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OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM | The Legacy of Cornell’s Campus

Photo courtesy of Cornell University

People know Ithaca for its beauty. When I first visited Cornell in the summer of 2014, I was struck by the seemingly endless verdant grass on the Arts Quad and the sea of trees that surround the school. Unless you grew up around waterfalls, nothing really prepares you for walking to class amongst the sight of our monstrous gorges, where thousands of gallons of water tumble down every second. The natural beauty of Cornell’s campus probably affected my decision to apply; when it’s not freezing cold, the bright greens and blossoming bushes express warmth and exuberance all over the landscape.

While looking at this nature, we only think of it in terms of wilderness—of untouched beauty, far from the civilization of Cornell. It has no history of human interaction. This ideology allows us to assert the settlement of Ithaca by white people as the starting point of the legacy of Cornell’s campus and subsequently ignore the indigenous people who lived here before. Before Ezra Cornell, members of the Cayuga Nation had their own lives here and had their own connections with the land. Then white settlers arrived, invading and plundering this part of the Northeast. They killed indigenous people and took over their land. Even in the face of this genocidal violence, the Cayuga nation persisted. Many members of the Cayuga Nation still lived here until the Revolutionary War, when the U.S. Continental Army expelled them for supporting the British (in order to survive). However, even today, some members of the Cayuga nation remain in the Ithaca area. This history and status of the original people who lived on the land we now live and study upon is rarely discussed at this school. Most students do not engage with this legacy and what it means to the people of the Cayuga Nation today.

Photo courtesy of Jason Koski/Cornell Marketing Group

Photo courtesy of Jason Koski/Cornell Marketing Group

The Botanic Gardens offer another perspective on the politics of the physical space of Cornell. Strolling through the Gardens, I can smell the fruity aromas of all sorts of different flowers, see birds hopping from tree to tree or watch a couple of deer wander past, stopping to sniff and scan the forest floor. The place teems with life. Yet outside of this experience, as students, we may see the gardens from a very different vantage point. Only last year, Black Students United (BSU) achieved the renaming of the “Plantations” into the Botanic Gardens in the face of significant opposition from members of the Cornell community. Although their victory on this matter demonstrates some positive change, the administration’s justification seemed to be more focused on branding than on acknowledging the deeper motivations of the Cornell students who were pushing for the change. Outside of the name, botanic gardens in general have a long history intertwined with colonialism. European colonizers, most notably the British Empire, took plants from around the world and transferred them into their gardens. They collected or stole knowledge, oftentimes indigenous knowledge, and used it to develop Western science and power. The British and others then used this information—cultivated at the beautiful Kew Gardens in London—to develop products and systems of power that advanced their missions of colonization.  Of course, Cornell’s Botanic Gardens contain plants mostly from New York state, so this legacy may not apply as clearly in this context. Yet understanding both the larger cultural connotation of the Gardens as well as the tradition of knowledge collection, exploitation, and reproduction in which we, as students, are all implicated, should be included as fundamental parts of our education on a campus such as Cornell’s.

Unfortunately, these types of history often remain ignored; we prefer to enjoy the beauty of our carefully maintained, “natural” landscape, without ever recognizing the ideologies that built it or the bodies it was built on.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University Tumblr

Photo courtesy of Cornell University Tumblr

This issue of understanding the legacy of a place does not just apply to the natural parts of Cornell’s campus. Cornell loves to celebrate its history—the mantra, “any person, any study,” gets repeated a thousand times by the time you graduate. We memorialize this legacy through the physical construction of buildings and objects placed on the campus. Just take a look at the statues of A.D. White and Ezra Cornell on the Arts Quad. From one perspective, we simply celebrate our founding and acknowledge two people who built a college through these statutes. Yet this viewpoint does not take into account the position of our founders in their society.  From another perspective, these statues represent the celebration of two old white dudes. These old white dudes also had enough money and political influence to start a school, much on federal land. They attained this influence through having money, but also being descending from the earliest colonist of the U.S. (in the case of Ezra Cornell). In this way, our school was founded on the ultimate example of white privilege. These statutes also celebrate that. So maybe instead of just praising old rich white dudes doing what old rich white dudes always do, we could add a couple other statutes to the mix. Maybe throw up a bust of Toni Morrison or Ruth Bader Ginsburg? This would show Cornell that the people who graduated from Cornell (at least some of them) have contributed to making the world a better place. Then we would not just be celebrating some old white guys, but also looking at what good could come out of Cornell for the future.

However, discussing the naming of Cornell buildings probably remains slightly more contentious. We rarely think about the people who paid for or directed money to the buildings we sit in, but those people actually make a huge impact on the future of Cornell and what types of ideas get promoted in the university. Sometimes, the naming of buildings conflicts with student’s beliefs. The attempted renaming of Temple of Zeus to some rich oil tycoon, which students criticized, exemplifies this tension.  I understand that alumni will give money for a name. At the same time, we lose some ability to act freely if we glorify those who push against our ideals.  For example, last year I lived in Hans Bethe House. While I am glad that we have some student housing (not enough though), Hans Bethe’s work had some pretty sinister impacts on the world. During his time as a professor at Cornell, Bethe lead the Los Alamos lab and worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. The U.S. government dropped that bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing thousands of people. This also helped lead to the Cold War, which had a destructive legacy in nearly every country in the world. Bethe later went on to help develop the hydrogen bomb. This bomb gives us the potential to destroy the entire world—which, under the current administration, might actually happen! While Bethe tried to oppose nuclear proliferation later in life, he basically created the problem he would later fight against, making his legacy complex to say the least. Other building names hold similar legacies. Cornell named Goldwin-Smith Hall after an anti-Semitic historian who opposed women’s suffrage and empowerment. We never really acknowledge any of these issues when sitting in a classroom or holding a meeting. Without any explicit acknowledgment of these legacies, promoting ourselves as open and inclusive—proclaiming “Any person, any study”—becomes hypocritical and problematic.  

The places we live in are political. Everything has history and meaning, and by ignoring those histories and meanings, we can only perpetrate the imbalances of power that exist in the physical and ideological spaces we occupy. So we should start small, take a look around and better comprehend the campus around us. Question the gardens, statues and names we’ve placed on the landscape. Then we can begin to understand the myths and narratives we repeat, so we can break them down in the future.

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