November 6, 2023

Letter to the Editor | Cornell University’s Funds Must Not, Cannot be Diverted

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Re “Cornell Still Does Not Pay its Fair Share to the City of Ithaca” (Guest essay, Nov. 4)

To the Editor:

The guest piece by three officers of the Cornell Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) posted on Nov. 4 regarding Cornell’s financial obligations to the City of Ithaca is misguided.

They seek increased Cornell funding of the City of Ithaca and also reparations to indigenous people “around the country.” Neither recommendation would be in the best interest of Cornell or of AAUP members who are understandably interested in maintaining the economic status of the faculty.

The piece tries to compare Cornell to Yale, Harvard and Princeton in terms of voluntary payments to local jurisdictions. However, unlike those schools, Cornell’s operations are not all located within the Ithaca city limits. The Ithaca campus also extends into the Town of Ithaca, the Village of Cayuga Heights and the Village of Lansing. Beyond the main campus, Cornell has tax-exempt buildings in Geneva and New York City.  It also operates Cooperative Extension offices in every county of New York State. So, one cannot compare Cornell’s voluntary payments with other schools based in just one municipality. Further, four of its colleges operate in buildings built and owned by New York State, distorting the per student comparisons.

In contrast, Ithaca’s other large non-profit employers, Ithaca College and what is now Cayuga Medical Center, have both relocated from central Ithaca to campuses beyond the city limits.

Beyond the annual voluntary payment, Cornell also supports the Ithaca School District, the TCAT bus system and various economic development efforts. Cornell also pays for its own roads, water system and police. Cornell estimates that these municipal-type items total more than $30 million per year.

The guest piece makes much of Cornell’s $10 billion endowment. However, the endowment is a form of mutual fund that invests the assets of over 8,000 donors, and Cornell has a legal obligation to use the income from each of those accounts to the purpose specified by each donor. For example, it would be illegal to spend the money from an endowed professorship account to subsidize Ithaca’s property tax rates.

Similarly, indigenous tribes across the nation do not have any claim on the money that Cornell received under the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.  Cornell received land from the federal government for specific purposes, and Cornell used those funds properly. Many tribes were unhappy with losing their land to the federal government and filed numerous lawsuits seeking the return of lands or an equivalent value. The tribes lost those lawsuits, and the guest piece offers no logical reason to reopen those cases.

The AAUP should recognize that Ithaca and Cornell have resolved this issue for the next 15 years by an agreement. Also, the indigenous tribes have followed through on their legal claims to an end point. So, at this point, the AAUP, and the broader Cornell community, should focus on how to maximize Cornell’s limited resources “to do the greatest good” for the academic enterprise and for society as a whole. Needed resources should not be diverted to subsidize Ithaca property tax payers or the tax-exempt Cayuga Nation.

Individuals should not try to coerce a diversion of Cornell funds from Cornell’s educational purposes.

Robert C. Platt ’73, J.D. ’76