We have been following conflicts over official statements or acknowledgements on diversity, colonialism, or privilege at universities. These conflicts often involve concerns over free speech or academic freedom. The most recent controversy has arisen at Cornell University and involves a challenge to an official declaration that the university perpetuates “settler colonialism, indigenous dispossession, slavery, racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, antisemitism, and ableism.” The statement was posted on its School of Integrative Plant Science’s website and, according to the site College Fix, one academic has objected: Randy Wayne, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The statement is attributed to the SIPS Diversity and Inclusion Council, which formed last October.
In response, Professor Wayne wrote to Chelsea Specht, associate dean for diversity and inclusion for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, with the following response.
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 of 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.
Specht replied with an offer to meet and added:
“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.”
The suggestion that the academics move beyond “fact or fiction, true or false” is rather curious since the statement makes an affirmative and shocking series of accusations. It is also hard to see how this statements fosters “an inclusive culture” if this list of current prejudices and abusive practices is not factually true.
The concern for academics is that such statements put pressure on colleagues to follow suit with their own public testimonials. We saw this trend start years ago. We discussed the controversy over the acting Northwestern Law Dean declaring publicly “I am James Speta and I am a racist.” He was followed by Emily Mullin, executive director of major gifts, who announced, “I am a racist and a gatekeeper of white supremacy. I will work to be better.” We have had others like a Brandeis dean declare “Yes, all White people are racists.”
Such statements are becoming more common while a minority of faculty raise objections. Likewise, the growing use of land acknowledgments has been opposed by some faculty as “performative acts of conformity.”
That brings us back to the offer to meet on the Cornell statement but expressly not to discuss the factual accuracy of the claim that the university “perpetuates various injustices [including] settler colonialism, indigenous dispossession, slavery, racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, antisemitism, and ableism.”
Thankfully, Professor Wayne has not been the subject of a cancel campaign as have others who have raised such objections. However, both students and faculty have been targeted at Cornell for raising such objections. This includes efforts to fire Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson for offering dissenting views on the Black Lives Matter movement, a campaign fueled by some of his own colleagues.
From the published account, Associate Dean Specht does not appear inclined to discuss the merits of the posting or the basis for the claim. Yet, this is the type of controversy that would make for a worthy and civil discussion for the university as a whole. The university likely does have institutional failings or abuses in the past that should be acknowledged but it should also recognize the progress and current status of the university on such issues. If the university is continuing to perpetuate all of these terrible prejudices and practices (including apparently “slavery”), the school should be able to produce proof so that the abuses can be addressed. That means that there may be a modicum of effort to address whether the self-condemnation of the school is “fact or fiction, true or false.”