After over a month of back and forth, Cornell’s Alliance for Science asked one of its fellows, Julia Feliz, to leave on Oct. 15, citing them as a continued interruption to the program. Feliz called the program racist.
Feliz — a scientific researcher in conservation ecology — was a member of the fourth cohort for the Global Leadership Fellows Program, which started in 2015. They were born in Puerto Rico and were the first Afro Indigenous fellow, they told The Sun.
The 12-week program focuses on agricultural biotechnology innovation, bringing “emerging international leaders” to Cornell’s campus to learn skills to bring back to their home countries, according to a statement from John Carberry, senior director of media relations.
According to Carberry, 27 of the 31 fellows were people of color, coming from various countries including Bangladesh, Brazil and Burkina Faso.
Feliz described not only facing racism, but also intimidation, negligence of their requests and retaliation for speaking out throughout the program.
On Sept. 10, a visiting professor made “sexist, racist and really inappropriate comments,” while giving a seminar talk, Feliz told The Sun. Part of the program curriculum includes “seminars and workshops led by international thought leaders and subject matter experts,” according to the program website.
Feliz claimed the male professor angrily accosted them, interrupting their question following up on his claim that animal agriculture could save developing countries. Upset by the incident, Feliz then left the classroom and skipped more of that day’s programming.
On Sept. 12, Feliz emailed the leadership of the program — including Sarah Evanega, the director of Cornell Alliance for Science — about their concerns regarding the incident, which had not been addressed.
Feliz said there was no response until Sept. 20, and then Evanega suggested a meeting with human resources, which Feliz declined.
Ultimately, Evanega met Feliz during a class on Sept. 24, according to Feliz. Evanega reportedly asked Feliz to consider leaving and asked if the program was right for them, citing that it was “about biotechnology and not social justice.”
“Well I’m a scientist. I’m a social justice activist and I’m also an Afro Indigenous person from Puerto Rico. I can’t separate those things,” Feliz said.
Evanega did not respond to The Sun’s request for comment.
Carberry said Cornell staff reached out to Feliz with different support options, but that Feliz chose not to take advantage of those options.
On Oct. 4, Feliz received an email notifying them that Evanega had filed a bias report on their behalf with the Department of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity. Feliz replied asking why this had been reported without their consent.
On Oct. 7, Angela Winfield, Associate Vice President of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity, sent a formal apology to Feliz.
“I am glad you are planning to stay and complete the program,” Winfield said. “You should not be unfairly pushed or pressured to leave for raising legitimate concerns that Cornell needs to know and hear about if we are to truly create a diverse and inclusive community.”
On Oct. 15, Feliz was officially released from the program.
Carberry said the decision to ask Feliz to leave was made only after Feliz “engaged in behavior that caused numerous and repeated complaints from other fellows over many weeks.”
“It became clear that the educational experience of other fellows was being compromised due to ongoing interruptions of classroom lectures and discussions by Mx. Feliz,” Carberry said. “Program leadership ultimately determined with sincere regret that Mx. Feliz was not benefitting from the program and that Mx. Feliz’s continued presence was depriving other fellows of their opportunity to benefit from the program.”
For Feliz, being asked to leave was a final attempt to silence them and any conversation about race, “allowing this racism to be okay.”
Following being asked to leave, Feliz said there were further complications, including with their stipend and flight home.
Feliz said Cornell bought them a ticket home to Switzerland without their consent — trying to “deport” them, despite being a U.S. citizen. They also say Cornell refused to pay their stipend without sitting down for a meeting.
According to Carberry, Cornell paid the entirety of Feliz’s stipend, covered all housing and purchased Feliz a ticket to return to Switzerland, where they currently reside.
Feliz has since filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX and published a list of demands for Cornell. These include a formal apology, the certificate of completion for the program and sensitivity training for faculty.
After Feliz published an article on Medium.com entitled “Cornell University’s Alliance for White Supremacy,” some students have voiced their support for Feliz.
Gavin Martin ’20, Student Assembly Arts & Sciences representative, decided to bring the issue to the S.A., proposing a public statement to be published on SA platforms and to bring awareness to Julia’s situation. There will be a vote during Thursday’s S.A. meeting on the matter.
“[In not doing something,] we become a bystander, … complicit to the injustice done to Julia,” Martin said. “I refuse to sit idly by, and I refuse to let an organization that I love being a part of stand idly by.”
Martin explained that Julia’s case is not an isolated one, but one he has experienced himself.
“Even though drastic actions like this happened in this instance, it happens often at Cornell,” Martin said. “I have had my participation grade docked for continuing to bring up … issues pertaining to Black rights … in my government classes.”
For both Martin and Feliz, these incidents are emblematic of Cornell’s continued devaluing of the lived experiences of students of color in academic spaces.
“This is really a systemic issue where they just try to silence people and get rid of them,” Feliz said. “Just because we are marginalized … doesn’t mean that they can treat us like dispensable trash that they can exploit.”
Caroline Johnson ’22 contributed reporting to this article.