expression, and open inquiry.
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