Allegations of an Unjust Termination at Cornell Tech

April 21, 2021

A former employee at the Cornell Tech campus of Cornell University says she was fired for calling out racism online and for speaking out against ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. In a Medium post, the former employee, J. Khadijah Abdurahman, said that she recently defended her friend’s critical technology practice syllabus when some began to criticize it on social media for not including more non-Black scholars. Abdurahman said she was particularly aggrieved by that suggestion that the syllabus should resemble her colleague Tapan Parikh’s Revolutionary Technology syllabus. Having worked with Parikh, an associate professor of human-computer interaction, since 2018, Abdurahman said she knew that Parikh’s syllabus "featured almost zero Black scholars."

Abdurahman said she only posted one GIF in an online discussion thread -- that of Vice President Kamala Harris sipping tea. The GIF is arguably open to interpretation, but Abdurahman is not a fan of Harris. In response, Parikh allegedly began to criticize Abdurahman in multiple online messages, negatively referencing Abdurahman’s Oromo identity and her public support for Ethiopia’s Oromo people. The next morning, Abdurahman said, Parikh wrote her to say she was fired and needed to turn in her Cornell Tech ID card.

In response to a request for comment, Parikh via email shared a link to a 2019 paper he co-wrote with Abdurahman about making connections between the Cornell Tech campus and the surrounding community on Roosevelt Island in New York.

“This contributes to an already chilling atmosphere for Black tech scholars following the high profile termination of AI Ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, by Google,” Abdurahman wrote in her Medium post. “What’s most concerning is the message it sends to Tegaru and other marginalized ethnic groups in Ethiopia when someone can be silenced for even tweeting about the crimes against humanity they are facing.”

Abdurahman, who was not a permanent employee, demanded immediate reinstatement to Cornell Tech and the privileges associated with being a year-round visiting researcher. She also demanded a public, written apology from Parikh and details as to how he would be held accountable.

Cornell said in a statement that after a “comprehensive review of the recent issues at Cornell Tech, we determined that both parties involved in this matter did not act appropriately.” Neither will be involved in Cornell Tech’s Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity going forward, Cornell said, adding that Cornell Tech is “deeply dedicated to making the campus and our industry more inclusive and equitable for everyone, and this dialogue makes clear that we still have much work to do.”

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