White Student at Cornell U. Charged in Attack on Black Classmate Apologizes

September 21, 2017

Cameron Pollack, The Cornell Daily Sun
Hundreds of members of Black Students United and other Cornell U. students marched on Wednesday to present a list of demands to the university’s president, following an assault last week on a black student widely believed to have been motivated by his race.
A white Cornell University student charged with assaulting and yelling racial insults at a black undergraduate last week apologized on Wednesday for the language he had used but denied physically attacking anyone.

The statement by John Greenwood, a 19-year-old junior, came as hundreds of students, angered by the altercation, were presenting Cornell’s president, Martha E. Pollack, with a list of demands for improving the racial climate at the Ivy League campus.

The students, led by Black Students United, marched into Willard Straight Hall, occupying the student-union building for three hours on Wednesday afternoon after presenting the president with the demands. It was the same building that a group of students, mostly black and some of them armed (students said they had brought guns for their own protection), occupied in 1969.

This week’s protest echoed some of the social-justice themes of the earlier protest. Among other things, the protesters on Wednesday demanded that Cornell work to increase the enrollment of black students, create an antiracism institute, hire additional counselors who are members of minority groups, and require diversity training for employees. They also called for specific, mandatory coursework for students on racial issues, The Cornell Daily Sun reported.

The student newspaper said that the protesters expected the demands to be met over several years, but that they wanted change to begin immediately.

In a statement on Sunday, Ms. Pollack outlined a series of steps the university would take to make the university more inclusive and welcoming.

Those include convening a task force to examine "bigotry and intolerance" on the campus and directing Greek councils to develop diversity education and training programs.

Meanwhile, details continued to emerge about the altercation that had triggered the protests.

The injured student, a junior, spoke to The Cornell Daily Sun from the hospital, saying he had been "bloodied up" in the assault.

The student, who asked that his name not be used, said he was walking home at around 1 a.m. on Friday when he tried to break up a fight in the front yard of his residence. He said four or five white men repeatedly shouted expletives and racial slurs at him as they started to leave. When he confronted them, he said, they repeatedly punched him in the face.

Investigation Continues

The police charged Mr. Greenwood with two misdemeanors: third-degree assault and second-degree aggravated harassment. They are continuing their investigation to see if the attack was racially motivated and whether additional charges, against him or any other students, are warranted.

Cornell officials also announced, in the aftermath of the attack, that they had received notice from the Psi Upsilon alumni Board of Governors that the campus chapter, which was suspended in 2016 for sexual misconduct, would remain closed indefinitely. The fraternity’s national office later said it would not allow reinstatement before 2020. On Sunday, Ms. Pollack said that "based on what we know, and pending final investigation, Cornell will not consider Psi Upsilon’s reinstatement as an affiliated fraternity."

Reports that Mr. Greenwood may have been connected to the suspended fraternity could not immediately be confirmed.

Colleges nationwide have struggled to deal with fraternities that go underground, as Psi Upsilon did, when they are suspended for misconduct.

Thomas Fox, executive director of the fraternity’s national office, said no initiated members of the fraternity had been involved in the altercation. However, he said, the suspended fraternity had continued to recruit students and that was "unacceptable."

The closed fraternity’s building is being renovated and will reopen in 2018-19 "for the use of student organizations at Cornell that are dedicated to promoting a diverse and inclusive student community," Cornell officials said on Tuesday.

Mr. Greenwood’s lawyer, Raymond M. Schlather, said in a written statement that his client had been "in no way involved in any physical altercation of any kind. Nor did he commit any crime."

“The use of the N word, and any related racist or derogatory language, is completely unacceptable not only at Cornell but anywhere in America.”
However, he added, "the use of the N word, and any related racist or derogatory language, is completely unacceptable not only at Cornell but anywhere in America."

Mr. Greenwood released his own statement in which he said he had been involved in a verbal altercation in which he "used language that was completely unacceptable and inappropriate; language that neither reflects my values nor who I am."

He said he accepted responsibility for his actions and is "committed to doing everything I need to do to make things right."

But that wasn’t an isolated incident of racism, protesters said. Earlier this month, a resident of the campus’s Latino Living Center reported hearing chants of "build a wall," believed to be coming from a nearby fraternity.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at

Clarification (9/21/2017, 9:20 p.m.): This article was updated to clarify that it was the fraternity’s national office, not Cornell, that suggested a possible 2020 date for the chapter to apply for reinstatement.