Response to student referendum

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for conveying to me the results of the student referendum of April 22, 2024.

The ongoing situation in the Middle East is extremely distressing. The loss of so many innocent lives, starting with the horrific terrorist attacks on October 7 and continuing to today with the war in Gaza, is tragic, as is the continued captivity of hostages. That tragedy is deeply felt by people around the world, regardless of their perspectives and convictions. I understand and fully share the anguish and concern that many students, faculty, and staff are experiencing. And I fully respect the right of our students to express their views through this referendum process; that is why I rebuffed calls to stop it.

The referendum asks for two things. The first is for the university to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. It is not the proper role of the university to make a statement about this complex political issue, especially when there is a diversity of opinion among members of the campus community, as demonstrated by the fact that the vote on the referendum was far from unanimous. Members of our community have strongly held views on this issue, and it is their right to express those views, and to discuss and debate them. Were I, on behalf of Cornell, to express university support for particular geopolitical positions on which there is strong disagreement, this could chill the voices of those Cornellians who disagree. We have in the past sometimes spoken out about issues where there is a clear and direct connection to higher education—for example, the Supreme Court decision last summer on the consideration of race in college admissions. And we have sometimes issued statements that are aimed primarily at expressing care and concern for the impacts of external events on many in our community. But the university is not the State Department—we do not espouse a foreign policy.

The second part of the referendum asks Cornell to divest from a set of ten companies that are described as supporting the ongoing war in Gaza. As you know, Cornell has a formal process by which the community can ask the Board of Trustees to consider a divestment proposal. If a single constituent governance group passes a divestment resolution with which I as president agree, I can forward it to the board for consideration, or if all five constituents governance groups pass the resolution it will be automatically considered by the Board.

I must decline recommending the proposed divestment to the Board, for several reasons. First, just as Cornell is not primarily an agent to direct social or political action, but rather a forum for analysis, debate, and the search for truth, the principal purpose of our endowment is not to exercise political or social power. Rather, Cornell’s endowment consists of gifts to the university that are invested to generate money that supports the university’s work in perpetuity, funding mission-directed priorities including financial aid and other student support, faculty salaries and stipends, facilities maintenance and upgrades, academic programs, and research activities. I am also troubled by the fact that this referendum singles out companies for providing arms to Israel when there have not been calls for divestment or sanctions from a host of other countries involved in similar conflicts. Finally, the divestments called for risk being in violation of New York state’s executive order 157, which prohibits investment activity intended to penalize Israel.

I have spoken directly both with students who support divestment and with students who oppose it, and I know that both groups feel strongly about this issue. I must take the stance I believe is the right one. Universities are intended to be places of reflection and learning, of thoughtful debate, and of rigorous analysis. My sincere hope is that we can live up to this ideal: looking for ways to work together to do what the university is designed for, which is to debate ideas respectfully, to truly listen and learn from one another, and to seek thoughtful solutions to the problems that have so long plagued our world—through an array of meaningful steps that are most appropriate for an institution of higher learning, including new courses, visiting speakers, and other educational opportunities. We rose to the challenge of the COVID pandemic and were a model for academia; let us also try to rise to this challenge.


Martha E. Pollack