April 24, 2023

LEVIN | Cornell’s Dangerous Authoritarian Ties Must End

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In recent weeks, the administration has touted its supposedly unbending commitment to democratic values, announcing that next year’s theme will be freedom of expression. The University has even blazed headlines in widely circulated newspapers with President Pollack philosophizing about the importance of the free exchange of ideas. But all this amounts to nothing more than hypocrisy from Cornell considering that it partners with some of the world’s most repressive human rights abusers — China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar among them. Moreover, the University keeps many of these horrid dealings hidden from the scrutiny of the campus community. My question to the administration is this: Why do you parade democratic values when convenient but betray them when money is on the line? 

Last year, Cornell rightly condemned Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Cornell has no partnerships with Russia, so this came at little cost to the University. But when China holds captive nearly two million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in overcrowded internment camps and stands accused of genocide, the administration is silent. Any formal condemnation from the administration is, of course, a money-loser because Cornell benefits from 26 agreements with academic institutions in China. These partnerships are so shady and potentially lucrative that the University refuses to disclose the exact nature of 25 out of 26 of them to the Faculty Senate despite being formally required to do so. 

“Only one of those 26 agreements has come before the Faculty Senate for discussion and debate, and they are supposed to do that for all of them,” Prof. Richard Bensel, Government, told me. The one agreement that the Faculty Senate was allowed to deliberate on involved a potential affiliation between Peking University and the Hotel School. That proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by professors, but the administration green-lighted the project anyway. Prof. Bensel and others would like to see Cornell respect the right of faculty to decide which foreign involvements are approved. Without oversight, ethics end up on the back burner, and the University gets to profit surreptitiously from anti-democratic regimes. So much for the administration’s latest campaign slogan: “to do the greatest good.”

Cornell is selling its reputation to the highest bidders, adding its big name to countries that oppose just about every value that our institution was founded on. To challenge the University’s misdeeds, Prof. Bensel spearheaded a successful resolution in the Faculty Senate last month disavowing political and sociocultural repression in China, but the University remains unphased. In all likelihood, if President Pollack did what’s right and strongly condemned China and other international bad actors that Cornell partners with, the board of trustees would terminate her employment. The administration is, above all, beholden to the trustees — not the students, not the faculty and certainly not morality. It’s obvious to me that the trustees’ main objective is maximizing profits by reducing this democratic institution to a mercenary corporation. 

How could that not be the case when Cornell holds ties with Saudi Arabia and actively hides the extent of those ties? Yes, that’s the same Saudi Arabia that murdered and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the behest of its despotic king; that launders Russian oil into Europe to undermine Western trade embargoes; that slaughters thousands of civilians, including children, in air raids in Yemen. When pressed about how many commercial agreements there are in Saudi Arabia and abroad, the best the University can do is shrug and  explain that Cornell doesn’t keep track. “For much of Cornell’s foreign involvements, no records are kept,” Prof. Bensel said. 

Cornell shouldn’t be able to conceal its shameful connections with nations that silence dissidents at the same time that it claims to champion free expression. Nearly six years ago, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate died while serving a lengthy prison sentence in China, the first Peace Prize recipient to die in state custody since Nazi Germany. Cornell said nothing. In Saudi Arabia, all forms of protest are criminal, and the government has issued a blanket ban on human rights groups. But Cornell continues to line its pockets, conveniently maintaining no records for its commercial agreements. 

Our school’s suspicious financing was the cause of controversy in 2019 when the Department of Education opened an investigation that found the University failed to disclose over $1.2 billion in foreign funds that it had received. The bulk of that money — $760 million — was related to Cornell’s state-of-the-art campus in Qatar, a country infamous for extensive human rights abuses ranging from migrants being forced into modern-day slavery to same-sex relationships being punishable by up to seven years in prison. 

Partnering with any brutal regime that’s rich enough while banging the drum about democracy is a textbook example of double-dealing. These wealthy agreements are implicit endorsements of totalitarian governments, proving that Cornell’s self-professed values are a facade. The University’s dishonest and dangerous authoritarian ties must come to an end. In the spirit of transparency, the administration must also respect the rules and return decision-making authority over international partnerships to the Faculty Senate so that the campus community can know the full extent of the University’s anti-democratic connections. 

Gabriel Levin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.