In high school, I found that most discussions of affirmative action came in the form of a snide remark. During the standardized testing days, it went like, “If only I were black, then I wouldn’t have to worry about this test.” And later, as acceptances and rejections drew smiles and tears, the remark bobbed back up: “Makes sense why he didn’t get into [elite school]. It’s so hard to get in if you’re Asian.”
There is a vital, sometimes frustrating, debate to be had on affirmative action. The common story on race-based admissions appeals to the passions. Surely, any just admissions system will ensure marginalized groups — disempowered by centuries of compounding disadvantage — get a fair shake.
In his 1972 inauguration speech, former Cornell President Frank Rhodes noted that Cornell, blending the intellectual atmosphere of an Ivy League institution with the practicality of a public university, is a bit of a misfit. That is, it’s not quite intellectually absorbed to be considered among the likes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and not so accessible and pragmatic to be considered among public universities. Last Saturday, President Martha Pollack embraced Cornell’s ambiguity, suggesting that those hunting the essentially American college will identify Cornell — and perhaps Harvard, Yale and Princeton. That would be true if Cornell’s commitment to the public good — exemplified by both its founding mission and land-grant status -— was not tarnished by an artifact of elitism: legacy admissions. To advocate so strongly our college’s public mission while consequently employing a practice that gives preference to those who were privileged to begin with is simply wrong.
One hundred and fifty years after Ezra Cornell promised “any person … any study” to students of the University he founded, this ambitious motto still remains aspirational, — and unfulfilled — according to professors who came to share their reflections in a Monday panel. For Prof. Gerard Aching M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’91, romance studies, Ezra’s words served as “a license for experimenting and exploring.” As a graduate student, he was encouraged to take his inquiries to areas beyond his own discipline and even into other departments, he recalled. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Aching said he also cherished the diverse group of people from “Iowa, France, South Carolina and Puerto Rico” that he studied with. Eduardo Peñalver ’94, dean of Cornell Law School, echoed Aching’s experience in expansive learning but also added how “Ezra took the ‘any person’ language very literally.”
Peñalver said Ezra once advocated for two students who were rejected by admissions officers because “they don’t know enough.” The founder, upon hearing about this decision, asked the admissions director, “if they don’t know enough, why don’t you teach them?”
He thought college education should be affordable enough that a student could pay their way through it by working on a local farm or on the grounds. Ezra even promoted an “Earn while you Earn” program, which featured an on-campus shoe factory that allowed students to work while studying, Peñalver said, citing A History of Cornell by Morris Bishop.
Several previous and current faculty members of the hotel school said that the administration is often too focused on gender diversity to realize the importance or put the effort into achieving racial diversity.
A petition with nearly 400 signatories demanding Cornell and other universities to make public “all internally written admissions policies and data about legacy treatment” will be “hand-delivered” to President Martha E. Pollack next week.
“The number of Cornell students and alumni applying to law school has decreased significantly,” Sparrow said. “For Cornell seniors and alumni applying to law schools during that time, the decline was even greater at 53 percent.”