Boris Tsang/Sun Senior Photographer

Former Cornell Tech visiting lecturer and researcher J. Khadijah Abdurahman alleges that racism was at the root of her recent firing.

April 20, 2021

Visiting Researcher Fired From Cornell Tech, Drawing Widespread Backlash

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Former Cornell Tech visiting lecturer and researcher J. Khadijah Abdurahman is alleging that  she was fired by her colleague in late March because she spoke out against anti-Blackness and ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia. 

According to Abdurahman, Prof. Tapan Parikh, information science, fired her after an online confrontation, which was spurred by a discussion on the syllabus of a mutual colleague on March 23. Angry at Abdurahman’s posts as part of this broader discussion, Parikh sent Abdurahman a series of direct messages on Twitter, which she said were racist, in the letter.

Some of Parikh’s messages were also directed at Abdurahman’s Oromo ethnicity — one of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Abdurahman said she only responded to Parikh’s comments by asking to be left alone.

“I got an email the following morning that was two sentences: ‘We should no longer work together right now or in the future and drop off your headset and ID at Cornell Tech,” Abdurahman said.

After her firing, Abdurahman posted an open letter addressed to Cornell Tech online, which circulated on social media. The letter demands that she be reinstated at Cornell Tech and calls for a public apology from Parikh. 

Other demands include a statement on academic freedom from Prof. Greg Morrisett, computer science, the Dean of Cornell Tech, and calls for the human-centered computing and computer science departments to hire a cohort of tenure-tracked Black faculty.

As of Monday evening, the letter has 245 signatures from a range of activists and academics, including some who are affiliated with Cornell Tech. Abdurahman said she sees her firing as part of a larger problem at Cornell Tech, which has no full-time Black faculty, according to her letter.

“What does it mean to found a new graduate technical university and not feel the need to even have any Black faculty at all?” Abdurahman told The Sun. “I think that says it all.”

Parikh did not respond to requests for comment. Dean Morrisett said in the statement Monday that the University had determined that “both parties involved in this matter did not act appropriately and will not be involved in the Milstein Program moving forward.” 

“Cornell Tech is deeply dedicated to making the campus and our industry more inclusive and equitable for everyone, and this dialogue makes clear that we still have much work to do,” the statement read.

Abdurahman’s firing shocked some undergraduates in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, many of whom had enjoyed learning from her. 

Jennifer Reed ’23, who is part of the Milstein Program, said they found out about Abdurahman’s firing when another student shared the open letter. Having taken Abdurahman’s course last summer, the news hit Reed especially hard. 

“I really, really loved her course,” they said. “It was actually one of my favorites, which is why some of the news hit me so hard because I felt like she really added something to the program that nobody else did.”

On April 11, Reed and 25 other Milstein students sent an email to two Ithaca-based Milstein program directors, Maja Anderson and Prof. Austin Bunn, performing and media arts, demanding that the University reinstate Abdurahman. Reed explained that they and other students reached out to Adburahman with the idea and that she had given them her approval. 

In response, the group of Milstein students met with Morrisett. Reed said they were not informed before the meeting that the firing decision was not up for debate. 

“We’d come in with questions and stuff like that, but as soon as we hopped on the call, he said, ‘This our decision,’” Reed said. 

Abena Gyasi ’22, a Milstein student who was also present at the meeting, said while Morrisett spoke about promoting diversity and inclusion at Cornell Tech, the harassment Abdurahman had faced didn’t feel taken seriously enough.