Courtesy of Cornell University

Jon Lindseth, namesake of the Lindseth Climbing Center, responds to alumni critical of his open letter.

February 6, 2024

Lindseth Refutes Criticism Over Anti-DEI Letter

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In an interview with The Sun, emeritus board member and generous donor, Jon Lindseth ’56, refuted his critics who have defended the University’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Multiple alumni have criticized Lindseth’s open letter calling for President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff’s resignation which connected antisemitic incidents and a lack of free speech to the University’s “misguided commitment” to DEI. 

The Alpha Chapter Alumni Association — a network of alumni who were initiated at Cornell’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men — published a letter to the editor defending the University’s commitment to DEI, maintaining that DEI is central to Cornell’s founding principles.

“Cornell University’s founding principle of ‘any person, any study’ was indeed our beloved University’s first ever DEI statement,” their letter read.

In response, Lindseth told The Sun that he agreed that diversity has been part of Cornell’s history, but objected to how he perceived advocates of DEI to go beyond the acronym’s stated values. 

“Diversity is not new at Cornell. Here’s the problem with DEI — it’s the ‘E.’ They want everyone’s outcome to be the same. They aren’t satisfied with all people are created equal at birth. They want everyone to come out the same,” Lindseth said. “For instance, they don’t want advanced placement and secondary schools because those people are going to get better grades and be more likely to be admitted.” 

In an email to The Sun, Lindseth also affirmed that while he supports diversity, he believes that it has gone too far. 

“I said I favor the Blacks at Cornell. What I don’t favor is anybody admitted just to fill a diversity need,” Lindseth said. “I am with Martin Luther King in this regard. He was very clear. Merit should be the overriding criteria.”

Lindseth maintained that although he supports the principles of inclusion and diversity, DEI is harmful because it “has become a religion to people.” 

“This is their belief system. I happen to believe in Jesus Christ the Savior. For the DEI people, that’s their religion,” Lindseth said. 

Lindseth had not seen the contents of The Alpha Chapter Alumni Association’s letter before his interview with The Sun. In the interview, when presented with the letter’s contents, rather than addressing those arguments, Lindseth said that he supported Black students attending Cornell. 

“Blacks have chosen to be apart [from the rest of the University], haven’t they, by having a fraternity of Blacks?” Lindseth said. “In any event, tell the Cornell Alpha Chapter Alumni Association that I support them. Tell them that I’m delighted they’re at Cornell.” 

Charles L. Schlumberger ’76 also wrote a letter to the editor entitled, “Cornell Should Remain Committed to Overcoming Prejudice” which criticized Lindseth’s effort to discourage DEI. 

In Schlumberger’s letter to the editor, he described how the founding of Ujamaa, an African-American residential college at Cornell, evoked similar criticisms as that which Lindseth expressed in reaction to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. 

“White students felt that Ujamaa — reserved only for Black students — was ‘reverse’ segregation that did not foster goals of racial inclusion; Black students championed Ujamaa as a recognition of Black culture,” his letter read. 

Lindseth disagreed with Schlumberger’s argument in his email to The Sun. 

“In [Schlumberger’s letter,] he urged me to change my position — as he sees it — based on Cornell’s founding principles. I support the concept that ‘any person can find instruction in any study.’ But merit has always been the overriding requirement,” Lindseth wrote. “His one sentence … saying I should change my position based on Cornell’s founding principles is nonsense.”

Schlumberger also said that the logic behind Lindseth’s argument that DEI conflicts with free speech was unclear. 

“DEI does not infringe on free speech. It invites it,” Schlumberger said. “The nice thing about speech is that it gets people talking to each other about differences and being exposed to different cultures and religions.” 

While Lindseth asserted that “DEI ends up promoting the lack of free speech,” he was uncertain as to how. “I wish I knew why,” Lindseth said.

Lindseth suggested arranging a meeting with The Sun’s editorial board and Carl Neuss, chair of the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, to provide further information at a later date. 

“I can’t tell you why Pollack, the president of Cornell, says she believes in DEI and free speech,” Lindseth said. “If you believe in Christianity, you have certain beliefs. She believes that DEI and free speech are compatible. Ask her to answer the question [of how DEI infringes on free speech].”

Ultimately, Lindseth maintained his view that Cornell needs a new administration amid the failures of the current one. 

“The present [administration] has led us down the wrong path resulting in the U.S. Department of Education investigating us along with two committees of Congress,” Lindseth wrote. “This has never happened before.”