Generations of Cornellians came together last weekend for current students and alumni alike to enjoy an opportunity to learn from each other. There’s nothing like an invite-only potential networking opportunity to bring generations of Big Red back together.
But the weekend took a turn. When Paul Blanchard ’52 was accepting the William “Bill” Vanneman ’31 Outstanding Class Leader Award, he said something so unexpected, students in attendance thought they misheard him.
While talking about Satchel Paige, a Hall of Fame pitcher, he referred to the former baseballer as a “Negro,” then qualifying his statement with, “Now they call them blacks.” Cornell’s Alumni Affairs handled this situation with grace, speed, efficiency and sensitivity that many of the conference-goers commented on and appreciated. There was a debrief session for students and the group is creating a task force to address this issue. Cornell’s Alumni Affairs really shined in this moment, and they put the students first, which they should be commended for. Many students agreed that the situation was handled promptly.
How did we get here? Yes, this situation was dealt with in a very appropriate manner. But in this case and in similar instances on campus, we consistently deal in reactionary measures when we should be striving for preventative ones.
Students arriving at Cornell now spend orientation week participating in the Intergroup Dialogue Project. But we can’t expect every single alumnus to sit down and go through IDP before they attend a conference or networking event. It would only benefit the world, but when resources like time and money are finite, it isn’t the plausible answer.
This time, what happened was not an act of malice, and the situation was addressed with the necessary grace.
So let it be a lesson: Cornell needs to understand that the generational gap between alumni and students exists and can present challenges. This event, the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference, went from inviting 20 students to inviting over 100 just in a few years, and increasingly features people from a diverse array of backgrounds. Something was bound to happen. While everyone there walked through Ho Plaza at one time or another, the cultures and what was appropriate in that era is not the same. Cornell must become more conscious of this difference as they continue to host events like these.
Networking and learning from alumni are such valuable parts of the Cornell experience. But incidents like these can disrupt that experience and have lasting impacts. Being proactive and putting precautionary measures into place could make conferences like CALC the valuable inter-generational Cornell experience the University envisioned.