The Cornellian, 1980

Captions printed next to the photograph of the Sigma Nu fraternity in the 1980 edition of the Cornellian include altered names such as "Adolf Himmler," "Bugs Bunny" and "The Ayatollah."

February 28, 2019

Cornell Yearbooks Reveal Racist Nicknames, Confederate Flags

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On the sixth floor of Olin Library, tucked away behind dusty manuscripts and financial planning papers, are rows of hefty yearbooks, their pages filled with decades of student-selected highlights of Cornell’s best and brightest moments.

Among those moments captured in the yearbook, the Cornellian, are snapshots of the college experience — faces, words and pictures that reveal the campus as it appeared. The yearbook has been published since 1868, according to its website, and features sections looking at University, residential and campus life.

One photograph features members of the Sigma Nu fraternity alongside a roster of altered names. “Ku,” “Klux” and “Klan” were names assigned in the 1980 yearbook in a roster that named other students as “Adolf Himmler,” “Bugs Bunny” and “The Ayatollah.”

Bob Linden ’71 M.D. ’75, president of Cornell’s Sigma Nu fraternity property association, condemned the picture, saying it was disappointing and that the chapter is now “very diverse.”

“I have zero tolerance for discrimination,” Linden told The Sun. He said there were many possible motivations for the yearbook spread.

“I don’t pretend to know what was going through the minds of the individuals in it,” Linden said. “Were these undergrads drunk and partying, were they simply ignorant, or was there a definite malintent to the picture?”

Cornell revoked recognition of Sigma Nu for at least three years last May after four anonymous hazing allegations.

After USA Today reviewed 900 yearbooks across the nation — including the Cornellian  — President Martha Pollack called the image captions “both racist and anti-Semitic.”

“I strongly denounce the use of these offensive captions, which are completely at odds with the values of our university,” Pollack said.

One fraternity member at the time, Mark Faber ’81, a former sports night desker for The Sun, said he didn’t remember the picture or the roster of names.

“I don’t remember that picture and I do not see myself in the picture,” Faber said in a phone interview. “The people in the photo are victimized by the offensive caption and the yearbook was negligent for publishing the picture with these captions.”

Faber, president of Cornell’s Alumni Interfraternity Council, said the council denounces the captions. In his role as president, Faber also oversees the third phase of Pollack’s recommended Greek Life reforms.

Former Cornellian staff photographer Jeffrey Earickson ’77 M.Eng. ’80, who also worked for The Sun, said the standard yearbook process was for assigned photographers to drop group photos on an editor’s desk to be traced onto onion skin paper. Then, Earickson said, a yearbook staffer numbered each outline and a member of the fraternity or other organization would provide names for each person — identifications he said were “taken at face value.” Organizations paid a sum to be published in the yearbook, the former photographer said, although he could not recall the exact price point.

“Those things happened back when,” Earickson said. “These fraternities were responsible for their own content.”

In an interview, Rona Hollander Citrin ’80 — the Cornellian photographer who took the Sigma Nu picture — said she didn’t recall taking it at first. She called the group of men “wild” and the picture itself inappropriate but described a time at Cornell as one when people were “less sensitive.”

According to the 1981 “Status of Women and Minorities at Cornell University” report, submitted  to the then-board of trustees by Provost W. Keith Kennedy, the percentage of minority students was 12.1 percent in 1980. Minority students included “American Indian,” Asian, Black and Hispanic students.

In the years following the printing of the caption, more than one student group displayed a Confederate flag in yearbooks reviewed by The Sun. A member of Alpha Gamma Rho held the flag up in the front row of his group picture in 1981 and members of Phi Gamma Delta did the same a year later.

Members of Cornell's Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity pose for a photo in 1981, with one member holding up a Confederate flag.

The Cornellian, 1981

Members of Cornell’s Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity pose for a photo in 1981, with one member holding up a Confederate flag.

“While the photo may be seen, by some, as offensive in nature because of the displaying of the Confederate Flag, the intent to display the flag in the image printed … is unknown,” national fraternity Alpha Gamma Rho wrote in a statement. The fraternity said its members should “reflect, value and advocate diversity in our membership and professional lives.”

In the 1982 Cornellian, nicknames were printed alongside the Phi Gamma Delta group photo, one of which was “Hitleryouth.”

David Ayers ’80, alumni vice president of Cornell’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, said in an email to The Sun that the fraternity was “a place filled with diverse people and diverse interests.”

“I think the yearbook photo shows that the brothers were non-conformists,” Ayers said. “The brothers wanted to show that fraternities we’re [sic] not stuffy places filled only with elite young men.”

Years later, the University would introduce a flag ban in its housing contract, a change introduced in response to Confederate flags flying outside dormitory windows, The New York Times reported. In 1991, the University suspended the ban after students wanted to fly the American flag to support troops stationed in the Persian Gulf.

The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity appears in this photograph from the 1982 edition of The Cornellian, dressed in costume and alongside quoted nicknames such as "Hitleryouth."

The Cornellian, 1982

The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity appears in this photograph from the 1982 edition of The Cornellian, dressed in costume and alongside quoted nicknames such as “Hitleryouth.”

“We feel this photo’s content is indicative of neither non-conformity, diversity nor friendship, but rather insensitivity,” said Nick Smith ’20, current president of Phi Gamma Delta. Smith is also an arts columnist at The Sun.

Smith continued: “Regardless of how ‘status’ quo this photo’s subjects might have thought the garb of their brother was, times have changed and it is no longer our place to pretend actions such as these were acceptable in any context.”

Linden, Cornell’s Sigma Nu property association president, noted that the pictures and captions were part of Cornell’s past.

“The problem is when you erase history you don’t learn from it,” Linden said. “It went on back then … but unfortunately … this stuff is still going on now.”