April 28, 2024

GERBER | The Point of Protest

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Cornell’s decisions about where to invest its money are restricted by obligations it owes, as a land grant institution, to the people of the United States. Since the opinion of the United States is that genocide is immoral and ought to be condemned, Cornell must withdraw any investments in companies which support or otherwise perpetuate one.

Cornell University has received valuable gifts from the public: the land in Ithaca on which the University is located, relief from paying taxes on that land and the capital gains it makes on its investments. Without these grants, Cornell certainly would not have amassed its ten billion dollar endowment. These benefits were bestowed on Cornell so that the University could provide an education for its students. One of the ways that Cornell manages its money is by investing it for returns to fund future needs of the University. These investments have come under the criticism of the student protesters.

Cornell is one of the few private land grant universities in the United States, meaning that the land it operates on in Ithaca was given to it in 1862 as a gift by the federal government and the government of the state of New York. The condition on which Ezra Cornell and the other founders of Cornell were given this land was that it be used “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” The doubtfulness of the United States’ right to grant land seized from Ojibwe, Miwok, Yokuts, and other Indigenous nations doesn’t release Cornell from the obligations incurred when the founders accepted the gift of the land. 

We (the people of the United States) decided to grant Cornell this land and these tax exemptions on the basis of the good that Cornell is supposed to bring to our community— the academic benefits (research, learning) produced by a university.

But the citizens’ granting of money and resources to Cornell is not a blank check for the University to use as it likes. The money must be used to promote the public good of education, a condition that restricts the University. It might be extremely profitable, for example, for Cornell to build a casino in Las Vegas, traffic in illegal goods or fund a lucrative set of mercenaries. However, Cornell is prevented from using any of these methods, because they are illegal, unethical and inconsistent with the core ideals of an American institution of higher education.

The trustees of Cornell have in the past seemed aware of these restrictions on the use of the University’s resources. In 2016, for example, new standards were set according to which Cornell would consider divesting its assets from companies whose actions are “morally reprehensible.” To any reasonable person, this would include genocide. According to these new standards, the board will consider a divestment recommendation in the form of a resolution from an assembly submitted to the president. On April 22, 2024, the results of a student referendum in support of divestment from companies supporting the ongoing war in Gaza (69 percent in favor) were submitted to President Martha Pollack. By the 2016 standards, the trustees should now divest from these companies.

The Board of Trustees claimed that their process was informed by “Cornell’s overriding responsibility… to maintain itself as a neutral forum for analysis, debate and the search for truth.” This is only indirectly true. Cornell’s responsibility is to educate students from the public, and it is continually granted resources by the public in order to pursue that aim. The restrictions on the use of that money are the restrictions it inherits from the American people, which obviously include restrictions against illegal activity, or activity that the public finds to be highly immoral. Cornell’s obligation is not to itself, but to the people.

Cornell must not invest its financial resources in efforts which are inconsistent with the aims of the people — inconsistent with the fundamental ideals of American democracy. Cornell must not invest them in support of a genocide, like the one the International Court of Justice has deemed plausibly occurring in Gaza. It doesn’t matter how much revenue investing in genocide generates for the University; the constraints that the public places on the use of its money (here voiced by both common sense and the law) prevent Cornell from this bad faith behavior. Indeed, since wars are murky places where we know many illegal and even more morally reprehensible actions occur, it is probably advisable for Cornell to take it as a rule of thumb to avoid investing in them at all.

The students camping in the Arts Quad remind Cornell of the obligation it owes to the public. Why, then, does Cornell refuse to acknowledge their demands (and the demands of the student assembly, and the demands of a public who make genocide illegal) to divest its money? The question is not about Cornell’s opinion of its role in political debates, or even Cornell’s opinion on the actions of the state of Israel. The question is about how the public is willing to have their money used, and they have made their voices clear.

Erin Gerber is a postdoctoral associate in Cornell’s Sage School of Philosophy. She specializes in Kant and early modern philosophy. She can be reached at [email protected].

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