Free Speech vs. Financial Might: Why Cornell Said No to Divestment

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Disappointment rippled through Cornell University this week after President Martha Pollack formally rejected the results of a student-led referendum calling for divestment from weapons manufacturers and an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The referendum, held in April, saw a majority of student voters (46.77% of undergraduates participated) endorsing both proposals by a 2:1 margin. The results reflected the deep concern many students feel about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, particularly following the October terrorist attacks.

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In a statement released Thursday, President Pollack acknowledged the “distressing” situation and expressed her support for students’ right to hold such referendums. However, she diverged from the referendum’s demands on two key points.

On the question of a ceasefire, Pollack argued that universities shouldn’t wade into the complexities of geopolitical issues. “The vote wasn’t unanimous,” she noted, highlighting the diversity of viewpoints within the Cornell community. She expressed concern that a formal stance from the university could alienate students who hold differing opinions.

This rationale differed from the university’s past actions, where it took a stand on issues like affirmative action. Here, Pollack emphasized that Cornell isn’t a political body like the State Department, and its primary focus should remain on education and research.

Cornell President Rejects Student Divestment Proposal

Regarding divestment, Pollack outlined the formal process for such proposals to reach the Board of Trustees. While acknowledging this path, she ultimately declined to recommend the student proposal. Her reasoning centered on the university’s endowment and its adherence to New York state laws.

Matt Dougherty

Pollack expressed concern that divestment might violate New York’s Executive Order 157, which prohibits divestment from entities supporting boycotts against Israel. She emphasized that the endowment’s purpose is to financially support the university, not “exercise political or social power.”

She also questioned the referendum’s focus on Israeli arms suppliers, suggesting it didn’t address similar conflicts involving other countries.

President Pollack concluded her statement by reiterating Cornell’s commitment to open debate and learning. She expressed hope that the university can move forward by fostering respectful discussions and “seeking thoughtful solutions to the problems that have so long plagued our world.”

This decision is sure to spark further discussion within the Cornell community. Students who supported the referendum may feel their voices unheard, while others may agree with the President’s cautious approach. One thing is certain: the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to resonate deeply on college campuses across the nation.

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