On Porus Olpadwala’s desk in his Sibley Hall office is a thick stack of papers: Hundreds of pages of research, faculty recommendations, biographical materials and correspondence regarding Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor Cynthia McKinney.
As chair of the 13 member faculty committee that brings visiting professors to campus under the Rhodes and the Andrew Dickson White Professor-At-Large programs, Olpadwala is the appropriate person to respond to criticism of the University’s 2003 decision.
McKinney’s detractors have questioned the process used to appoint her, alleging that the committee did not use proper criteria and ignored allegations that McKinney is anti-Semitic.
“We depend upon the knowledge and recommendations of our colleagues on the faculty and then the knowledge of the members of the committee,” Olpadwala said. “Nothing special was done in this case.”
Coupled with this year’s other honoree — filmmaker and journalist Jonathan Pilger — some make the complaint that the committee, the University and the faculty are playing politics.
“This is the first time … that there has been this much furor,” Olpadwala said.
The process behind the appointments of McKinney and Pilger is the focus of this article, the second article in a three-part series covering the controversy surrounding the two professors. Yesterday, The Sun examined the background of the program and the difficulty in implementing its vision. Tomorrow’s article will concern the reactions to the appointments of McKinney and Pilger.
In fall of 2002, Olpadwala’s faculty committee sent out a call for nominations to Cornell’s approximately 1,500 Ithaca faculty. Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, received the materials and considered, with several colleauges, suggesting a female candidate from an underrepresented minority. In discussions with his colleagues, Turner found McKinney’s name mentioned several times. Turner and his colleagues considered nominating others, but found difficulty in making arrangements.
McKinney has had “an outstanding career so far in public service — both at the state, legislative level and in the South … then into the national, federal level,” Turner said. He added that McKinney is an “intellectually sharp, critical, incisive thinker.”
Turner and his colleagues completed the preliminary paperwork and gathered letters of support, the initial step in an application for the professorship.
A previous Sun article incorrectly stated that McKinney’s appointment resulted from a visit to the Summer Institute on Critical Theory, Black Womyn Scholarship and Engendering African Studies in July 2003. McKinney was a speaker at the institute, but her participation was not connected either to her nomination or to the committee’s approval, Turner said. The article also said that the Africana Studies and Research Center was her nominating sponsor. In fact, faculty from a number of departments will act as her host.
In Dec. 2002, Olpadwala said, the committee evaluated what they had received, looking at the quality and stature of the nominees and nominators, and recommended that Turner complete a full proposal. Once that full proposal was received, the committee examined three factors: whether the discipline was already overrepresented in the program, the qualifications of the nominee and whether the nominee would appeal to a broad number of classes and interests across campus.
The faculty group found McKinney qualified in all three respects. The disciplines she appealed to were not overrepresented; her qualifications impressed the committee; and her areas of interest spanned a broad spectrum. The committee received final propsoals for two other candidates.
Eleven faculty members wrote letters of support for McKinney, more than any candidate but Janet Reno ’60, who received 23 supporting letters, according to Olpadwala. Letters came from three professors of Africana studies, two from city and regional planning, and one faculty member each from policy analysis and management, history, education, rural sociology, English and government.
Another factor, race, factored in the committee’s decision. Affirmative action is used “in the Michigan law school way,” according to Olpadwala. The Rhodes program’s mission includes a statement encouraging inclusion of minorities.
The committee found that McKinney and Pilger met the program’s requirements and recommended them to the provost and the president who, with the Board of Trustees, must approve all candidates. Former president Hunter R. Rawlings III was responsible for approving the appointment.
Traditionally, higher-ups are loathe to overturn a faculty decision, which could be perceived as a slap to the faculty’s autonomy, according to a Cornell alumnus.
But in May 2003, individual members of the Board of Trustees voiced concerns about the committee’s recommendations and Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin communicated these concerns to Olpadwala and the committee, who formulated a response to questions about McKinney’s stature, alleged anti-Semitism and other issues.
The committee’s response to Martin included a 1999 article from the Atlanta Jewish Times, “Deconstructing Cynthia McKinney” by Bill Nigut.
“Despite the strong criticism expressed by many of the Jews who were interviewed for this article, none accuses McKinney of being anti-Semitic, although some believe her father is. At the same time, many believe she uses the politics of divisiveness as a weapon,” Nigut wrote.
Nigut’s rundown of strife between Jews and McKinney included a contentious 1996 primary contest against a Jew and McKinney’s refusal on free speech grounds to condemn an associate of Louis Farrakhan who made alleged anti- Semitic statements. Her foreign policy stances earned her the enmity of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In the article, a Jewish businessman from Atlanta and a longtime friend of McKinney, Jules Stine, said that the AIPAC made some “heavy-handed” demands but “McKinney refused to play ball.” Stine called himself a “strong supporter of AIPAC” who defends McKinney for “refusing to placate an organization which [he] thinks plays a disproportionate role in defining how Jews view elected officials.” McKinney has also voted to reduce U.S. aid to Israel during her tenure in Congress, according to the article.
As a result, McKinney was targeted by the AIPAC and other Jewish groups angered by her perceived pro-Palestinian position on the Middle East, according to an Aug. 23, 2002 article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, also included in Olpadwala’s file responding to Martin’s questions. The article stated that McKinney’s primary opponent “received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Jewish supporters around the country.” The first sentence said, “The score is now Jewish activists 2, anti-Israel members of Congress 0.”One thorny issue the article mentioned was a request by McKinney for a Saudi prince to donate $10 million to African-American causes in her district — after Rudolph Giuliani, as administrator of the Sept. 11 relief fund, rejected the same.
The article said that the Saudi prince “sought to tie the Sept. 11 attacks to U.S. support for Israel. … Ms. McKinney, who agreed with the Saudi’s assessment, asked for the prince’s check.”
According to cnn.com, the prince said “the United States should reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand towards the Palestinian cause.” In response, Giuliani said, “I entirely reject that statement.”
In Dec. 2002, the New York Sun reported that a check from the same Saudi prince for half a million dollars was accepted by the President George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship Fund at Phillips Academy, Andover. The school solicited the gift, but t
here was almost no public reaction. The committee did not include this article in its materials sent to the Provost.
Nigut, approaching a middle-ground conclusion about McKinney, said, “Even her friends acknowledge that McKinney is abrasive, that her world is made up of stark contrasts and of friends and enemies, to whom she reacts with deeply felt passion. It may therefore be Jewish hyper-sensitivity which assumes that her treatment of Jews is somehow different from the way she deals with others. To some extent, it’s simply how McKinney does business.”
None of the materials sent to Provost Martin and obtained by The Sun for this article stated otherwise.
John Cleese, Toni Morrison MFA ’55, Richard Meier ’56, Dr. Oliver Sacks and dozens of other distinguished persons have been chosen by the faculty committee during Olpadwala’s 11 years as committee member and seven years as chair.
But the simultaneous appointment of McKinney and Pilger, both advocates for Palestinians and critics of Israeli policy, has led some to question whether the committee chose these two professors as a statement of opposition to American and Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East.
“It’s coincidental. We react to what our colleagues propose,” Olpadwala said. Later, he added, “To the extent that [bias] is a problem, the roots or source are deeper and lie elsewhere, so the solution would also need to be sought in a broader context.”
Olpadwala doesn’t vote on nominations. The nine voting committee members represent the fields of the social, physical and biological sciences, the humanities, the arts and engineering.
Sun News Editor Andy Guess contributed to this report.
Archived article by Peter Norlander