February 20, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Being a Cornell Alumnus Is Harder Than Being a Student

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“I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.”

—Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906-1982)

As a lifelong active Cornell alumnus who attended the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference, I have been following The Sun’s coverage and op-ed pieces about Paul Blanchard ’52, the alumnus who gave an acceptance speech that included a description of Satchel Paige as a Negro Baseball League pitcher. The Sun’s “Mind the Gap” editorial called for “preventative measures” to avoid a recurrence of an alumni event offending student guests. Sun columnists Laura DeMassa ’21 and Canaan Delgado ’21 called for “disrupting the structural manifestations of discrimination” within Cornell’s alumni organizations.

Cornell Alumni Affairs will convene 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,’” The Sun reported. However, I think that this is a useless fig leaf.

When I was a freshman, orientation was centered on what it meant to be a Cornellian, and we learned the traditions and songs. Some local Cornell clubs held send-off parties to welcome us to the fold, even before travelling to Ithaca. Each student received a brochure titled, “Your Role as a Cornell Alumnus,” and our matriculation fee included a subscription to the Cornell Magazine for the year after we graduated. We felt welcomed and privileged to be a part of the Cornell family.

In contrast, undergraduates have recently reported to me that their orientation included mandatory diversity training sessions that began by teaching that Cornell was built on land stolen from the American Indians. (Orientation seemingly did not mention that Ezra Cornell paid full value for the land when he bought it and that generous donations paid full price for the subsequent construction of the campus). The general message is that alumni are bigoted and should be mistrusted rather than entitled to gratitude and the benefit of the doubt.

When I was a student, the Cornell Alumni Association was a separate corporation that operated independently from the administration. The CAA officers were elected and published the Cornell Magazine. The lack of Day Hall control over the Cornell Magazine during the Willard Straight Hall Takeover led to the founding of the Cornell Chronicle as Day Hall’s house organ, which was viewed with skepticism. However, today most alumni groups are now a part of the University, and except for the Board of Trustees, alumni officers have little legal control. Back then, Cornell had five student trustees and one faculty trustee elected by the student body rather than just the one undergraduate-elected trustee we have today. Then and now, each graduating class elects its own officers, and they meet annually and elect the officers and executive board of the Cornell Association of Class Officers. I have had the honor of serving as a Class President for 10 years and V.P. for another five, as well as on the CACO Executive Board. Other alumni groups (including fraternities, sororities and The Cornell Daily Sun Alumni Association) have a narrower focus and raise funds for those causes. These other alumni groups also elect their own officers.

Alumni are all unpaid volunteers who are motivated by a desire to help build Cornell, to improve society and to receive recognition at events such as the ill-fated Friday night CACO awards dinner. Each alumnus builds his or her own reputation in a home community as well as with other alumni. Those reputations are based in part on the ability to donate or raise money, and in 2017-18, Cornell received $411 million in new gifts. In turn, alumni leaders are selected based on their reputations. Paul Blanchard repeatedly was selected to serve Cornell, and nobody would regard him as a bigot. Many CALC attendees were unhappy with the thoughtlessness that marred the celebration of his life-long service to Cornell with drama over his word choice.

While student sensibilities are formed on campus, each alumnus lives in his or her own community and picks up a sense of what is appropriate from that environment. Alumni volunteers and donors come from many communities, backgrounds and political viewpoints.  So, each year CALC celebrates Cornell and Cornellians by accepting those diverse viewpoints without taking offense. The award acceptance speeches should not be subject to Day Hall censorship, and Alumni Affairs staff know that it would be useless to try.

DeMassa and Delgado suggest that if Cornell alumni fail to adopt the political correctness standards of today’s Cornell campus, then young alumni will not engage with Cornell. While that may be true for a portion of alumni in each class, there will be others who follow Paul Blanchard’s example and engage Cornell on a life-long basis. Most Cornell alumni seek to make friends and to “network” at alumni events without being deliberately offensive to disadvantaged groups. However, the goal is to have all Cornell alumni work together, as volunteers, without regard for race, religion or national origin. That is what I saw at CALC, and I also heard from many alumni who felt that the students overreacted to Blanchard’s acceptance speech. The minute that DeMassa and Delgado graduate, they will enter new communities and will face competition for their time and resources. They may fight for social justice on the local or national scale. Whether they also select Cornell to be a focus of their philanthropy remains to be seen, but overall the experience to date has shown that Cornell has had a robust and productive alumni body without imposing an arbitrary political correctness standard that is inconsistent with each alumnus’ home community. Cornell alumni leaders will be reluctant to give up a structure that generates $411 million a year just because it does not fit the social justice perspective of some current undergraduates.

Robert C. Platt ’73, J.D. ’76 is a former executive board member of the Cornell Association of Class Officers. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to [email protected].