November 10, 2004

Controversy Grows Over Cornell Migrant Program

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The proposed move of the Cornell Migrant Program (CMP) from the College of Human Ecology to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been surrounded by controversy recently. The move follows a two-year review of the program by a committee of faculty and staff members. At the heart of the conflict is a single question: can one college really represent the interests of farmers and farmworkers at the same time?

A “terrible idea.” That’s how Herbert Engman, senior extension associate, human development, describes the decision. Engman, who has served as the director of CMP for the last 30 years, believes that CALS can not adequately represent the interests of both sides.

“The way one does work with farmworkers in this state is you have to work with other farmworker-serving agencies,” Engman explained. “For somebody from CALS, it’s going to be much more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish that. Cornell, especially CALS and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), has a very strong reputation as a huge supporter of agribusiness in New York State and so there’s no trust there,” Engman said.

And, according to Engman, that reputation is well-deserved.

“People who work in CCE and in CALS tend to think of themselves as part and parcel of the agribusiness industry,” Engman claimed. “How do you then run a program that properly focuses on farmworkers if you’re so ingrained in the culture of their employers?”

However, Linda McCandless, director of communication for CALS, denied Engman’s claims that CALS is focused solely on promoting the interests of agribusiness.

“Cornell is not ‘in the pockets’ of agribusiness and the College [of Agriculture & Life Sciences] isn’t either,” McCandless said. “The College is much broader than that.”

As evidence that CALS does have an interest in helping farmworkers, McCandless points to two recent publications from departments within CALS. One, from the department of development sociology, is a report entitled “Immigrants and the Community,” and is part of a series based on four years of research on the needs of immigrant workers in rural communities. The other, “Food Safety Begins on the Farm” was published by the Good Agricultural Practices Program (GAPs). It deals with practices that handlers should follow to prevent contamination of raw fruits and vegetables, and is available in both English and Spanish translations.

“CALS is committed to the continued development of the Cornell Migrant Program and anchoring the program in research, education and outreach that addresses the needs of farmworkers, their employers, and the communities in which they live,” McCandless said.

But Engman is not convinced. “When you look at the subject matter that we need to focus on with farmworkers: health, housing, immigration, English as a second language, public policy…virtually none of that is a strength of CALS,” he explained.

If the program has to be moved at all, he would rather see it go somewhere else such as the School of Industrial and Labor Relations; and he’s not alone. In fact, all 12 CMP staff members have either already left the program or have expressed their intentions to leave as a result of the decision to move the program to CALS. According to Engman, the general consensus among the staff was that “we will not work for a program that purports to serve farmworkers but is run out of CALS because it won’t work there.”

Students are also voicing discontent over the proposed move. The Farmworkers Advocacy Coalition (FAC) is having a public meeting today to raise public awareness about this issue. One of their main complaints is that students did not get to have a say in this decision. However, Susan A. Henry, Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has agreed to meet with members of the FAC, and McCandless believes that students will get to play a role in the CMP’s future.

“To the extent that the program is based in research, education, and extension, I’d say yes [students will be involved] in all three areas,” McCandless said.

Controversy has also arisen over the recent loss of a $600,000 grant from the New York State Department of Education. CMP had received this grant, which represented almost two-thirds of its annual budget, annually for the last 30 years. According to Engman, the grant was lost because state officials were unhappy with the idea of having the program housed in CALS. Engman claims that he attended a meeting with Nancy Croce, director of the Migrant Education Program, along with Prof. Max Pfeffer, development sociology, and leader of the CMP transition team and Glenn Applebee, associate director of Cornell Cooperative Extension at which, “[Croce] made it very clear that she was not happy with the notion that there was a possibility that the program would be going to CALS.”

Engman also claims that at one point Henry was “asked point-blank: ‘If [Cornell] were to lose the money would she still insist that the program go to CALS,’ and she said yes.”

Henry could not be reached for comment on this issue, but McCandless said that to the best of her knowledge, Henry had no knowledge that moving to the program to CALS would result in the loss of its grant. McCandless also pointed out that finding sources of new funding is one of the first tasks that the new director of the program will be expected to work on.

Chris Pawelski, a farmer from Goshen, N.Y. has a different theory for why the program has lost funding. He believes that the CMP’s connection with known lobbying groups such as Rural Migrant Ministries may have violated state and federal regulations restricting the use of government funds for lobbying activities. The NYS Department of Education could not be reached for comment.

“The idea of a program existing to help farmworkers — I and growers wholly support,” Pawleski said. “But a program existing to be the hand maiden of programs like Migrant Ministries…no.”

Engman denies that he or his staff has ever engaged in lobbying activities. “Yes we gave advice when people asked us about legislation…when legislators asked me what the story was with farmworkers I told them,” he explained. “But none of that’s lobbying. That’s educating legislators when they’ve requested that of us.”

Engman did acknowledge that CMP staff members had appeared at lobbying events over the years, but claims that they were there as private citizens and not as representatives of Cornell or CMP.

As far as CMP’s connection with groups like Migrant Ministries is concerned, Engman believes that working with other farmworker support groups is the best way to reach out into the community.

“When I started with the program, we did work directly with farmworkers…but we found that not to be effective enough,” he said. “For the past couple of decades we’ve focused on other agencies that work with farmworkers.” He also claims that this is not unusual in any way and that “almost all Cooperative Extension works with other groups not with the ultimate audience.”

Finally, critics of the proposed move are also upset about a decision to expand the focus of the program. Instead of focusing on just migrant farmworkers, the new program will focus on all farmworkers — migrant or otherwise — as well as on their employers and other members of the community. As part of this change, CALS has proposed creating an advisory board consisting of advocates for both farmworkers and farm owners.

Engman feels that this is an unfair double standard. “[Look at] all of the agriculture programs that deal with farmers. Are all of them being asked to include farmworkers or farmworker advocates on their boards and committees and in their programming?” he asked.

However, Pawelski has another view of the situation. He thinks that having farmers involved in the program will be beneficial. “The people who can do the most for farmworkers, the people who are most connected to them, are their employers. If you demonize [the employers] and make them out to be the villain or the bad guy it doesn’t help anybody,” he said.

e the CALS administration realizes that this is a sensitive issue for many people, they remain optimistic about the future of the program.

“Issues confronting the agricultural work force are complex and have often resulted in controversies,” Henry said in a written statement to The Sun “With the wide range of research and outreach interest of our faculty in several colleges to draw upon, Cornell will continue to be a positive influence in facilitating resolution of those issues.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts
Sun Senior Writer