Cornell University announced last week that it is changing the name of the Cornell Plantations to the Cornell Botanic Gardens.
The university announcement stressed that the new name better reflects the 4,000 acres of natural landscape and natural history collections that have made up the Cornell Plantations. But the name of the Cornell Plantations has also been criticized by many minority students on the campus, who view the word "plantations" as associated with slavery, even if the land and programs that makes up the Cornell gardens never had any association with slavery. Last year, Black Students United demanded a new name for Cornell Plantations as one way Cornell could be more inclusive of its minority students.
Cornell officials who have been reviewing the identity of the Cornell Plantations said that its name is inconsistent with its activities. Christopher Dunn, director of the Cornell Plantations, said he viewed "plantation" as being about a single crop. “A botanic garden is all about showcasing the rich diversity of the plant kingdom. How can you have a plantation that is a botanic garden? It’s a non sequitur,” he said in the university announcement.
He also noted that many people associate the word plantations with slavery. And the announcement quoted Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, saying: “Renaming Cornell Plantations not only respects the richness of this great natural and scientific resource, it shows our full respect for the diverse and highly valued community of students and scholars this university is fortunate enough to serve.”
Many colleges and universities have been debating what to do about buildings, statues or inscriptions that praise the Confederacy or its supporters. This summer has seen changes at several universities:
- The University of Texas at Austin moved a panel in a prominent campus location with an inscription that praises “the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states' rights be maintained” and who were “not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule.”
- Vanderbilt University announced that it will pay the Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy $1.2 million (the value in today's dollars of a gift from the group in 1933) so the university can legally remove the word "Confederate" from Confederate Memorial Hall, built in part with that gift.
- Yale University, three months after announcing it would keep the name of the slavery advocate John Calhoun on one of its residential colleges, announced a process to reconsider, and to possibly remove, the name.
The Cornell Plantations name is in some ways different from the other examples. The panel at Texas and building name at Vanderbilt were intended to honor the Confederacy. The college at Yale honors one of the most effective politicians of his era at preserving slavery and promoting racist views. In contrast, the Cornell Plantations were never intended to honor slavery. In some ways the debate is similar to the one at several colleges that led them to drop the word "master" (for leader of residential college). The origins of the word have nothing to do with slavery, but the word has come to be associated with it.
Language experts say that the word plantations is associated with slavery, but also has roots that are about plants, not slavery.
The name ended up on the Cornell gardens specifically as a way to promote a non-slavery meaning. The horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey named the Cornell Plantations in 1944, and according to a profile in the Plantations’ magazine, "he purposely chose to dismiss old associations with slavery in favor of the proper meaning of the word, plantations: ‘areas under cultivation’ or ‘newly established settlements.’ ”
Reactions to the Change
Cornell surveyed supporters of the Cornell Plantations and found overwhelming support for changing the name.
People weighing in on the website of The Cornell Daily Sun have expressed a range of views. One alumna wrote of assuming from the Cornell Plantations name that it was a site of crop research, and said that it took her a while to discover what was really there -- and to enjoy visits there. She said the name change was "sensible."
Another wrote: "As long as people can still trip and enjoy the trees I don't care what it’s called."
Others, however, wrote that there was no reason to change the name. One alumnus wrote: "You mean it’s NOT a slaveholding operation? I had no idea — THANK YOU for changing the name and making that clear to me. (Ridiculous -- just ridiculous.)"
And another wrote: "A monstrous betrayal of generations of Cornell alumni attached to the Cornell Plantations. And for what? To appease a handful of crybabies who can’t read a history book or a map, given that they can’t tell the difference between the Cornell Plantations and an agricultural model practiced 150 years ago a thousand miles south of Ithaca. This university administration needs to start standing for something other than appeasement, retreat, and milquetoast nonsense. Can everyone just grow up now? The world doesn’t pander, and Cornell shouldn’t either."
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