This weekend marked my third Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference. While many elements of the weekend were the same — a seeming takeover of a hotel in a major city and at least 23 renditions of the alma mater — this weekend gave me newfound hope about how we as a community can exercise compassion and move towards the Cornell we hope to be.
In the case you haven’t read the aptly- titled Sun article, Cornell gave an alumnus an award and while accepting it, he called Satchel Paige a “Negro,” prompting swift backlash.
As I sat in the ballroom, I felt similar reactions to my peers: Looking around to find eyes and share a moment with someone else to make sure I was hearing correctly, scrolling through texts from other students in the room, including one that said “I can check off experiencing a racial incident on my 161 things to do,” and understanding the impact that his words were having on the group. But the focus of this column is not on the incident itself but the way in which we reacted as a community.
What isn’t captured in the news article is the empathy expressed by the leaders of Alumni Affairs who stepped up and responded immediately. What isn’t captured is the way in which staff worked through the night to change the schedule — the critical thought placed into offering space for folks to process and reflect. What isn’t captured is the late night conversations between alumni, staff, trustees and students working collaboratively to think about how we all have a responsibility to shape the Cornell we hope to see.
What needed to be captured was the way in which students voiced the impact of words that hold historical weight, words that were used in a time when humans were othered. How students in the room were careful to separate intent and impact, how the action was criticized and not the person and the amount of compassion exhibited by the students, alumni and staff in the room.
When I think about what makes Cornell special, I think critically about the way we bring top talent from around the world to live, learn and grow side by side. The potential to grow from experiences such as this should not be overlooked. The way in which we as an institution helps develop leaders committed to values of equity and inclusion gives me hope for the way future leaders are created on our campus.
I think about how this experience sparked dialogue between generations of Cornellians. The identity of a Cornellian is not uniform, but a shared identity as Cornellians pushes us to create a space where we all can call home. It is clear that the life alumni lived on the hill is unlike the life that we live today. But the way in which alumni were willing to listen, to empathize and to understand is something I will hold as one of my most memorable Cornell experiences as a student.
Reading comments on the Sun article that label students as oversensitive is a direct violation of the very human principle that everyone has the right to feel what they feel. The ability to evolve as an institution to pursue our core values of equity requires all members of our community to lean in and ask questions, to empathize and listen. Regardless of one’s identity, I strongly believe we all know what it feels like to be othered. Let’s draw on those experiences to ensure we suspend judgement and listen acutely to the impact folks in our community feel, and think about our individual responsibility in creating a more inclusive Cornell.
The opportunity to call someone in and bring them into the conversation is an act of compassion. Too often I see how we call members of our community out, pushing them away from the table rather than pulling them closer. I urge all members of our community to have compassionate accountability. Beyond the use of task forces and committees and even beyond policies, the ability to affirm how someone feels is central to how we move forward as a community. I refuse to believe that nothing is going to change — if anything this weekend was a reminder of how plausible social change is within a community with members who are willing to put in the work.
The ultimate lesson I took away was how we as a Cornell community have differences and how we all need to move forward together. Sitting in that room and looking around at my peers gave me a sense of how far Cornell has come. The identities and stories that color our campus today were certainly not present even 15 or 20 years ago. While hearing the narratives of my peers and seeing the courage they had was inspirational, the burden should not be put on students or marginalized members of our community. The need to come together and think about the commitment needed from all community members is imperative to how we continue to grow and learn together.
This weekend gifted me with a new sense of what it means to be a Cornellian and how while there may not be a singular Cornell experience, a Cornellian requires us to be sensitive to each other’s humanity and to never give up the spirit of lifelong learning.
Earlier in the day at CALC, I had a chance to share my own Cornell narrative — to share the experiences of my immigrant parents and even further back to my ancestors who dreamed to see that day that their descendants would have the opportunity to learn at one of the top educational institutions in the world. Cornell University has fundamentally changed not only my narrative, but the narrative of my family. We often talk about how Cornell changes us, but this experience has reminded me how we as members of the community have the ability to change Cornell.
Dustin Liu is the undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.