September 8, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Liberty’s Plantations

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To the editor:

This is one of the few times it is socially advantageous to be a plant freak.  We normally get absent stares when we open our mouths but we finally have one thing in demand: perspective on Liberty Hyde Bailey.  I know him from my plant genetics class as a disciple of Mendel and from my agricultural history class as the seminal agrarian writer. To horticulture he was a master taxonomist who coined the term “cultivar,” that’s a plant variety bred for cultivation.  To Cornell he was CALS’ first dean and the man who hired Anna Comstock, Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose.  Today, however, he is the man who named the Cornell Plantations.

In the debate to rename the Plantations, the man behind the name has been lost. Therefore, that’s where we should start. According to The Plantations’ magazine, Liberty Hyde Bailey Jr. inherited the peculiar name he shares with his father, from his abolitionist grandfather with the words “call him Liberty — for all shall be free.” It was a fitting start for a man who strove for equality and ecological understanding.  While dean of College of Agriculture in 1913, he wrote on the prospect of admitting female students “I want all courses open to them freely and on equal terms with men.” Meanwhile as Chairman of Teddy Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission he focused on bringing opportunity to rural areas. He tirelessly advocated for rural electrification, the founding of 4H and was instrumental in creating university extension offices in every county nationwide. These efforts contributed to the decline of rural poverty and improved the lives of countless Americans.  Despite his success he eschewed political life in his later years in favor of plant discovery expeditions to the Caribbean.

Yet the man who exemplified the motto “any person, any study” chose the troubled word “Plantations.” As Prof. Donald Rackow, horticulture, Plantations director for 15 years, told the Ithaca Times in 2011, “We believe Bailey purposely chose to dismiss the older associations of the word ‘plantations’ with slavery in favor of its proper meaning: ‘areas under cultivation or newly established settlements.’ The name Cornell Plantations fits Bailey’s grand vision of a place that would serve for scientific study and education, and offer spiritual renewal to all who walk our paths.” Prof. Scott Peters, developmental sociology, described his wider vision saying, “He saw life as a great democracy with cooperation as the central reality in life.”

Many now feel this name is outdated and a Board of Trustees vote looms. The current director and change proponent, Christopher Dunn, was quoted in The Sun saying “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.” He further points to confusion “the Plantations” causes and the need for three subscripts “botanical gardens — arboretum — natural areas.” From the perspective of a plant biologist this semantic argument makes little sense.  If anything changing to “botanical gardens” will only emphasize one third of the plantations, a manicured portion distinct enough from the arboretum and natural areas to warrant its own subscript. Bailey himself felt “botanical gardens” was inadequate when he described the newly founded plantations to The Sun in 1944 as “a new type of botanic garden … not merely an adjunct to a department that teaches botany. It is far broader in its purpose … a project set up by ‘the friends of things that grow’ to unify into an organic whole a series of enterprises that are based on the land.”

Instead we must confront the name and the real reason for the proposed change, its despicable past.  The word “plantations” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of all but the most cruel and I can understand why many people of color find it immensely distasteful, even painful.  However when I say “the Cornell Plantations” I have no such distaste.  I am filled with an appreciation of our shared history and the fact that this is not true for all Cornelians is a testament to how far Cornell is from Bailey’s vision of a democratic society.  The problem is not with “Plantations” but with “Cornell;” the problem is our divided social environment.  The Plantations did not cause this, and only a renewed commitment to dialogue, respect and understanding will solve it.

If the name was merely aesthetic I would support the change (as I did before I dug into the history).  Instead, “The Plantations” personifies the egalitarian ethos that made Cornell and that we are still striving for.  If we abandon it now we will never realize a place for “any person, any study.”

William Stone ’18