December 17, 2015

Letter to the Editor: Mr. Bender Responds to the Ten White Students’ Letter

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Re: Letter to the Editor: A Response to Lee Bender ’84, Dec. 2

My letter dated Dec. 1, 2015, generated a firestorm of comments and a letter from a group of 10 identified white students, presumably from the Student Assembly, which impugned my character with ad hominum personal attacks displaying snark, lack of tact and disrespect.  I herein will not let this go unchallenged, nor should anyone else in a similar position.

Right out of the box, the very first sentence proves my initial point about the failure to permit free speech and the open exchange of ideas: “With all due respect, no one asked for your opinion and, to be frank, we’re pretty ashamed of it.” I can only surmise that you have forgotten your basic civics lessons on the First Amendment. Who asked me? The Founding Fathers, and more basically, my rights as an alumnus of this prestigious university. You obviously did not mean “with all due respect” here. And whether you, as 10 undergraduates, are “ashamed of it” — well, tough, I don’t need your affirmation or approval. I am not “daring to take the microphone away” from you or anyone, as you insinuate I have, but you clearly are trying to do so. That is fascist.

The main concern of my letter is the intolerance of those who (are mostly from the left) try to shout down others whatever their views. Cornell is already run by liberals; The Sun recently reported that 96 percent of faculty political donations over the past four years went to Democrats. That is clearly not diverse.

You have engaged in pure identity politics, by describing your race, and noting that I am “a white double legacy” (I presume through some opposition research on me).  First, my letter’s emphasis was on rhetoric, not on race, which you inserted in the bulk of your response. Yes, it is true, I am a proud third generation Cornellian, but also one you failed to note who has given back much to help make Cornell the great institution it is: as a member of Cornell Council, Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network (where I have interviewed and recommended hundreds of students for admission, many of color) and as scholarship chair of the Cornell Club of Greater Philadelphia and part of a separate family scholarship for the past 25 years, I have overseen the distribution of approximately $500,000 in scholarships, many to minorities.  So, stop with the self-righteous, presumptuous and ignorant personal attacks on me and the thousands of alumni who have collectively built this university so you could reap its benefits. Is it perfect? Not precisely, but we all need to strive to make it so.

Which leads me to my direct challenge to you. I want all students to have fair opportunities to thrive at one of the greatest egalitarian, nonsectarian institutions of higher learning in the world, be honored and grateful that they have been accepted, and be humble and respectful of the amazing and rare gift they have been given. Contrary to your insinuations, I have actually been visiting the Hill often the past five years, speaking with students, administrators and professors, reading campus papers and other publications and monitoring online sites. I have not noticed any evidence of institutional racism or deprivation of opportunities for all students at Cornell. Here is the challenge: Where is direct proof of such racism on campus, specific examples of lack of opportunities for students of color, minorities and in fact all students, to thrive, live and study? If there is institutional racism on campus, as a concerned and proud alumnus, I want to know that so that we can rectify it. If you cannot provide direct proof, you have offered only pabulum.

Here is a constructive suggestion for the Student Assembly: Adopt the Chicago Principles on free expression, which a handful of colleges have done so to date: “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.” Instead, “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the university community, not for the university as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

Finally, while I commend you for being outspoken and active on campus I can only hope that this will translate into constructive and productive action once you graduate to take your place in the uninsulated adult world beyond the Hill, by heeding the motto of Cornell as composed by President A.D. White, captured so eloquently on the Eddy Street Gate: “So enter that thou mayest become more learned and thoughtful. So depart daily thou mayest become more useful to thy country and mankind.”

Protect and defend Our Fair Cornell, help make it the best it can be but show a little tact, respect and above all gratitude.

Lee Bender ’84