Reading Grist’s ‘Misplaced Trust’: The Vantage from Cornell 

by Professor Jon Parmenter

Cover Photo from “Misplaced Trust: Stolen Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system. Climate change is its legacy.” (Ahtone et. al, Feb. 7 2024).

After Cornell University took center stage as the land-grant university that reaped the greatest financial windfall from the Morrill Act of 1862 in the first chapter of “Land-Grab Universities” (March 2020), the institution’s administration might be breathing a sigh of relief that Cornell is not mentioned directly in the just-published Grist study regarding the influence of fourteen land-grant universities in western states on climate change (February 2024).  Kiowa journalist Tristan Ahtone, historian Robert Lee, and a team of investigators are back with a fresh look at the consequences of Indigenous dispossession – the very foundation of the nation’s founding fifty-two land-grant universities – and their impact on the environment.

In this interactive media report Ahtone and Lee expand their analysis from the Morrill Act to study what fourteen land-grant universities in western states are doing with a different territorial category – state trust lands – and how those institutions’ reliance on revenues from extractive industrial development on state trust lands not only continues the practice of extracting revenues from previously-appropriated Indigenous lands, but also threatens some of these institutions’ very own, self-imposed climate commitments.

The case studies are instructive contemporary analogies to Cornell’s legacy of building its endowment through extractive industrial development (largely in the timber industry in Wisconsin) and sales of “Western Lands” held by the University in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas from 1865 to 1938.  You wouldn’t know it from Cornell University’s land acknowledgment, but Cornell is still benefiting materially from the lands it received under the Morrill Act of 1862.  We know that those efforts secured, by 2005, an investment account (the Cornell Endowment Fund) with a principal of $53.3 million yielding an annual interest payout of $2.58 million in unrestricted funds.  How much is that worth now, in 2024?  Using the Bureau of Labor’s CPI Inflation Calculator, we might expect that annual interest payout in 2024 to be approximately $4.12 million. Cornell University Vice-Provost for Engagement and Land Grant Affairs Katherine McComas probably knows (or could obtain)  the actual dollar values, but for unknown reasons she’s refused to release those figures.

Ongoing profit-taking from the proceeds of Indigenous dispossession is not the only parallel with the western universities analyzed by Ahtone and Lee in Grist: Cornell retains to the present day a severed 50% mineral interest on 155,340 acres of former Morrill Act lands in twelve northern Wisconsin counties.  These parcels lie atop vast stores of the various metallic sulfides used in the production of EV batteries, as well as some of the best industrial sands found in North America for hydrofracking.  If you think that the days of large-scale, open-pit metallic mining are effectively over in the United States, I’d recommend you look into the history of Kennecott’s Flambeau Mine that operated from 1993-1997 in Rusk County, Wisconsin.  What are Cornell’s plans for these reserved mineral rights in Wisconsin in light of the University’s Climate Action Plan?  Will Cornell simply repeat its history of relying on the proceeds of former land grabs to bolster its endowment anew, or will the University administration actually respond to the repeated calls made by various campus constituencies since 2020 for an open conversation about its past and future?

No one likes to hear about their own complicity in colonialism, but all of us at Cornell are benefiting from prior acts of Indigenous dispossession every day – proceeds from the Morrill Act converted a three-building college in serious financial trouble in 1881 into the globally-prominent institution we know today.  Cornell officials continue to refuse to engage this issue in a substantive manner.  Read this article, read up on the Morrill Act and Cornell’s history, and demand better of the people charged with leading this institution.