JT Baker ’21, a football player who ran for student-elected trustee, was disqualified because of an email a Cornell Athletics official sent alerting athletes to Baker’s campaign and encouraging them to vote in the election, according to two people familiar with the decision.
The Trustee Nominating Committee announced Tuesday that it had disqualified Baker, ruling unanimously that the email violated election rules by implying that players’ support of Baker’s candidacy was a condition of their affiliation with Cornell Athletics.
The committee also determined the email “altered the fairness of the election.” Its decision drew public rebukes from both Cornell President Martha E. Pollack and Board of Trustees Chair Robert Harrison ’76, who said they disagreed with but would honor the ruling.
The email, which was obtained by The Sun on Wednesday and verified by a committee member, highlighted Baker’s candidacy but did not explicitly endorse the cornerback for trustee. It’s unclear how many athletes received the email.
“I am contacting you to let you know that JT Baker, a member of the football team, is running for Student Elected Trustee,” Carmen Rogers, assistant director of athletics for student services, wrote to athletes on March 18, a week before voting began. “He would be the first ever student athlete in this critical leadership position.
“This election for the Student-Elected Trustee position is incredibly important and we encourage you all to vote, please spread the word!” she continued.
Rogers and Cornell Athletics declined to comment. Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, the chair of the committee, also declined to comment beyond a statement he issued Wednesday saying committee members had arrived at their decision after careful deliberations.
The nominating committee also disqualified Baker for not notifying the committee that the email may be a potential violation in a timely manner. Members voted 6 to 1, with one abstaining, that this altered the fairness of the election.
Cornell announced Tuesday that Jaewon Sim ’21 had won the election and will serve as the next undergraduate student trustee. The election uses a system in which voters rank their choices, meaning it is impossible to know whether Baker would have won had he not been disqualified.
Sim said Wednesday night that he believes the committee “followed its established procedures” although “some ambiguity in the election rules leaves room for differing interpretations.”
Many Cornell athletes said Wednesday that they were angered by the committee’s decision and some said they believe the disqualification of Baker, who is black, was racially motivated. Baker did not have any comment Wednesday night.
Harrison and Pollack said in separate statements to The Sun that they believe the committee’s eight voting members had not applied the election rules correctly, but that they would not seek to overrule the independent committee.
Pollack said the committee’s stated grounds for disqualifying Baker “are not supported by the established rules governing the election process.”
Harrison, in a letter published in The Sun on Wednesday night, said it would not be appropriate for the Board of Trustees “to second-guess a duly authorized shared governance body.”
“Therefore, the Board will leave it to the TNC to deal with challenges to this student trustee election,” he wrote, referring to the committee. “Given the issues raised by the TNC’s actions, however, I will ask the Board to examine and revise, where appropriate, the structure and authority of the TNC prior to the next election. It is critical that TNC actions be viewed by the Cornell community as transparent, fair and justified.”
Baker had asked the committee weeks before Rogers sent the email in question if Cornell Athletics could post about his campaign on social media without endorsing him.
The committee said in a March 8 memo to all candidates that official university units should not endorse any candidates or take any actions that could be perceived as endorsements or give an unfair advantage to any candidates.
In addition to the email to student athletes, Rogers sent a nearly identical email addressed to coaches that encouraged them to tell their athletes about the significance of the election. The committee determined that the email to coaches constituted a violation but did not alter the fairness of the election.
After Rogers sent the two emails, three other athletics staff members, including Athletics Director Andy Noel, sent follow-up emails clarifying that Cornell Athletics did not intend to endorse Baker. The three emails were nearly identical and listed all 10 trustee candidates.
“I understand that a message was posted to Blackboard last week pertaining to the Student-Elected Trustee campaign that is currently taking place,” Noel wrote to athletes on March 26. “Please disregard that announcement and know that it was meant to only inform the athletic community of the election.
“It was not to show support for any one particular candidate,” Noel continued. “There are ten very qualified students who would do a great job as a Student-Trustee and we encourage you all to take the time to research each candidate before you vote.”
The Trustee Nominating Committee received five challenges against Baker regarding three incidents, according to the committee’s public report. Challenges related to two of the incidents “failed to be substantiated.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed reporting to this article.