When Christopher Dunn joined Cornell Plantations as its new director in April 2014, his freshly printed business cards suggested to him the organization he was set to lead had an identity problem.
The logo on the card featured an idyllic scene of marsh reeds flowing into a meadow and anchored by a majestic oak. The words “Cornell Plantations” appeared across the illustrated landscape, and underneath it a block of seemingly repetitive but obligatory language: “botanical gardens – arboretum – natural areas.”
“If you have a name and logo that you then need to define in print, it’s a lost opportunity to do something better,” said Dunn, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director. “The name Plantations requires constant explanation, and just doesn’t fit a botanic garden and the scale of the work we do.”
As Dunn took the helm, he began to gauge how the Cornell community connected with a name that has been attached to the university’s botanic garden and arboretum since 1944.
At the request of Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), Dunn embarked on a process to ascertain whether the name fits the mission, vision, values and brand of Plantations, the college and the university.
“The breathtaking natural wonders and educational opportunities curated by generations of Cornell horticulturists have made Plantations a recognized leader among botanic gardens across the globe,” said Boor. “Cornell has a distinguished history and even brighter future as a pre-eminent home showcasing the vibrant diversity of plant life. Exploring a name change gave us the insight needed to best position ourselves to grow from where we are to what we can achieve.”
Dunn credited Boor for her leadership in spearheading the effort. “The dean was enormously supportive of the process to evaluate whether it made sense to change or keep the name,” said Dunn. “Our thinking was to first explore if a name change was warranted, and if so, to go from there.”
For the next year he met with Plantations staff and CALS and university leadership to learn more about the institutional attachment to the historical name. He engaged in discussions with the Cornell Plantations Advisory Council and listened to students, faculty, donors and members about what Cornell Plantations as a brand means to them.
What he found reinforced his original impression that, as a name, Cornell Plantations did a poor job connecting what it does with the communities it serves.
From an agricultural perspective, Plantations is a misnomer. A plantation in that context is a large expanse of a single crop grown for agricultural production. Cornell Plantations, by comparison, celebrates a diverse collection of flowers, herbs and trees.
“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,” said Dunn.
Even within the Cornell community, Dunn discovered the name left many perplexed. While other places on campus have easily identifiable descriptors – a library and museum have definite, universal connotations – Plantations had no such grounding for potential visitors. And for many others, there was an emotional response: Plantations conjured negative associations with America’s history of slavery and racial oppression.
In October 2015, Plantations hired an external communications research firm to provide a formal, detailed examination of how its members and the campus community felt about Plantations and if there was support for a new direction. On Oct. 8, 2015, the Cornell Daily Sun published a guest column written by Dunn announcing that Plantations was engaged in a strategic planning process, one that could lead to a reconsideration of its vision, mission and name.
In January 2016, an online survey was distributed to thousands of supporters to assess what the organization itself represents and how the name Cornell Plantations fits in with the mission. According to the survey, about three-quarters of respondents expressed support for a new name. More than 80 percent identified as faculty, staff or Advisory Council members included in the survey backed a change.
Provided a list of 11 possible name changes, more than half picked “Cornell Botanic Gardens” or a close derivation as their preferred choice. Of the faculty, staff and Advisory Council respondents, 72 percent preferred that name.
“I am gratified to see Plantations seek new avenues for increasing its relevance to and impact on our university and community. And, as a former member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, I know full well the value that Plantations has to our students and alumni,” said Celia Rodee ’81, vice chair of the Cornell Plantations Advisory Council and former member of the CALS Advisory Council. “I fully support Plantations and CALS in this rebranding process. This an exciting time and an opportunity for our Cornell Botanic Gardens.”
Cornell Botanic Gardens, according to Dunn, is a fitting moniker that succinctly captures the organization’s mission and aspirations. Rather than focusing on individual landscape elements of gardens, arboretum and natural areas – which includes Beebe Lake and several gorges on and near campus – the name creates a broader sense of identity for Cornell’s natural beauty.
“Cornell is iconic for its impressive natural beauty,” said Boor. “When people think of Cornell, what almost invariably comes to mind is the rich natural splendor of its surroundings, and Cornell Botanic Gardens is a more fitting description of all that we offer.”
As the process unfolded, Dunn communicated with Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, and Renee Alexander, associate dean, Student and Campus Life, to keep them apprised of developments. Dunn also communicated with Black Students United, a student organization that in November 2015 submitted a letter to then President Elizabeth Garrett requesting a name change.
“Since Cornell opened its door for ‘any person, any study’ we’ve placed a high value on providing an inclusive environment,” Lombardi said. “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.”
Dunn said the findings from the survey and response from the community bolstered his resolve to see through the process to rethink how Cornell Plantations presents itself.
With holdings of more than 3,500 acres, Plantations is in the top five botanic gardens in North America in terms of size. More than 70,000 people visit each year to admire a collection of more than 50,000 plants. The F.R. Newman Arboretum was ranked last year as the most beautiful college arboretum in the country, according to Best College Reviews. The gardens and natural areas serve as outdoor classrooms, and have served as places of quiet reflection for generations of students.
Dunn sees moving away from the name as an opportunity to better reflect what the collection is and what its managers hope to achieve. This month, Dunn began recommending the name change to college and university leaders and stakeholders, including CALS senior leadership and Interim President Hunter Rawlings and his leadership team, who all expressed support. The Employee Assembly, which has played a key role in advocating for a name change, is considering a resolution of support. And earlier today the recommendation was supported by the university’s Capital Funding and Priorities Committee. In early September, Boor will present to the Buildings and Properties Committee of the Cornell Board of Trustees.
In October, Boor and Dunn hope to present a recommendation to the full Board of Trustees that “Cornell Plantations” be changed to “Cornell Botanic Gardens.”
“It’s been a two-year process,” Dunn said, “but it’s been necessary to give us a better idea of who we are, what we do and what our contributions are to the university, to CALS and the entire community.”
Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.