About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 2019 Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference as a Class of 2021 Class Councils representative, alongside around 100 other current Cornell student leaders. Generations of alumni also came to the event to engage in networking and small group discussions with students.
I was also present for Paul Blanchard’s ’52 acceptance speech for the William “Bill” Vanneman ’31 Outstanding Class Leader Award. When Blanchard referred to the Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige as a “Negro” and said “now they call them Blacks,” my jaw dropped, followed by stifled laughter. This was the same reaction I had to his earlier comment about surveying female students on the Arts Quad. I received uncomfortable glances from the alumni at my table, and a knowing glance from a friend sitting next to me who is also a minority. Is it bad to say that as a Black female I was more surprised by the University’s speedy and sensitive response than the comment itself?
First off, I would like to applaud Cornell Alumni Affairs for their response to the incident — which included convening a small breakout session right after the award ceremony and early the next morning, as well as initiating a task force that aims to assist with dialogue between students and alumni. They allowed students and alumni to voice what steps should be taken following the incident, and to share ideas on how to prevent it from happening again.
Second, I would like to acknowledge the intergenerational gap between the students and alumni who come together for conferences like these. The reason I was not as shocked by Blanchard’s comment is that I am aware that he comes from a different time than I do. It was about a decade after he had even graduated Cornell that the term began to be looked down upon. I also don’t believe the comment was made out of malice. I do, however, believe that this type of comment needed to be addressed. After experiencing the racial tension that occurred on campus last school year — the attack in collegetown, the “build a wall” comments outside of the Latino Living Center, etc. — it is evident that prejudice exists regardless of what decade someone is born into. By tackling displays of racial insensitivity, like where dated verbiage was continuously used by an educated individual, Cornell graciously demonstrated the fact that discrimination is not tolerated in our community. Every class admitted into Cornell will be increasingly diverse, and since alumni are still a part of the Cornell community and experience, they should be held to the same standard as students who are still on campus when it comes to cultural sensitivity.
One of the most important takeaways from CALC for me was the important role alumni play for universities, especially one as prestigious as Cornell. Networking with alumni, and hearing about their academic and professional journey, is a very valuable tool for a students experience — we need more exposure to alumni. The alumni who come back year after year are volunteering their time because they want to continue building Cornell.
After the conference, I felt the disconnect between current and former students even more. I appreciated CAA’s Strategic Framework to enhance student-alumni dialogue. Challenges like unfacilitated professional networking and a lack of engagement from young alumni were discussed in the small group sessions. From what I deduced, there also needs to be a huge improvement in streamlining communication. We need to make it easier for alumni to understand what is happening on campus in order to increase willingness to donate. We need to better engage with alumni who do not live in major cities. We need to better validate alumni contributions. We need to create new efforts in community engagement and marketing to help build Cornell’s reputation. We should also facilitate peer alumni networking. One idea I am working to materialize with the Senior Days committee is a post-senior orientation in which alumni come back to campus to network and share information with the students who about to graduate the next week. These are just some of my proposals to help further the process.
I want to thank all of the Cornellians I spoke to at CALC. Alumni could be key players in elevating the experience of current students and in elevating the prestige of Cornell University. More consideration should be given to determining what exact initiatives should be implemented to improve the alumni experience. In the meantime, simply signing up for platforms like CUeLinks can assist the process. Just because alumni walked across the stage and received their diploma, it doesn’t mean they have to “break up” with Cornell. Even if the level of engagement differs depending on the individual, every Cornellian should at least be going steady with their alma mater.
Aminah Taariq is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I Spy runs every other Wednesday this semester.