On Thursday, Cornell Plantations announced that its Executive Director Christopher Dunn would recommend that the Cornell Board of Trustees approve changing the Plantations’ name to “Cornell Botanic Gardens”. The move comes after the Black Student Union penned a letter of grievances last November demanding a Plantations name change because of the title’s association with historical racism.
In the midst of a week in which famous academics from both sides of the political spectrum are in joy over The University of Chicago’s doubling down on its commitment to free speech and antipathy towards safe spaces and similar methods of intellectual sheltering, the absurdity of this move is all the more apparent.
As reported by The Cornell Daily Sun, administrators are citing the length of the Plantations’ title for their push to have the name changed. Such a notion deserves nothing but mockery—would anyone truly suggest The Metropolitan Museum of Art undergo a name change because of its sizable letter count (a striking eight more letters than Cornell Plantations)? Cornell Plantations is a banner that has been associated with excellence in the field of horticulture since the 1940s. Nor can it be a matter of style: “Botanic Gardens” are a staple in cities around the country—and colleges (Wellesley, for one, has already done the whole “Botanic Gardens” thing). The Plantations’ distinct name distinguishes it from other natural conservatory programs—and distinguished it should be as a global leader in the field of plant science.
The related argument that “plantations” is lacking descriptive power—evident in its “botanical gardens – arboretum – natural areas” label—is also easily dismissed. It does not take long for a visitor to Chicago to realize they take the “L” home, it did not take long for billions to comprehend that YouTube is a video sharing website (indeed, Google could have saved themselves some advertising effort and simply named it “Video Sharing Website”) and it does not take long for a Cornellian to realize that the Plantations are our natural areas. Reason dictates, then, that the title’s racial connotations must have played a significant role in the historic name-change effort.
Still, whether it is the grievance of students or the—questionable—ambiguity of the name, Cornell Plantations’ administrators are missing a crucial point: words have more than one meaning. And beyond that, the meaning of words can change. At Cornell—a school that has never once barred any race from admission—“plantations” is used in a radically different context than it was in the antebellum south. In fact, by associating it with the extremely uplifting and inclusive Cornell Plantations, the school is doing a service in forcing the word away from its painful past.
In its attempt to alleviate the anger of those who find the word offensive, Cornell—one of the world’s top research universities, and with a fantastic psychology program to boot—should take note of psychologists’ consensus that the best way to overcome torment associated with a thought or phrase is by confronting it (Google “exposure therapy”). The word plantation has a dirty past, but so do many words—“empire” has a pretty rough history when it comes to the subjugation of entire continents, and yet New York still proudly refers to itself as Empire State.
If simple logic or psychologists’ agreement on the best way to overcome offense where none should be taken does not dissuade the board of Trustees from adopting the name change measure, then perhaps historical precedence will. Indeed, caving to student demands has not proven fruitful for Cornell in the past. It is no coincidence that world-famous intellectuals Donald Kagan, Allan Sindler, Thomas Sowell, Allan Bloom, and Walter Berns all departed Cornell—in varying degrees of fury over what had occurred—shortly after the 1969 Willard Straight takeover and President James A. Perkins’s subsequent capitulations and resignation. Why? Because Cornell sent a message that it would capitulate to student demands no matter how illogical or disadvantageous. A message declaring that academic freedom and common sense would be ditched in a heartbeat if enough students raised their voice (in the case of 1969, even if the students did so equipped with rifles).
The result? Donald Kagan went on to bolster Yale’s history department. Thomas Sowell earned even greater notoriety for excellence in thought for his adopted home, Stanford University. And Allan Bloom ended up, of all places, at The University of Chicago.
It has been nearly five decades since 1969. When will the school learn from its mistakes? That question remains to be answered, but now is our chance to do so. Now is Cornell’s chance to be held in the esteem as The University of Chicago, and bask in the positive media attention that university is receiving for its recent efforts in standing up to disastrous student requests.
Take note: while The University of Chicago wins praise for its commitment to open exchange, Cornell is turning the entirety of its Ithaca campus into a safe space—and doing so on faulty notions. For shame! Professors, students, and board members who value academic freedoms, who want to keep Cornell on the right side of history (as they failed to do in 1969), and who simply have a taste in names should reject this embarrassing measure.