Former Congress member Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), who gained national attention for her opposition to the war in Iraq and strident criticisms of the Bush administration, will visit Cornell for a few weeks a year for the next three years as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor. A committee of 13 faculty members and deans representing a broad range of disciplines and interests approved her appointment, which was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday.
In an e-mail, McKinney wrote that she is “exhilarated and thrilled to become a part of the Cornell and Ithaca families” and that she looks “forward to an exciting, invigorating and challenging semester.” McKinney did not say when she would come to campus, but she is likely to visit for two or three weeks at a time to give public lectures and seminars and to attend classes.
McKinney first became a candidate for the Rhodes professorship when Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, invited her to give a speech at the Africana Studies Summer Institute earlier this summer. McKinney accepted the offer, and Turner recommended her to the committee, according to committee chair Porus Olpadwala, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. The Africana Studies and Research Center will act as McKinney’s sponsor during her visit.
Turner could not be reached for comment.
According to Olpadwala, the Rhodes candidate review process begins when faculty sponsors first “show how the person has achieved something for themselves and for society.” The committee then looks into that applicant’s “breadth of support across the campus,” examines if they will “interact well with faculty and students” and makes sure that no academic discipline is either over- or underrepresented in the visiting professor program.
A 10-year veteran of Congress, McKinney lost the Democratic primary in 2002.
One of McKinney’s colleagues in the House of Representatives, local Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), has also been a frequent critic of the Bush administration, exploring the possibility of impeachment proceedings before deciding that the time was not right, according to the New York Times.
Writing by e-mail from California, Hinchey said: “[McKinney] and I were elected to the House together in 1992, so I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her for 10 years. She is one of those rare, gutsy politicians who has the courage of her convictions and does not apologize for her beliefs.
I’ve come to consider her a close friend, so it will be my great pleasure to welcome her to Ithaca.
“After 10 years as a member of the International Relations Committee, [McKinney] is well-respected for her leadership in human rights and voting rights and for her international activism on these issues. She is going to be a wonderful resource for Cornell students and a great asset to the entire community.”
McKinney is a controversial figure. She is a 1978 graduate of the University of Southern California and has a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In 1992, she became Georgia’s first African-American congresswoman.
In March 2002, McKinney said that the administration of President George W. Bush should have known about the Sept. 11 attacks and asked two questions in the liberal magazine Counterpunch that attracted most of the media firestorm surrounding her: “What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?”
McKinney also wrote that “persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America’s new war.”
While he did not challenge the truthfulness of those statements, Chris Suellentrop, writing in the online magazine Slate, called her paranoid and labeled her “the Girl Who Cried Racism.” Further negative reaction to McKinney has included portraits of her as variously paranoid, villainous and unpatriotic.
Jonah Goldberg, writing in the influential conservative weekly National Review, said, “For a representative to tell the American public, in order to help her own career, that the government murdered thousands of its own citizens for material gain is disgusting (it also will undoubtedly be picked up by our enemies in the Arab world, mark my words). Of course, it may not be as bad as the accusation that Bush killed thousands of Americans, but we at least know that accusation isn’t true.”
In an e-mail to The Sun, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 defended the process Cornell used to select McKinney.
“The University assigns responsibility for the appointment of Rhodes Professors to a faculty committee. … That committee made the academic judgment that [McKinney] would contribute meaningfully to our collective intellectual life on campus,” he wrote.
Prof. Michael Evangelista, peace studies, is happy to see McKinney come and defends her views.
“I’d be happy to have her speak to my class,” he said.
McKinney did not immediately respond to questions about her views on recent events, although she hinted that her future plans include running for another office. With rumors of McKinney running for president on the Green Party line or a rematch for her old seat in Congress, she said in an e-mail that she would “return to New York City on the weekend of September 11 to look at the policies arising from September 11, 2001 that now direct our country’s actions at home and abroad. I look forward to raising these issues in my next campaign.”
The Sun obtained a speech that McKinney gave Tuesday in Brooklyn to families of troops serving in Iraq. In it, she criticized cuts in troops’ overtime pay and other Bush administration policies: “Not only are [soldiers] underpaid, but the powerful Administration that holds their fate in the cup of its hands, has obfuscated, dissembled and outright lied to them about their central mission and why they have been placed on the four corners of our globe.”
McKinney further blasted the Pentagon’s treatment of soldiers, accusing the mandatory anthrax vaccination program of being a corporate giveaway that has resulted in troops dying of pneumonia, and asked, “How is it that one-quarter of those who sleep on our streets every night are veterans of war?”
McKinney then shifted her attack to racism in the armed services: “It appears that America’s poor and people of color are the cannon fodder for Bush’s New American Century. … And [former Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan] Caspar Weinberger suggests that America’s people of color are more patriotic than America’s young white kids are, and that’s why there are disproportionately more people of color in our all-volunteer military. It is utterly despicable to make that suggestion in the face of a recession-driven economy that has produced the highest unemployment in a generation and pushed more people of color below the middle class. Sadly, George Bush stands in the doorway of opportunity at America’s colleges and universities just like his predecessor in spirit, George Wallace, did two generations before him. Dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, the anti-affirmative action stance of this Administration harks back to more shameful days in our country.”
McKinney’s appointment has already enticed some conservatives to slam Cornell and to revisit McKinney.
A New York Post editorial on Friday said that McKinney is “not likely to add any luster to the prestigious Ivy League school’s academic sheen.”
The biggest dig, however, was reserved for McKinney: “We have absolutely no idea what McKinney coul
d possibly teach her students — unless it’s a course titled Demagoguery 101.”
When asked about this reception, the response of Cornell officials has been a chuckle and a strong defense for their chosen Rhodes candidate.
“The purpose of the professorship is to bring diverse voices to campus and stimulate debate — and I think McKinney obviously will,” said Linda Grace-Kobas, interim vice president for communications and media relations.
Olpadwala made similar comments but added that “she’s not going to ‘teach,'” focusing more on seminars and public speeches as well as visiting classes.
McKinney is not the first controversial liberal professor to visit Cornell; former Attorney General Janet Reno ’60 encountered polite audiences and civil debate during her return to Cornell last semester.
In response to questions about McKinney, Lehman wrote that “Cornell classrooms are marked by open, civil and serious discussion about important issues, and I fully expect that her classes will meet those standards.”
McKinney’s time in the spotlight, however, is both more recent and relevant to current issues than was the case during Reno’s visit — and it remains to be seen how McKinney will be received by a campus with its own share of controversy.
Archived article by Peter Norlander