“Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised.” – Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind
Intra-Ivy League bickering aside, Cornell University is widely regarded as one of the top institutions of higher learning in the world. Students who graduate from our school go on to become world leaders in their industry of preference: from Wall Street and Capitol Hill to Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The design and administration of our medicine, our mortgages, our software, our textbooks, our food, our jobs, our cities and our homes all bear the mark of a Cornellian somewhere in the fine print. This is not a matter of opinion; it is a fact of our society. It is a fact that a Supreme Court Justice, two Taiwanese presidents, and the creator of the chicken nugget all went to Cornell. It is a fact that the median individual income of Cornell alumni ($79,800) is more than double that of all Americans ($31,099). It is a fact that, regardless of initial socioeconomic status, the 3.8% of Cornell students who come from the bottom 20% go on to have roughly the same economic outcomes as their born-rich, top 1% peers who make up 10% of student population.
It is also a fact that Cornell University does not pay taxes to the city of Ithaca for the vast majority of the property it owns — if it did, it would pay roughly $35 million per year. It is a fact that Cornell provides tax-free zones for startups. It is a fact that most Cornell dining employees are only paid for nine months of the year, for an average wage of $16.88 an hour. It is a fact that the local UAW Union in Ithaca has signed an agreement with Cornell University guaranteeing that the Union will disavow any “strike, work stoppage, sit-down…or any picketing, patrolling or demonstrations” performed by Cornell employees. It is a fact that the freshwater streams surrounding Cornell are approaching ocean-like levels of salinity due to road salt runoff from our streets, sidewalks, quads and plazas.
I will argue here that Cornell University — and every university like it, public or private — embodies one of the most virulent strongholds of colonialism today. What does a colonizer look like? What is the colonizer’s relation to the colonized? Who is colonized?
There are, of course, layers to answering these questions. The first layer is the most obvious, though it is little discussed: in 1779 George Washington ordered two of his generals to eradicate the Cayuga Nation and other indigenous tribes of the Haudenosaunee (more commonly known as the Iroquois Confederation) in the northeastern areas of the still-nascent United States of America. They were unsuccessful in their assignment for total genocide, but over the course of several decades, the State of New York proceeded to steal all of the lands of the Cayuga Nation through a series of illegal land grants and treaties. In 1865 Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White secured a charter for Cornell University in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the traditional homeland of the Cayuga Nation, through the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. The equation here is plain: Ezra Cornell was a colonizer; the Cayuga Nation was, and continues to be, colonized by Cornell University.
Beyond this primary colonial relation, however, the lines begin to blur. Can’t we say that Cornell has had a positive track record with, if not the Cayuga Nation, then with other formerly subjugated and oppressed peoples? Hasn’t Cornell lived up to its motto of “Any person, any study” by providing unparalleled educational access to women, African Americans, Latinx people, Asian Americans, oftentimes ahead of its contemporaries?
In a word, yes. But in another word, no.
As defined by Wikipedia, neocolonialism is “the practice of using capitalism, globalization and cultural imperialism to influence a developing country in lieu of direct military control (imperialism) or indirect political control (hegemony).” Looking at Cornell’s far-reaching influence across the globe — both in terms of its prestigious alumni and its innumerable partnerships with other state, corporate, and educational institutions — we can begin to rework our understanding of our beloved University as existing in a web of overlapping colonial and neocolonial relations. It is allied with the United States Department of Defense; it is indebted to SC Johnson & Son; it participates in a peculiar exchange economy with other elite universities in Hong Kong, Denmark, and Argentina wherein the premium commodities are ambitious students and itinerant, illustrious professors; it sends Cornellians to humanitarian research sites to study the long term effects of, in essence, Europe and the US’s underdevelopment and destabilization of “shithole” countries like Haiti, Nigeria, Cambodia, and Ecuador. Bringing things full circle, we can scarcely criticize Cornell’s influence on global affairs without reckoning with its impact on the local environment in which it is situated.
Whether you call it colonialist or neo-colonialist, the exploitative relationship between Cornell and Ithaca — both of them colonizers of Indigenous land — is an exemplary product of the settler colonial legacy upon which Cornell was founded. The metropole, in the traditional sense of a parent state that extracts raw materials and taxes from a colony, does not fully adhere in this context. Cornell should be paying taxes to Ithaca (but doesn’t), remember? Instead of taxes, then, Ithaca renders its inhabitants to Cornell as low-wage workers who have to join a union that will turn its back on them if they ever take a stand to demand fair wages, job security, or better working conditions. Any resentments that working-class Ithacans may harbor against the University are eclipsed by the fact that it provides jobs (albeit shitty ones) and possesses a $6.8 billion endowment. Cornell is unassailable, or rather, it is inexhaustibly defensible. And so, much like a metropole, it accrues land, labor and capital — economic, cultural and social — to itself and to its constituents, which is to say the faculty, administrators and student body.
So what, again, of the actual students? Yes, I agree — the students are the final piece. Thinking historically, we might ask: why did the British establish universities in India, or the Belgians in the Congo? And what does this have to do with the question of Cornell’s multicultural, multi-talented student body?
Generally, colonial powers created self-styled universities in their colonies to train their own colonizer kin and a select cadre of colonized accomplices. We can call these the imperialist bourgeoisie (those who owned the colony and all the wealth it produced) and the comprador bourgeoisie (those who joined the colonialist enterprise against their own people), respectively. Although they usually came from the existing elite among the colonized population, the comprador bourgeoisie were occasionally culled from the ranks of the middle and lower classes. Those who were fortunate enough to receive a Western education became the middle management for the classical colonial society — clerks, traders, factory bosses and writers whose role was to demonstrate to the masses that their poverty was a consequence of their own primitive culture and not of external capitalist exploitation. They became the primary proselytizers of the West’s civilizing/Christianizing mission to their fellow colonized brethren.
In modern neocolonial states, the comprador bourgeoisie have ascended to the level of the ruling class — domestic neo-imperialists yoked to the coattails of Western civilization, which by the early 20th century had colonized the whole world, and often possessing a proclivity for autocratic domination in the style of their bygone colonizers. Regardless of style of rule, however, these neo-imperialists have left the universities of the colonizers exactly where they stand, hallowed walls intact, as unequivocal monuments to Western intellectual, linguistic, cultural, technological, and economic superiority. The stamp of a Western education — the degree — is thus recognized to be a kind of global currency, a one-way ticket to the world out there. Out there, where obscurity and poverty merely figure as abstractions, statistics, literary devices and good optics to put on a resume.
We return to Cornell and the US education system. The numbers don’t lie: Cornell invests in its exclusively selected pool of students, and reaps a hefty return in the form of potential donors and cultural capital. Even more than making money, people go to Cornell to make something of themselves. This is not lost on any high school student who visits our campus, nor on any Cornell employee who commutes to work here everyday, nor on any first-year person of color who learns that their Class of 20[XX] is the most diverse in Cornell’s history. Are you from a poor neighborhood? What’s the chance you’ll return there after you graduate? How could you, now that you’ve finally escaped your deadbeat highschool and/or your fucked up family? After your college guidance counselor told you that the world was yours for the taking — or, conversely, that you’d never amount to anything? After you’ve soaked in Klarman, taken classes in Statler, spent all-nighters in Uris? After you’ve tripped across the Arts Quad with your friends at midnight, drunk and deliriously happy? This is the life you deserve — the one your parents worked so hard for you to obtain. If you don’t deserve it, at the very least they do, right? So you’ll push yourself beyond the point of exhaustion and over the edge of manic depression; you’ll have a breakdown during office hours; you’ll develop an acute anxiety disorder during the pledge process of your business fraternity; you’ll stand in line for three hours at a job fair because Microsoft or SpaceX is there; you’ll convince yourself that your postmodern cultural criticism actually matters; you’ll say something about capitalism when it seems appropriate to do so; you’ll organize a protest in response to some fucked up thing that’s happened on campus, and then another fucked up thing, and then another; you’ll join a task force on diversity and inclusion, and facilitate conversations about privilege. Meanwhile all the rest (by which I mean, people) will become noise — it has to. It just has to. It’s just you.
This is the promise of a Cornell education: total alienation from those histories and social relations which materially and psychically structure our personal enlightenment, and the unanimous shirking of responsibility for this institution’s role in the ongoing devastation of human life. This is colonialism at work today.