We, the undersigned alumni of Cornell University and the Africana Studies and Research Center, are writing to express our outrage and dismay over the recent events that have transpired at the Africana Center and the subsequent failure of both the center’s current leadership and Cornell University’s administration to respond with immediate and decisive action.
Over the past year, there have been an increasing number of racist and sexist incidents at the Africana Studies and Research Center; actions which, in previous years, would have not only been intolerable, but would have been unthinkable. Yet under the current chair, Professor Salah Hassan, these events have become routine and commonplace. In fact, they have become so notorious that alumni such as ourselves, who are scattered across the country, have received word of these episodes and now feel compelled to speak out.
As you well know, the most disturbing of these incidents occurred when Professor Grant Farred, who was serving as the Director of Graduate Studies, referred to two Black female graduate students as “black bitches.” Although there have been minor efforts to issue apologies, the perpetrator and his supporters have focused most of their attention on attempting to sweep this situation under the proverbial rug.
And it has, indeed, sent shockwaves through the Africana community. All across the country, alumni of Cornell University are discussing this matter and expressing their horror and outrage about its occurrence and the refusal of the University leadership to respond effectively. It is particularly troubling that these intolerable and reprehensible events took place on the eve of the Africana Center’s 40th anniversary — a time when we should be gathering to celebrate the proud history of Africana Studies and the inspiring institution that was built under the leadership of its founding director Dr. James Turner. Instead, our commemoration has been marred by a deplorable series of events that have brought shame upon our beloved intellectual birthplace — a place where we once found a dynamic, supportive, nurturing and academically rigorous home.
This incident has also spawned a crisis within the center itself. It has created a hostile working and learning environment for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as members of the faculty and staff. Many students have recently shared with us that they no longer feel safe even entering the Africana Center, and female faculty have expressed concern about serving on committees and attending meetings with Professor Farred. Imagine, for just a moment, the impact this must have on a student’s intellectual growth and development, or their ability to thrive at Cornell — an institution where, we were told, “… any person can find instruction in any study.” How could anyone expect Black students and faculty, particularly Black women, to thrive in an environment in which you have been reduced to nothing more than a “black bitch?” And how could you, members of the University leadership, remain essentially silent in response to an incident of this magnitude? We are particularly shocked by the inaction demonstrated by President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs given the commitment you pledged to diversity through the formation of the University Diversity Council. In your statement announcing the formation of the Diversity Council, you declared that you were committed to “… creating and sustaining a Cornell community that nurtures, enriches and challenges all of its members; a community where all members achieve to their full potential.” And yet your recent conduct belies that notion.
Instead, the silence from you has been deafening. Not only did you fail to act decisively immediately following this episode, but you have continued to remain inactive. Since the incident occurred, several graduate students wrote numerous letters to Professor Hassan expressing their concern about the hostile climate in the Africana Center and requesting a community meeting to discuss a potential path to healing, but weeks went by before they received any reply. And to this day, there has not been an adequate public acknowledgement or formal apology forthcoming from Professors Hassan or Farred, or from any member of the Cornell administration. Instead, you have allowed the environment at the Africana Center to devolve into a toxic, dysfunctional and hostile climate for students, staff and faculty alike.
In the end, our demands are simple. First, we call upon you to merely fulfill the request of the current graduate students. They have asked for an open community meeting to discuss issues of climate in the Africana Center, particularly the recent events surrounding Professor Farred’s comments. We are aware that a meeting was recently convened to address some of these concerns, however since this gathering was limited only to tenured/tenure-track faculty and current graduate students, we would like to reiterate our support of an open meeting that will allow all concerned members of the community to participate. Affiliated faculty, students, staff and alumni have also been impacted by these events, and they have a right to express and articulate their concerns. Furthermore, we believe that you — the members of Cornell University’s leadership — should call this meeting immediately, and actively participate in the gathering yourselves so as to bring about a true healing and assist in the process of restoring the Africana Center to its former glory. Lastly, while we are aware that a formal investigation is currently underway, we urge you to take a personal vested interest in the process and outcome of that investigation. The comments from students and faculty about the hostile climate that exists in the center as the result of Professor Farred and his actions need to be taken seriously. We would like, in particular, to draw your attention to Cornell University’s policy (6.4) that explicitly “prohibits its faculty, staff and students from engaging in any form of prohibited discrimination or protected status (including sexual) harassment, and expects these individuals to refrain from committing acts of bias within the university’s jurisdiction.” As you already know, the policy also notes that “the University has processes to provide redress and remediation to individuals who believe they have been the victims of these acts.” In our view, the primary outstanding question pertains to the meaning of appropriate “redress” in this matter. In our view, a thorough investigation and effective resolution should truly grapple with the question of whether a faculty member who has created such a hostile and untenable environment for students, faculty and staff should be allowed to remain a professor at Cornell.
Luqman Abdullah, Leslie M. Alexander, Ph.D., Shelly Alexander, Jared Ball, Ph.D., Monique Bedasse, Tsedey Betru, Thelvia Bonano, Scot Brown, Ph.D., Evelyn Cantillo, Rosa Clemente, 2008 Green Party VP Candidate, Rhea Combs, Ph.D., Natalie Hodge Cook, James Cotton, Kayla Dorsey, Barrington Edwards, Ph.D., Jonathan Fenderson, Erica A. Fuller, Jessica Graham, Chris Harris, Keisha Hicks, Nicole Ivy, Elissa Jackson, Jody Jones, Candace Katungi, Kwasi, Konadu, Ph.D., Mensa Ankh Maa, Diana Martha Louis, Brian Lozenski, LaTaSha Levy, Ronald Mitchell, Jr., Yusuf Muhammad, Sandra Ohadike, Terrence Oliver, Gabriel Peoples, Elizabeth Pryor, Ph.D., Saira Raza, Dylan Rodriguez, Ph.D., Taj Smith, Richard Tabuteau, Billye Smith Toussaint, Alex Vega, Ann Wilde, Benjamin Woods
The authors of this op-ed are alumni of the Africana Studies and Research Center. Feedback may be sent to email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.