April 7, 2019

GUEST ROOM | ‘Singling Out’ President Pollack’s Divestment Confusion

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In President Pollack’s much-publicized statement rejecting Students for Justice in Palestine’s proposed divestment measures against Israeli occupation, Cornell’s leader claimed that such action would “unfairly single out one country in the world for sanction, when there are many countries around the world whose governments’ policies may be viewed as controversial.” In case she has forgotten, we would like to remind her of the other countries whose human rights violations have been brought to her attention by anti-imperialist members of the campus community.

In May 2017, Pollack’s administration declined to take action to utilize Cornell’s purchasing power to help curb militia violence in the Congo in accordance with the demands of the global “conflict-free” movement. A resolution that earned the near-unanimous support from the Student Assembly was unilaterally dismissed, even though the relatively uncontroversial conflict-free campaign provided Cornell with a feasible action plan to directly address the country’s human rights violations. University leadership simply couldn’t be bothered to care about this powerful student-led effort, let alone act on it.

The following month, an SA resolution authored by human rights organizers and Native American student leaders asked the University to divest from dirty pipeline projects that violate Indigenous sovereignty and put the future of all peoples at stake. Pollack’s response dismissed grave concerns surrounding federally backed corporate attacks on the sovereignty of Native nations, insensitively labeling these life-or-death issues as being unrelated to higher education. An intensively organized effort to address human rights violations once again made it to the floor of the SA, only to face summary execution upon its delivery to the Office of the President.

Then in October 2018, the ILR School’s director of international programs “singled out” the Chinese state over its brutal crackdown against student activists. Following consultation with the administration, he exercised his authority to suspend two exchange programs with the Beijing-based Renmin University. In that vein, students have also protested Cornell’s secret multi-million partnership with a telecom firm that’s known to be infiltrated by China’s authoritarian government. The Sun’s bold investigative reporting on the matter was even internationally publicized by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In December 2018, a large group of concerned students demanded that Cornell cut its ties with Saudi Arabia given the new monarch’s orchestration of genocide in Yemen and assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, among other atrocities. Pollack sowed confusion by stating that Cornell’s associations with the Saudi-tied Global Business School are nonexistent, while also defensively asserting that GBS is a private entity with no ties to the Saudi state anyways. Both claims are demonstrably false, yet they still came shamelessly marked with Pollack’s letterhead. Student activists were left even more flabbergasted when she puzzlingly contradicted reports in the global press that the Johnson School plans to build a new GBS campus in Jeddah. The full extent of past and current Cornell-Saudi ties remains unclear.

In February 2019, student labor organizers turned their eyes in the direction of another rogue Gulf state. In a public letter, they reiterated long-standing calls for Cornell to order a third-party investigation into its satellite medical campus outside the Qatari capital of Doha. Qatar operates thanks to the labor of millions of migrant workers, with the elite citizenry comprising less than 10 percent of the population. Pollack has defensively insisted that the campus’s contracted workers are treated in accordance with the country’s labor laws, a curious argument given that those laws are notoriously cruel. Though credible information about Cornell’s presence in the authoritarian Gulf monarchy is difficult to get, the public has gained brief glimpses into some of its worst horrors. In a 2011 submission to The Sun, a Cornell-Qatar research assistant describes being given his very own “tea boy” — a middle-aged migrant laborer degradingly employed to stand at beck and call for the ostensibly elite minds of Cornell’s bizarre Persian Gulf outpost. Despite such accounts, we’ve been informed time and time again by Cornell leadership that there’s simply nothing to see there. Carry on, we’re told.

To be clear, members of the 22 student organizations that have endorsed SJP’s renewed divestment campaign have been involved in almost all of the fights detailed above. But much to our disappointment, only SJP’s latest push has yielded a personalized, long-worded and passion-driven rejection from Pollack’s office. Other campaigns remain tragically sidelined, with our Ivory Tower’s leadership caring very little about its complicity in the violence of a multitude of governments. Isn’t our leadership aware that Israel is simply a single country among that multitude?

While Pollack’s divestment statement is said and done, we can only hope for transparent, balanced and empathetic reception the next time we students raise legitimate questions about our rural University’s secretive operations abroad. Student activists seek not to sensationally play out larger geopolitical debates on Cornell’s campus, but to gain tangible redress surrounding institutional complicity in clear human rights violations. That’s why Pollack’s convention of evading transparency — coupled with a singularly passionate commitment to preventing divestment measures against a state that’s responsible for crimes of occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing — will do nothing but further degrade mutual trust. As human rights organizers, we simply want to help build a better world. But until our University truly reckons with the human implications of its endless foreign entanglements, we regretfully fear that Pollack’s globalist “One Cornell” vision won’t be part of it.

Helen Shanahan ’18 is the former co-president of Amnesty International at Cornell University. Max Greenberg is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Christopher Hanna is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Kataryna Restrepo is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Steve Tarcan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Viraj Kumar is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.