University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

An Opinion Writer
In Cornell’s Paper
Looks Back Fondly
At a Visiting Lecturer

' The Class of '56 must be pissed. The "Superclass," known for its enormous financial contributions to Cornell, established the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 visiting professorships to honor the former Cornell president and to provide an unprecedented opportunity for undergraduates to interact with people who, as the program statement notes, are "at the pinnacle of their careers in scholarship, public life, government, international affairs, health, nutrition, agriculture, business and industry, the professions, the arts, communication or any comparable field."

The visiting professorship was wildly successful at first, attracting big names like former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno '60 and renowned African-American author Toni Morrison MFA '55. But in 2003, the faculty-run selection committee took a turn for the worse, selecting as a Class of '56 visiting professor then-former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who was a failed politician, a Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist and a certifiable nutjob. In other words, she wasn't at the pinnacle of anything.

The selection committee offered McKinney the professorship without running its decision through the president, the provost and the Board of Trustees, as was required. Not wanting to rock the boat, new president Jeffrey S. Lehman '77 decided to let it slide. At the time, Board of Trustees chair Peter C. Meinig '62 noted that what went wrong is analogous to a fraternity brother inviting a pledge to join before the entire fraternity agrees.

Unlike Cornell's other Greek houses, however, this fraternity tarnished our campus's image nationwide when she was appointed. Aside from her general lunacy, McKinney was undistinguished in every way. Indeed, the campus seemed almost united in its opposition to her appointment. American Studies Professor Glenn C. Altschuler noted, "There is not in my judgment either in Cynthia McKinney's expertise, in her career in Congress or in her published statements a sufficient justification for inviting her as a recipient of this prestigious position." Professor Theodore J. Lowi exclaimed, "Cornell can do better." The University received between 150 and 200 letters criticizing McKinney's appointment, with only a negligible number written in her support.

But alas, three years later, Cynthia McKinney has finally distinguished herself! McKinney is likely the first Frank H.T. Rhode Class of '56 Professor to punch a cop!

By all available accounts, McKinney was rushing into a House building and bypassed the security metal detector, as congressmen are permitted to do. A Capitol police officer did not recognize McKinney, who recently changed her hairstyle and was not wearing her Congressional pin, and asked her several times to stop. When she did not do so, he attempted to stop her physically. Instead of deigning to inform the police officer that she, in fact, is a Congresswoman from Georgia, McKinney decided to forgo the formalities and punched the officer.

In a television interview, the hard-hitting Soledad O'Brien could not even get McKinney to state her version of the events. Accompanied by her lawyer, McKinney rambled about hairdos, unrelated lawsuits and how the Republican budget "drowns America's children in a sea of debt." Though she was quick to self-righteously (and incoherently) proclaim herself a victim of racial profiling, she refused to explain why she punched a police officer.

This is not particularly shocking to anyone who has attended one of McKinney's lectures on campus. Ignoring difficult questions is McKinney's preferred mode of conversation, but she executes it poorly. As Sun columnist Jim Shliferstein '06 recounted in a column entitled "Retort Card: Grading a Prof" (read the whole thing!), McKinney clumsily parried three audience questions asking her to reconcile her interventionalist stance on Rwanda with her isolationist stance on Iraq, demonstrating in the process that her knowledge of Iraqi history approached zero. I couldn't take it anymore and confronted her directly. She babbled some more about sanctions, ignored my question and moved on.

Indeed, McKinney's pattern for handling audience questions was this: ignore, evade and then redirect the conversation. Her illogical and irrelevant references to unrelated geographical entities in her "answers" prompted frustrated audience member David Friedlander to qualify his question by asking her to respond without referring to either Haiti or Florida. As Justin Weitz '07 noted in classic understatement to a Sun reporter after the event, "I think people realized she wouldn't answer questions [directly]." Now, instead of evading confrontation, McKinney resorts to physical assault.

Unfortunately, Cornell's campus recently has seen an actual act of racism as of late, where a Cornell student, Nathan Poffenbarger '08, allegedly stabbed Union College senior Charles Holiday while yelling racial epithets. Like McKinney, Poffenbarger will soon go before a grand jury to determine whether there is enough evidence to indict him. The University wisely decided to suspend Poffenbarger indefinitely. It should do nothing less with Cynthia McKinney. '