As dessert was served in a Boston hotel’s grand ballroom Friday night, about 100 students sat side by side with alumni, proud to be representing Cornell at an annual conference dinner.
The Cornell Association of Class Officers honored a 1952 alumnus for being an “outstanding class leader,” and he took the stage to give a speech. The students and alumni listened as he spoke from behind a podium about his admiration for Satchel Paige, a Hall of Fame pitcher who followed Jackie Robinson as one of the first black players in Major League Baseball’s modern era.
Then the alumnus, Paul Blanchard ’52, referred to Paige as a “Negro,” and students’ ears perked up. They gave each other nervous glances. Blanchard’s subsequent qualification — “Now they call them blacks” — only intensified the discomfort.
“I was just like, what is going on?” recalled Jaëlle Sanon ’19, who was sitting at one of about three dozen tables in the Sheraton hotel ballroom. “After his speech ended, there were black people looking to other black people like, did we all hear what just happened?”
As Blanchard wrapped up, an event organizer quickly took the stage, encouraging students to stick around for an impromptu debriefing session that ended up lasting more than an hour and was attended by Fred Van Sickle, Cornell’s top alumni official.
In the days following the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference dinner, Blanchard’s comments have been denounced by students, Cornell alumni officials and a conglomerate of alumni associations.
Some students told The Sun that Blanchard’s use of the dated word, as well as an insinuation in his speech that he and his friends used to “survey” women on the Arts Quad, were signs of a larger disconnect between the alumni network and Cornell’s next generation of alumni — its current students.
Michelle Vaeth ’98, associate vice president for Alumni Affairs, said the alumni office is creating a task force of students, alumni and staff in response to the incident to “develop productive new ways for Cornell’s different generations to work together with even more mutual respect and understanding.”
Blanchard apologized in a statement addressed to students and alumni, saying he was “devastated to hear how my words hurt members of the Cornell community.”
“I’m sorry, as that truly was never my intention,” Blanchard said. “This is a learning opportunity — for me, as I hope it will be for others — to do better. The highlight of this weekend was spending time with students, and the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt you.”
“Please know that your presence here means the world to me, and I’m grateful that we’re all part of such a unique and diverse Big Red family,” he added.
Even as they condemned Blanchard’s remarks, students and alumni said they were impressed by Alumni Affairs’ quick response.
“That’s one thing I appreciated,” Sanon said. “They knew, OK, this happened and this is something we need to talk about.”
In a joint statement, four separate groups representing black, Asian, Latino and LGBT alumni challenged Cornell to continue working to foster respect and celebration of diversity and noted that Alumni Affairs staff took swift action.
“This incident illustrates the importance of our alumni associations in continuing to implement initiatives that foster intergroup dialogue and create a culture of inclusion and belonging after our time on campus as students has ended,” the statement read.
The CACO board of directors said its members were “saddened” that Blanchard, whom they had given the William “Bill” Vanneman ’31 Outstanding Class Leader Award, “made comments that distressed members of the Cornell community.”
“Students were among our greatest teachers this weekend — and we acknowledge the invaluable role that all students play in shaping our alumni network,” the board said.
Clady Corona ’19 said she was not even sure she had heard Blanchard correctly at first. When she and Sanon locked eyes seconds later, she knew she had.
“It mostly boiled down to a sad event — it’s sad that it happened,” she said. “We’re at this alumni event, we’re networking, we’re excited about being alumni and getting involved with Cornell after graduation, and it hits you in the head that nothing’s going to change, that the same things we’re experiencing on campus are going to continue with alumni after we graduate.”
Corona said that the task force Alumni Affairs is planning to create must implement tangible changes and avoid putting all of the burden of improving the organization on the same students who were most affected by Blanchard’s comments.
An alumni official emailed attendees just before 3 a.m. following the dinner to thank students for staying behind for the discussion. She also sent an updated Saturday schedule that included a morning meeting with the Alumni Affairs leadership and several alumni after breakfast.
Later that morning, Lotoya Francis ’22 addressed the entire conference, saying she did not believe that Blanchard had been acting maliciously, but that what he said was “loaded with bias.”
“As long as you’re aware and as long as your eyes are open, it can be easy to be in a rage at all times,” she told the group, paraphrasing James Baldwin. “I’m able to be so calm in a situation like this because I’ve seen so many things like it already.”
Shannon Cohall ’14, secretary of the Cornell Black Alumni Association, said she and many other black alumni were disappointed, but not surprised.
“For a lot of alumni of color, and specifically African-American and black alumni, there is a sense of being both part and apart from the University,” Cohall said, alluding to the title of a book about black students’ experiences in the decades after Cornell’s founding.
“We can sing the alma mater with our fellow Cornellians but there are differences in our experiences, and this conference was a testament to that,” she said.