November 13, 2023

EINHORN | How Cornellians Can Rise to the Challenge of Our Time

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Dear Cornell students,

Today, I’m reaching out as part of the Cornell community, which is of deep importance to me and my family. I attended Cornell, as did my parents and two of my children.

Our Cornell family is struggling and in turmoil. At a time when many of my peers are sending angry letters that disengage from and withdraw support for universities, I take the opposite approach. While I understand their reasons for doing so, now is not the time to withdraw. Rather, struggle and turmoil demand even deeper engagement. Crisis creates opportunity for change and improvement. I want to be part of this transformation and help repair and strengthen the Cornell family.

I watched from afar the protests on campus, the anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli graffiti, the bloodthirsty expression of a Cornell professor and the terrifying online threats posted by a Cornell student in the wake of the brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 and the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Israel.

Many Jewish students are understandably living in a state of shock and fear. Some of our Muslim and Arab students are also afraid for their safety as they face harassment and Islamophobia on the heels of protests at Cornell.

I have been thinking about what I would tell my daughters if they were still students on campus and in your shoes today. This is what I would say:

In moments of unspeakable tragedy and extreme division, we as Cornellians are called to uphold our core values and exemplify Ezra Cornell’s belief in us: “to do the greatest good.”

That may sound lofty and naïve in a moment of such profound rupture, and yet, I’m grateful for our namesake’s foresight. Not only was his mandate to ensure “any person, any study,” but also to utilize the knowledge and character we develop at Cornell for a purpose greater than ourselves. I believe you all can live up to these values right now.

For Cornell to become a model from which other college campuses can learn, we need to apply our founding principles as a university in and out of the classroom: to honor our shared humanity; to build communities of belonging where every student feels safe and welcomed; to encourage and promote free expression, exchange and engagement of diverse ideas; and to bring about positive social change through acts of service.

It is an enormous challenge to hold on to these values in the face of intense disagreements, disinformation and dehumanization. It is also not easy to be asked to do so as a young person in full public view and scrutiny. But time and again, I have seen Cornellians rise to the task. I know that this is not the narrative being told about you right now, but you get to dictate a truer version of this story by the actions you take next.

During my campus visit a few weeks ago and in my conversations with those on campus, I have seen positive examples of students supporting each other and being brave and resilient in the face of hate. I have seen the administration and Cornell Police address the safety and security needs of our students and continue to do so as new ones arise. I have seen students engage in increasingly difficult conversations across lines of difference respectfully and appropriately. And I have seen peaceful protests calling for Palestinian statehood and vigils mourning the loss of Israeli lives on Ho Plaza. All these illustrations demonstrate our capability to act positively. Unfortunately, the media has no interest in publicizing these showings of community strength, but we can, and we should.

In a speech to the Global Convention on Peace and Non-violence in New Delhi, India in 2004, Nelson Mandela said of our society: “Religion, ethnicity, language, social and cultural practices are elements which enrich human civilization, adding to the wealth of our diversity. Why should they be allowed to become a cause of division and violence? We demean our common humanity by allowing that to happen.”

Cornell makes an enormous effort to promote diversity. The value of that diversity does not come from huddling with your own group. Rather, it comes from engaging with those who are different from you. The whole community benefits when you make that effort to engage. Whoever the “they” is, they proudly wear the same Cornell sweatshirts you do.

Even on contentious issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you may be surprised by the common beliefs, values, hopes and fears that you share with someone from a different background, life experience and perspective. No matter where we live or what faith we practice, we all want to be free from bigotry and hatred. We want to contribute positively to our communities and provide for our families. We want to see our loved ones come home safely at night. And we want to live lives of meaning, with myriad opportunities that help each of us flourish and thrive.

As you confront the crisis of hyper-polarization and divisions at Cornell, I ask that you see the inherent humanity and dignity in all people, especially those with whom you disagree. This creates a campus culture that enables us to build trust and relationships across lines of difference, repair ruptures and bridge divides.

Let’s get practical. What does this look like?

Firstly, civilization cannot exist if we cannot have an agreement on basic decency. Among some of the most fundamental moral principles that recent events have highlighted, one that we must agree upon is the universal condemnation of mass murder, kidnapping, rape and torture of civilians, no matter the perpetrator or victim. These tragedies and crimes cannot be celebrated. It is on this foundation that we build our society and community. This decency needs to be a core tenet of our campus values and culture.

We are an institution of higher education. Please take advantage of Cornell’s experts who hold different views on the politics, history and circumstances in the Middle East. Cornell is having many forums of faculty experts and outside speakers. Attend! And learn. Even if you disagree with what someone says, don’t shout them down. Everyone deserves this basic level of respect.

Take responsibility for your words and actions. Seek to understand the legacy of discriminatory slurs and rhetoric, including the antisemitic root of protest chants like “From the river to the sea,” which calls for the eradication of Israel and its people. History shows us that the spread of hateful language is an early warning sign of violence and mass atrocities. While this is not a moment to stamp out free speech, we need better speech, and we need to get rid of hate speech whenever we encounter it.

Fortunately, the University has policies and procedures for students to lodge formal complaints against discrimination and harassment. But having strong policies is not enough. The University should reinforce the policies by clearly stating these policies cover anti-Semitism and violent speech against Jews, including the eliminationist chant above. Cornell should take the complaints seriously and resolve them in a timely fashion to disincentivize continued discrimination, just as it does in protecting other groups over other racial slurs. Even to the extent hate speech isn’t “illegal” per se, you should avoid it out of respect for our community.

Consider starting conversations from a place of empathy, curiosity and the desire to understand and learn from a new perspective. Be open and curious, and even willing to change your mind. You haven’t really mastered the nuance of the debate until you can articulate the opposing view. Learn to do that.

And by the same token, have the courage to stand firm in your beliefs without vilifying someone you deeply disagree with. If we can engage openly and respectfully with one another, we can develop mutual understanding and perhaps discover common ground.

In the classroom and long after you graduate, I encourage you to tend to the relationships in your life. The pandemic was difficult, isolating and uncomfortable for many of us, especially young people. Moments of high conflict and division like this can make you feel even more alone. So, whenever you can, seek out networks of care and support and, if possible, help build them for one another.

As Cornellians, you already have what you need to live up to our promise and reach your highest potential: to be compassionate, to listen with empathy, to engage with civility and respect and to live and work peacefully together across lines of difference. This was what I saw at Cornell when I first arrived on campus as a freshman over 30 years ago. It is the promise of our Founder, and more importantly, it’s the possibility of the role you play today in its future. It is time we all showed up for our beloved community.  

For the greatest good, always.

David Einhorn ‘91 is the President of Greenlight Capital, Inc., an investment advisor and chairman of the boards of Greenlight Capital Re, Ltd. and Green Brick Partners, Inc. He is also the Founder and Trustee of Einhorn Collaborative, a non-profit foundation working to foster social connection and cohesion in the U.S.

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