October 8, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | Ann Coulter ’84, Keith Olbermann ’79 and Toxic Cornellianism

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2019 marks the 10th anniversary of a uniquely Cornellian spat, a weird, manifestly pointless, partially televised dispute between pundits Ann Coulter ’84 and Keith Olbermann ’79. The tussle concerned the Ivy League legitimacy of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which Coulter questioned in an attempt to discredit Olbermann, a CALS alumnus. New York Magazine called the tussle an “awesome college catfight,” The Washington Examiner dubbed Coulter’s comments “schadenfruede-licious” and Jordan Fabian ’09, editor-at-large of The Cornell Review, the conservative student publication Coulter helped found, told The Sun he found her instigation “pretty funny.”

The story of the “catfight” is an entertaining one, but it’s also a cautionary tale of two alumni who exposed toxic Cornell attitudes to a national audience. We should not follow the example they set.

Coulter, a right-wing provocateur, is a defective product of Ezra Cornell’s noble institution. She has a track record of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements, she fantasizes about the disenfranchisement of women and she has called for the return of poll taxes and literacy tests. Olbermann is a sportscaster and retired liberal pundit who’s probably most relevant today as the voice of Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, a gossipy, unhappily divorced whale who works as a news anchor for MSNBSea, a TV station on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.

So, what exactly went down?

It all began when Olbermann attacked the academic credentials of a Bush Administration employee who attended Regent University School of Law, a conservative Christian institution founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. Coulter took offense when Olbermann called Regent “Religious Lunatic University,” and she responded with several pot shots at CALS, which Olbermann often bragged about attending. CALS, she said, is not the private, “Ivy League Cornell,” but rather the “Old MacDonald Cornell,” an institution far inferior to the College of Arts and Sciences, from which she graduated. Olbermann’s frequent boasts about his Ivy League education, she claimed, were lies because he attended the “affiliated state college” with an average SAT “about that of pulling guards at the University of South Carolina” and an acceptance rate of “one of every 1.01 applicants.”

Olbermann reacted, as one does, with a segment on his TV show. He whipped out his Cornell diploma to show that it looked just like Coulter’s, bragged that he’d earned his degree at age 20 while paying less in tuition, made clear that he took a bunch of non-CALS classes and clarified that CALS in fact had a one-in-five acceptance rate.

The whole episode was, of course, amusing. There’s something very satisfying — schadenfruede-licious, if you will — about watching two wealthy Ivy Leaguers devoid of self-awareness get worked up in an embarrassing squabble about the boundaries of the Ivy League.

But humor aside, the spat is instructive. Coulter and Olbermann put on display two harmful attitudes all too common at Cornell, attitudes Cornellians should do away with. Coulter epitomized the historically illiterate elitism that prompts some Cornellians to look down on Cornell’s four contract colleges, and Olbermann evinced a sort of insecurity that our community just can’t seem to shake.

Coulter’s hyperbolic rant is an extreme manifestation of attitudes that pervade campus. I remember well the night a freshman year friend, an Arts and Sciences pre-med from Westchester, described what he claimed was his wealthy community’s conception of educational hierarchy. To attend the College of Arts and Sciences, he told me, was to have a foothold in the Ivy League. To attend a contract college, on the other hand, meant little. And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a contract college disparagingly referred to as “SUNY Ithaca,” — as if “SUNY” were a dirty acronym — I could afford to eat at Taverna Banfi every day.

But those who denigrate the publicly endowed contract colleges fail to understand a fundamental truth. Cornell and the other private institutions that define America’s globally preeminent system of higher education would not have reached their present heights without massive public investment, as Profs. Isaac Kramnick, government, and Glenn Altschuler, American studies, make clear in Cornell: A History, 1940–2015. As Cornell matured into a top-tier research university after World War II, government-funded research ballooned. By 1952, 75 percent of Cornell’s research funding came from Washington. Federal grants — which propelled research intended to help the United States compete with the Soviets — were the bedrock on which Cornell built its world-class physics, foreign language, mathematics and space science programs.

And federal investment didn’t end with the collapse of Soviet communism. By the start of the 21st century, the government was funding 60 percent of the research performed by American universities — state schools and private institutions alike.  Deriding contract colleges for receiving public funds sets a glaringly nonsensical double-standard and denies the profound role public funds have played in Cornell’s growth.

Though Olbermann’s spirited defense of his alma mater is admirable, Coulter’s nutty assault on CALS should not have been dignified with a response. In choosing to take on Coulter — not to mention doing so by highlighting  CALS’ rejection rate — Obermann demonstrated a self-conscious defensiveness that reflected poorly on the Cornell community.

This defensiveness likely stems from a form of insecurity familiar to Cornellians: the fear that your academic or professional chops aren’t quite up to the arbitrary standard set by society’s socioeconomic elites— or the pseudo-journalists at U.S. News and World Report.  This insecurity often leads Cornellians to sell themselves short and to wrongly believe that they always have something more to prove. In the highly competitive world we college students inhabit, this nagging sense of not being quite good enough takes a toll.

But insecurity also blinds us to our privilege as recipients of this institution’s massive intellectual, financial and social resources. If you succumb to the faulty notion that Cornell fails to meet some arbitrary prestige threshold,  it’s easier to deny the reality that you, as an Ivy Leaguer, benefit from opportunities the vast majority of Americans lack.

Cornellians, acknowledge public contributions to this university, and ditch the inferiority complex. Take pride in our venerable institution, and resist those who seek to rob you of your pride, but avoid arrogance. Attending Cornell confers advantages — advantages underwritten by the American populace, no matter which college you attend — but it does not confer superiority.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.