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August 26, 2016

University Proposes Renaming Cornell Plantations the ‘Botanic Gardens’

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Last November, members of the group Black Students United demanded that the University acknowledge the racial connotations of the name Cornell Plantations and apply a more inclusive term to Cornell’s gardens and arboretum. On Thursday, the director of the Plantations announced that he will be recommending the Board of Trustees rename the 3,500 acre area the Cornell Botanic Gardens, because the word “plantations” does not reflect its biodiversity.

BSU’s original demand for the name change came as part of a series of grievances over what they said was a campus culture that is “not conducive to the overall success of of students of color.” While the University did acknowledge that its exploration of alternative names aimed to find a term that “fits the mission, vision, values and brand” of Cornell, most of their reasoning was focused on the semantic implications of the word “plantations” as it relates to plant life.

“A botanic garden is all about showcasing the rich diversity of the plant kingdom. How can you have a plantation that is a botanic garden? It’s a non sequitur,” said Christopher Dunn, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations, who said he has spent the last two years exploring the possibility of a name change.

The University also pointed to the length of the plantation’s brochure as evidence of the need for a name change. Printed over a photo of what the University’s press release called “an idyllic scene of marsh reeds flowing into a meadow and anchored by a majestic oak,” the Cornell Plantations logo is followed by a line reading “botanical gardens – arboretum – natural areas.” An apt name would require no such additional clarification, the release said.

BSU President Emerita Samari Gilbert ’17 said the organization’s members are all “all really excited” about the announced name change effort. “A name change has been a long time coming and generations of Cornellians will benefit from a more accessible space,” she said.

Renee Alexander ’74 associate dean and director of intercultural programs, student and academic services and advisor to BSU called Dunn a “change agent” and praised his collaborative work with members of the Cornell community in pursuing a change at the plantations.

“He identified key stakeholders, started a listening tour, asked critical questions and methodically began to put a plan together,” she said. “For all the right reasons  — and there are a number of them — we will move forward with a  rebranding campaign that positions Cornell as a progressive and thoughtful institution that is sensitive to all constituents’ needs.”

The administration said that this past January, a survey was distributed to thousands of “supporters” of the plantations, seeking feedback on the desirability of a rebranding effort. According to the University, three quarters of all respondents and approximately 80% of faculty, staff or Advisory Council respondents supported a name change. Most respondents preferred the name “Cornell Botanic Gardens,” the University said.

Dunn said that he communicated with parties including Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life; Renee Alexander, associate dean, student and campus life and Black Students United in working to amend the Plantation’s title. However, the University’s release only briefly mentions the “emotional response” of some students to the name of the plantations, which some say conjures images of slave and share cropping economies.

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, sought to bridge the gap between acknowledging the area’s biodiversity and seeking to accommodate students who find the plantations’ title offensive, saying the rebranding not only “respects the richness of this great natural and scientific resource, it shows our full respect for the diverse and highly valued community of students.”

The release also noted that the leadership of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Employee Assembly and Interim President Hunter Rawlings have all voiced support for the name change.

“The name Plantations requires constant explanation, and just doesn’t fit a botanic garden and the scale of the work we do,” Dunn said.

Boor plans to present the proposed name change to the Building and Properties Committee of the Board of Trustees in early September. He expressed hope that the name will be permanently changed to the “Cornell Botanic Gardens” by October.