Letter to Dr. Pollack on Cornell’s Morrill Act Lands: One Year Anniversary

In September, 2020, Profs. Geisler and Wien prepared a letter addressed to the Cornell President raising the issue of Cornell’s failure publicly to recognize and address the fact that the university has benefitted enormously from the lands made available through Indigenous dispossession. That letter, which was signed by more than 100 alumni — principally from Rural/Development Sociology — is included in this Dispossession blog.

In response, Dr. Pollack committed to undertaking several actions to address the issues that were raised in the original letter. Writing a year later, in September 2021, Geisler and Wien ask to what extent each of those commitments has been realized, and make recommendations for the future.

September 8, 2021

Dear Dr. Pollack:

You will recall that we wrote you about a year ago, raising questions about Cornell’s Morrill Act lands. We were concerned about the University’s lack of public recognition about this fundamental aspect of its history as well as the absence of a strategy to address the issues raised, including coming to a reconciliation with the affected American Indian tribes.

In your response, dated September 1, 2020, you undertook to act on four dimensions. We in turn promised to be “… attentive observers as this new relationship takes root” (September 9, 2020). Our intention now is to review what has been accomplished in the past year and to urge additional effort if meaningful progress in addressing the issues raised by the Morrill Act Lands is to be achieved.

We base our conclusions and recommendations on correspondence with informed observers located both within and outside Cornell, including representatives from the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP). We will limit our observations to “big picture” items of the kind that fall within the purview of your office. We organize our thoughts around each of the four commitments you made:

(1) Working with AIISP to develop “a public institutional statement acknowledging our land grant history”.

While we are aware of a paragraph acknowledging that Cornell’s Morrill Act land grant was “accompanied by a painful history of prior dispossession of Indigenous nations’ lands by the federal government”, this appears to be the only such acknowledgement (apart from AIISP’s blog) and it is not located in a prominent place (https://landgrant.cornell.edu/). Wording is also inadequate, failing to describe the situation as rooted in violence, theft, and genocide.

(2) Work with AIISP toward the “… engagement with the indigenous peoples impacted by our land-grant and by Cornell’s New York campuses”.

We appreciate that a land acknowledgement has been adopted for the Ithaca campus and is being used at some public events such as at graduation. We understand that the wording was developed jointly with AIISP and approved by the Gayogohó:no’ traditional leadership, following appropriate protocol in this instance. Where this constructive step falls down is in its implementation, allowing individual units to use the acknowledgement as they see fit. Not surprisingly some, such as Human Ecology and AIISP, are diligent in displaying the acknowledgement while others have done little or nothing with it. The announcement in the Cornell Chronicle was buried in a location less likely to be seen.

As for reaching out to the Indigenous nations affected by the Morrill Land Act, we understand that this has been discussed with Vice Provost Avery August last November. A draft letter was submitted to the administration in February by the Indigenous Dispossession Committee at AIISP, but their proposal jointly to reach out to the affected Nations was rejected. AIISP declined to co-sign the administration’s outreach letter, offering a detailed critique of its content. More recently, AIISP has begun to mail diplomatic outreach letters to the Nations affected by Cornell’s past and current landholdings.

(3) Work with AIISP toward “… a more overt and robust inclusion of the perspectives of Native American peoples in our ongoing efforts to confront systemic racism”.

Speaking to the issue of confronting systemic racism at Cornell, we understand that there are some initiatives being considered, such as the establishment of an anti-racism centre, a required course for students, and training for faculty and staff. These and the items in #1 and #2 above are worthy first steps. They and others to come must include Indigenous perspectives. Cornell’s unique history with respect to the Morrill Act lands will necessarily be a major and inescapable dimension of any serious consideration of systemic racism at the university.

Teaching initiatives that introduce Indigenous perspectives may be underway in individual departments and should be encouraged, indeed incentivized. Two new Indigenous faculty have been hired – in Mathematics and in Literatures in English – a step in the right direction. Insofar as 2 percent of the present US population is Native American, a proportional match for Cornell’s 1695 faculty would be 34 Native American faculty. This can’t occur overnight but is a worthy goal in Cornell’s diversity discussions.

The same might be said for Indigenous students. Cornell should give special recognition to Indigenous students from affected American Indian nations, making special efforts in recruitment, and going beyond its current needs-based financial support policy so that the financial burden on the students and their parents is reduced or eliminated. Additional attention must also be paid to retention once Indigenous students enter Cornell. Such steps are important considerations because one of the powerful remedies that Land Grant Universities have available to them to achieve redress is to make significant investments in Indigenous faculty, students, and courses of study. When interacting with the affected American Indian tribes, this is evidence that Cornell is serious about reconciliation. There are other steps that Cornell could and should take, such as concerted extension outreach by the College of Agriculture or targeted initiatives from Law, Engineering, Medicine, or the Veterinary School, among others. What research could be developed in conjunction with Indian nations, Cornell being a flagship research institution?

(4) Strongly endorsing AIISP leadership with the goal of “understanding and addressing the full extent of our land-grant history”.

In any future discussions with affected American Indian tribes, it would be a likely prescription for failure if the Cornell administration went into such consultations without the enthusiastic support of its own American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. Tribal representatives will be looking for evidence that the Cornell administration is listening to, and benefitting from, the unit within the University that brings together Indigenous voices.

Yet, the record of the past year demonstrates that not all is well. Recommendations about language to be incorporated into a university statement about the land grant history, for example, have been rebuffed. Requests for transparency about Cornell’s land and mineral holdings have been denied. Offers jointly to reach out to affected American Indian communities have not been accepted. AIISP’s 15- point plan for advancing Indigenous Studies at Cornell has not, after 2.5 months, received a response.

The only concrete measure we know of with respect to AIISP has been the funding of a graduate research assistant to work on the Indigenous Dispossession project. This is welcome, of course, but far more is required to approach proportionality in offsetting the land grant/grab in question.

(5) Overview

We hope we have been fair in recognizing what Cornell has and has not achieved. Much more remains to be done. We come back to the fact that Cornell’s land grant origins are a foundational issue for the university to address. It is not just a detail about its history, but rather a cornerstone of its creation and endowment. As the AIISP blog dealing with Cornell’s Morrill Act legacy says, referring to the 2020 High Country News research:

This report tied the history of those educational institutions founded through the Land Grant College Act of 1862 (also known as the Morrill Act) to the forceful dispossession of Indigenous peoples, in some cases immediately prior to those lands’ disposition to universities. Essentially, the original funding for these land-grant universities is derived from land taken through a systematic and genocidal campaign of violence, fraud, forced treaties (some never ratified), dislocation and death. Cornell received the most land through the Morrill Act procedures, almost 1 million acres in total. With the exception of some retained mineral rights, the University sold all of its Morrill Act parcels by 1935. Cornell made substantially more money from the manipulation and sales of these lands than any other land-grant institution, and revenue from these lands formed the lion’s share of the University’s operating budget for the first thirty years of its existence.

We believe the University’s response needs to be commensurate to the magnitude of these realities. In preparation for discussions with the affected American Indian tribes, the University will need to be able to demonstrate the following:

  • That its leadership understands the enormity of what was done to the affected tribes and how Cornell has benefitted from their sacrifice
  • That it is committed to taking action to achieve reconciliation
  • That it has a record of concrete achievements since the issue achieved national attention
  • That it is willing to work with the affected tribes on the development of a plan for the future, beyond the initial steps taken, and
  • That it is prepared to accept and act on leadership from the AIISP, which will be the main interlocutor between the University and the affected tribes.

(6) Further Recommendations

In our letter sent to you a year ago, we recommended that AIISP play the leading role in shaping Cornell’s response to our Morrill Act history, and we were gratified that you subsequently met with their faculty and endorsed their role. We offer the following recommendations, which we have discussed with AIISP:

  • Any significant change in a university community requires the understanding and support of its members. To prepare the ground, we recommend that the University undertake a systematic program of public education for all concerned about Cornell’s history with respect to the Morrill Act lands and why positive action is required at the present time.
  • After a year, the University has still not developed an adequate public statement about its history with respect to the Morrill Act lands and the erasure of Indigenous peoples from whose homelands the grants were taken. It is imperative that it do more, and to do it in conjunction with the AIISP.
  • This statement and the land acknowledgement pertaining to the Cornell campuses and research stations should be prominently displayed on the university web site and those of all its affiliated units and read on major public occasions
  • The University should develop and implement a robust plan for the recruitment and support of Indigenous faculty and students, and for the enhancement of programs dealing with Indigenous Affairs. This will require financial commitments and policy changes. Financial support for Indigenous students, for example, needs to be offered in such a way that it reduces or eliminates the financial burden faced by Indigenous students and their parents.
  • Following AIISP’s lead, Cornell should develop a strategy for engaging with affected American Indian tribes and advancing plans for reconciliation.
  • Several senior members of the Cornell administration have been tasked with producing an agenda related to Morrill Act lands and Indigenous dispossession as it benefitted Cornell. Beyond this, we recommend that the University establish a high-level permanent position with responsibility for Indigenous Affairs in the President’s or Provost’s office, as some other post-secondary institutions have done. This will provide a focal point for action and accountability that seems to be currently lacking.

Dr. Fred Wien, Professor Emeritus, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. MS’69 PhD’71  (frederic.wien@dal.ca)

Dr. Charles Geisler, Professor Emeritus, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York  (ccg2@cornell.edu)