Open Letter to the Trustees — An Immoral Alliance at Hand (As published in The Cornell Daily Sun)
As I suspect is true for countless other alumni, Cornell had a profound — indeed, lifelong — impact upon me. Those of my tumultuous era (Class of ’68) could not avoid the influence of great thinkers (Walter Berns and Allan Bloom quickly come to mind) who instilled a belief that the university represented (or should represent) the highest level of intellectual honesty; advancing the public good, we were reminded, was among the most noble of personal and professional pursuits.
Indeed, in his 2008 commencement address, President Skorton reaffirmed that those virtues remain at the core of the University’s soul, urging graduates to honor the social responsibilities which hopefully were nurtured at Cornell.
And so it is with profound disappointment that I raise a most serious matter which deserves a serious response.
Regrettably, President Skorton’s lofty rhetoric rings deafeningly hollow in the face of an unprincipled decision taken last spring at the highest levels within the University, including the offices of the President and Board of Trustees. In April, Cornell trumpeted the news that it had secured a $25 million grant from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to pursue nano-technology research. Great news for the researchers, but a shameful decision by the University. In its hunt for grant money — as understandable as that is — Cornell has crawled into bed with a regime which is not only one of the most oppressive on earth, but one which is known for its deep support for terrorism and fomenting of anti-west and anti-Semitic propaganda.
University leaders, carrying the Cornell banner and all the prestige that goes with it, apparently could not have been less concerned about the unconscionable activities in which the Saudi regime has been trafficking. If there were misgivings, they certainly have not surfaced.
As they went on bended knee seeking a slice of Saudi largesse (it seems that Cornell courted the Kingdom for quite some time), the breadth and depth of the Kingdom’s deadly behavior was being spread upon the public record for all to see. Consider the following:
- 15 of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001 mass murderers were products of the Kingdom and funded with Saudi money;
- more than half of the foreign terrorists attacking and killing our troops in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia;
-Saudi textbooks still preach anti-West and anti-Semitic hatred, trumpeting as gospel the blasphemous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”;
- the Saudis relentlessly finance mosques and schools the world over that bellow deadly extremist ideology; and
- U.S. law enforcement officials have publicly aired their frustration at the continued financing of terrorist groups, despite repeated requests to the Saudis to put the enablers out of business.
Moreover, in October, 2007, at the very time University officials were cozying up to their would-be benefactors, the U.S. Congress released specific findings confirming the Kingdom’s central role in the “global propagation of religious intolerance, hatred of western values and support for terrorism.” Congress further found that “Saudi Arabia was creating and distributing, through its embassy in Washington, D.C., material promoting hatred, intolerance, and violence at mosques and Islamic centers in the United States.”
While their high priced flacks have tried to convince us that the Saudis have been cleaning up their act, our law enforcement officials are not buying any of it. Frustrated Treasury Department officials have noted with contempt the great divide between Saudi promises and Saudi action. The terms most used to describe Saudi efforts in the war on terror: “passive,” “disengaged,” “little or no progress” and “foot dragging.”
An inquiry to the Trustees as to whether consideration was given to the moral implications of collaborating with the Saudis produced the predictable response: If, I was advised, the University was to consider such collaboration to be tacit approval of government policy, it would unduly restrict it in its ability to work abroad. How absurd. No one believes the Board approves the vile policies of the regime; what the Board has done, however, is give ammunition in the form of Cornell prestige to Saudi apologists and agents who are handsomely paid to paint a rosy and disingenuous portrait of their client.
Yes, we all know that other great universities and prominent foundations have accepted Saudi money. In response to that lame argument one can do no better than to offer the wise refrain of so many of our mothers: two wrongs don’t make a right.
It’s also hard to lose sight of the sad irony that the overwhelming majority of the Board of Trustees (if not the entire Board) would be prohibited from practicing their respective religions in the land of the House of Saud. Or that our distinguished female trustees would be subjected to humiliating indignities. Not to mention that those on the Board who are Jewish — and there are quite a few, including several who have held positions of prominence in the Jewish community — are depicted as monkeys and vermin in propaganda created and promulgated by the latest Cornell partners.
The reality is that Saudi Arabia has money to burn, especially when it seeks to buy a prestigious institution to try to help improve its image. Did not Cornell’s leadership realize that that was a fundamental Saudi motive? Were they in the least bit troubled? If not, why not? And if they were, where were the voices of concern?
Those who favor the relationship will be quick to point out that the grant comes with no strings attached. Fine. But that has nothing at all to do with the larger moral issue of whether we should add legitimacy to the regime.
Surely, it is appropriate to ask whether it is worth compromising core values for $25 million (spread out over five years), which, in the world of Saudi spending to gain Western prestige, is a mere drop in the bucket. At a minimum, we deserve a thorough explanation from the President and Board of Trustees.
Finally, to those who endorsed or might now seek to justify this unholy alliance, I put the following: would they have even considered, let alone approved, partnering with apartheid South Africa? Pol Pot’s Cambodia? Or Germany of 1936? We all know the answer: not for a nano-second.