Assessing Cornell's Response to Revelations it was Funded by Taking Indigenous Land

tags: Native American history, Morrill Act, land grant universities, Indigenous Dispossession

Jon Parmenter is an Associate Professor of History at Cornell University. 

Cornell University, chartered in 1865 as New York State’s designated recipient of federal land-grant university status, received approximately ten percent of the acreage allocated nationally by the Morrill Act of 1862.  By 1900, nearly one-third of the total Morrill Act land-grant revenues generated by all the states had accrued to Cornell University.  In March 2020, the High Country News published Land-Grab Universities” (hereafter “LGU report”), an award-winning investigative report coauthored by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone that detailed for the first time how the Morrill Act funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous land.  Increased public awareness of the linkages between Indigenous dispossession and the monies that built land-grant universities prompted many of these institutions to begin reckoning with their origins in new and interesting ways. Given Cornell University’s exceptional status within the broader history of the Morrill Act, this essay assesses the University’s response to date in the context of its peer land-grant institutions as well as that of the emerging national conversation concerning the imperative of redress for all manner of inequities associated with the historical financing of American higher education.

Within a month of the original publication of “Land-Grab Universities, Professor Stephen M. Gavazzi of Ohio State University published an op-ed in Forbes, entitled: “The Original Sin of Our Nation’s First Public Universities.”  Noting the analogy between the findings of the LGU report and the national dialogue regarding atonement for slavery, Gavazzi argued that the evidence uncovered by Lee and Ahtone obligated land-grant universities to undertake both contrition – expressions of remorse and offers of apology – and reparations.  Drawing a distinction between the case of slavery (and/or the slave trade), in which identification of the recipients of an apology (or reparations) may not always be obvious, Gavazzi pointed out that the documentation provided by the LGU report made clear not only the amounts and location of former Indigenous land allocated by the Morrill Act, but also the identity of the tribal nations from whom the land was taken – often by what he describes as “lopsided” treaties, the threat of violence, or “brute force.”  Gavazzi, one of the first to respond publicly to the LGU report, has been, as we will see, one of the most active and consistent advocates for meaningful reconciliation undertaken by land-grant universities whose endowments rested on profits taken from the ancestral homelands of some 250 Indigenous nations.

The next broadly-focused response to the LGU report appeared in a scholarly forum entitled “Reflections on the Land-Grab Universities Project,” published in the Spring 2021 issue of Native American and Indigenous Studies.[1]  The case of Cornell University loomed large in this forum, with eight of the fourteen essays addressing aspects of the institution’s outsized role in this history as “the beneficiary of the greatest endowment of wealth by far from Indigenous lands and/or scrip distributed by the Morrill Act.”[2]  Among the more significant themes evoked by this forum were:

  • the challenges posed by the “Land Grab Universities” findings in the context of historically persistent narratives of progress surrounding land-grant universities[3]
  • the power of the mapping techniques employed by Lee and Ahtone for representing the extent and nature of benefits accruing to particular institutions from particular acts of state-sponsored dispossession[4]
  • discussion of the long-term, intergenerational impacts of deprivation on Indigenous nations in juxtaposition to the spectacular financial growth of land-grant university endowments over time[5]
  • the arresting and disturbing claim that land-grant universities “consistently perform worse than non-Morrill universities” in regard to both enrollment and graduation rates of Indigenous students[6]
  • calls for long-term-oriented acts of atonement and accountability on the part of land-grant universities that align with the ongoing nature of benefits flowing from the Morrill Act to their respective endowments.[7]

In the Fall of 2021, the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University convened “Campuses and Colonialism,” a symposium intended to promote the kind of serious intellectual and institutional accounting for complicity with settler colonialism[8] that has been witnessed in recent years with regard to slavery and the slave trade.  Citing the example of Northwestern University’s response to the role of John Evans, one of its founders, in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado Territory as an exception, the organizers of “Campuses and Colonialism” highlighted the ongoing disparity between the impressive and heavily capitalized projects undertaken with reference to slavery at institutions such as Georgetown UniversityYale University, and Harvard University and those relating to past acts of violence toward and dispossession of Indigenous peoples.  Though not concerned with the Morrill Act per se, this symposium marked a significant turning point in raising awareness of long-overlooked linkages between settler colonialism and the development of higher education in the United States.

Read entire article at Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project

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