October 25, 2021

MULLEN & ORTANEZ | Confronting Cornell’s Legacy in the Colonization of the Philippines

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Students may be surprised to find that Cornell’s third president, Jacob Gould Schurman, was a proponent of American Imperialism. Schurman was the head of the eponymous Schurman Commission, a recommendatory body created to help with the governing of the Philippines. In 1899, the body concluded that the Philippines, despite having fought the Spanish (and later, the Americans) for their independence, should nevertheless be colonized and controlled by America, writing that “the Filipinos are wholly unprepared for independence … there being no Philippine nation, but only a collection of different peoples.” 

Beyond this, Schurman justified his view on the necessity of colonization using the prevailing “White Man’s Burden” logic. His personal writings on the Philippines contain paternalistic views of Filipinos, arguing that they must be “taught to govern themselves as Americans or Englishmen govern themselves.” They also include anti-Muslim tirades in which Schurman called Muslim Filipinos “heathen” and argued that America must “eliminate the Mohammedan”. 

Beyond Schurman’s words, the physical impact of his decisions has been devastating for the Filipino people. 20,000 Filipinos were directly killed in the subsequent American war of conquest; 200,000 died of famine and disease. After the end of the war in 1902, the Philippines was ruled as a colony, with its resources and people exploited for America’s benefit. Even after nominal independence in 1946, America still had control, with legislation like the 1946 Bell Trade Act giving U.S. citizens and corporations parity with Filipinos regarding access to Philippine materials and resources, pegging the Philippine peso to the U.S. dollar and giving the United States preferential tariffs.

 America established and maintained control of two major bases that still operate today, Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, as if occupation never ended. In 1998, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was signed, allowing the U.S. government to retain jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unrestricted movement of U.S. vessels and aircraft in the Philippines and materials exported and imported by the military to be exempt from duties or taxes. The VFA, like the other imperial legislative acts performed by the U.S., is a direct continuation of Schurman’s tutelage and role of “handling” the Philippines and its people. It is currently being used as a tool for the U.S. government to control and subject the people of the Philippines, even after the granting of “independence”. Recent scholarship directly asserts that America is responsible for the current conditions and turmoil in the Philippines, leading to the current authoritarian rule of Rodrigo Duterte. 

The people of the Philippines have faced the brunt of American imperialism through the lasting effects of Schurman’s and others’ auspices and rule. Schurman’s impact not only affected the Filipinos at the time of imperial rule, but his words and actions are currently harmimg and killing countless lives belonging to Muslim, Indigenous, Filipino, Filipino-American communities.

This history and depth of imperialism is not widely known to Americans, and likewise most students past and present at Cornell know nothing about Schurman’s decisive role in America’s conquest of the Philippines. It is time to change that. As a student representative body, we are nothing if not models for the world outlook of our peers. Thus, we can begin to reveal the untold history of Cornell’s role in imperialism by taking steps to rectify this injustice.

As a University that is quick to identify with “Any person, any study” Cornell prides itself on its diversity and inclusion in not just their student body, but also the curriculum offered. As a Filipino student that has witnessed the ways in which US imperialism has infiltrated my family and community, I ask Cornell and its community the following: What does it mean to enroll thousands of students belonging to marginalized communities at a university that has ignored its oppressive histories? What does it mean to supposedly uphold students of color while also upholding an individual that caused direct terror on Indigenous and Muslim communities in the Philippines?  What does inclusion mean to Cornell? 

To stop and prevent further perpetuation of Schurman’s crimes to the people of the Philippines, Cornell must first publicly acknowledge and apologize for Schurman’s words and actions, taken while still holding his office as President. Cornell must commit to a program of study in anti-imperialism, examining how our financial and social structure both in the past and today impacts the colonized peoples of the world, especially in the Philippines. We ought to go even further, and divest from companies that hold Filipino debt or exploit Filipino resources. With sufficient education of the students about this history, we believe there will be pressure for Cornell to rectify these crimes against the people of the Philippines.

Joseph Mullen is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. He serves as the Student Assembly Internal Vice President. Alyssandra Rae Ortanez is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She serves as the Cornell Filipino Association Cultural Chair. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Please send comments to [email protected].