On Thursday, March 10, a group of Chinese international students enrolled in Cornell’s Masters in Public Administration program walked out of an event when their fellow classmate, Rizwangul NurMuhammad grad, a Uyghur woman, spoke about her brother’s detention by the Chinese government.
The event was part of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Colloquium program which brings speakers to campus every week for conversations with MPA students. Last week featured Rep. Elissa Slotkin ’98 (D-MI). During a question and answer period, NurMuhammad asked Slotkin why the U.S. and international community has reacted to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, without taking similar action on the Chinese government for its genocide of Uyghur people.
Axios reported that in her question, NurMuhammad said that her brother Mewlan had been arrested in 2017 when Chinese authorities began mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
According to attendees, the audience booed as NurMuhammad asked her question. The disruption was followed by a large group of Chinese students walking out of the lecture hall.
The next day, William Wang grad, president of the CIPA peer-led governing organization called the Cornell Public Affairs Society, drafted a letter to Prof. Matthew Hall, policy analysis and management, which was signed by more than 80 Chinese students. The letter, which was obtained by The Sun, stated that the students left the event because they felt the atmosphere was hostile toward them.
The letter prompted a chain of emails between CIPA students and faculty, where students expressed support for either side.
On Tuesday, March 15, Rep. Slotkin responded to the events on Twitter, writing that the walkout “appeared to be a coordinated protest.” Slotkin continued by condemning the reaction that NurMuhammad has received.
“There’s no excuse for that behavior, and I expect Cornell to ensure that all students can express themselves free of intimidation or threats,” Slotkin wrote in her tweet.
On Sunday, a statement was shared to the Brooks School community from CIPA Director Hall and Brooks School Dean Colleen Barry.
“These events have spurred divisive discourse and engaged us in serious conversation related to how best to speak up in the face of genocide and human rights atrocities against the Uyghur people,” Barry and Hall wrote in the statement. “At the same time, they remind us how harmful it is when conversation devolves into derogatory anti-Asian expression.”
The statement continues to say that the school has “reached out to the students directly involved to offer assistance.”
Cornell Muslim Education and Cultural Education, a community organization at Cornell, published an Instagram statement condemning the oppression of Uyghur Muslims in light of the incident, encouraging students to support NurMuhammad.
“We encourage the community to stand up against this genocide and support Rizwangul,” the statement said.