The Student Assembly passed a statement on Thursday condemning the abrupt dismissal of Alliance for Science fellow Julia Feliz, who claimed the program was racist, while some other fellows at the meeting expressed support of the program organizers’ decision.
Feliz was asked to leave the Alliance for Science program — a 12-week program focused on biotechnology — on Oct. 15, after program coordinators told them that they were a continual interruption to the program. During their time in the program, Feliz said that they faced racism, harassment and intimidation when they spoke out on social justice issues, The Sun previously reported.
“We find this dismissal egregious and refuse to turn a blind eye,” the S.A. statement read. “Cornell must do better. Cornell still can do better.”
Dozens of students and Alliance for Science members crowded the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall to voice their thoughts on Feliz’s situation and the S.A.’s statement. While several students spoke in support of Feliz, other fellows supported the decision to terminate their fellowship.
Members of the Puerto Rican Students Association condemned the program for dismissing Feliz, who claimed they were the first afro-indigenous person from the U.S. to be accepted into Alliance for Science.
On the other hand, Patience Koku, a 2018 Alliance for Science fellow from Nigeria, said that a fellowship on biotechnology was an inappropriate forum for Feliz to make comments on social justice.
“We all have our rights to feel how we feel, and Julia might feel that [they were] discriminated against,” Koku said at the meeting. “The fact that there are people who are here, in the fellowship, where there’s 31 people and 27 of them are people of color, and I can assure you that if you ask them one-on-one, for instance, if they felt like they were disadvantaged because of their color, they might answer you and tell you that they haven’t.”
While audience members were speaking, there were multiple instances of misgendering. Feliz uses they/them pronouns, and in a heated exchange when Koku spoke, S.A. president Joe Anderson ’20 urged that she use the correct pronouns when referring to Feliz.
Other fellows in the program described Feliz as a “distraction,” at the meeting.
A day after they were dismissed from the program, Feliz published a Medium article describing their experiences in the program, including one in which a visiting professor made “sexist, racist and really inappropriate” comments at a seminar on Sept. 10.
At the S.A. meeting, Feliz was repeatedly asked questions about their experiences in the fellowship. They also said that after they complained about the professor, the program failed to provide them adequate resources.
“I emailed a few days after the incident, I requested a support person because I sometimes need someone to help me communicate and they basically ignored my request,” Feliz said.
There were also occasions where members of the Alliance for Science program misgendered Feliz and failed to provide them with disability accommodations for their ADHD, Feliz said at the meeting.
Regarding Feliz’s situation, John Carberry, a Cornell spokesperson, said in a statement to The Sun that they “engaged in behavior that caused numerous and repeated complaints from other fellows over many weeks.”
When the S.A. statement supporting Feliz came to a motion to vote, Gavin Martin ’21, College of Arts and Sciences representative, urged that the S.A. act promptly instead of taking more questions.
“I would just like to remind everyone that this was an emotionally draining process and it was a request that we move to vote,” Martin said. “Everytime there is a question, you are asking someone to narrate their trauma.”
Initially the motion to vote was evenly split — 12-12 — so the S.A. could not officially vote to approve the statement. Some members refused the motion to vote because they wanted to speak. Martin admonished the S.A. for this, and demanded that the S.A. pass a unanimous roll-call vote — every individual S.A. member would be publicly asked to vote for or against the resolution.
“I think that it is important to remember that some members of the Assembly — you are the epicenters of power and privilege on this campus,” Martin said. “When someone who is being directly affected by this, the person who is at the eye of the hurricane is asking us to a motion to vote, you move to that motion to vote.”
Ultimately, the resolution passed via a roll-call vote, but it was not unanimous — the final vote was 24-0-1, with Youhan Yuan ’21, College of Arts and Sciences representative, being the only S.A. member to vote “no.”
Yuan told The Sun that he agreed with the aims of the statement, but he found that the wording of the statement was too “strong” and would fail to foster any meaningful discussions on Feliz’s ordeal on campus.
Martin told The Sun that while he was happy to see the statement pass, he had wished the approval was unanimous.
“The members should have done their homework,” Martin said. “We sent around packets with the articles, the many questions they asked were in the articles. [Feliz] had to relive trauma.”