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Migrations Taskforce Report

Researching, Teaching, and Building for a World on the Move

We propose a Migrations initiative that will:

  • Cultivate dialogue and nurture collaboration across academic disciplines

  • Integrate and synthesize existing disciplinary contributions
  • Build an interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in the Study of Migrations (virtual or physical)

Read about the launch event on October 1, 2019, that announced the Global Grand Challenge.

Migrations Taskforce


Our world is increasingly in motion. The unprecedented pace, scale, and complexity of movement on our planet — of humans, plants, animals, cultural messages and artifacts, resources, pathogens, and more — present a diverse suite of challenges and opportunities that play out across local, regional, national, and international scales. Humans are increasingly migrating out of compulsion and choice from rural to urban areas, through urban areas, and across national borders. At the same time, the conditions for plant and animal life are changing with climate in ways that threaten food supplies, erode ecosystem health, undermine sociopolitical and cultural systems, and compromise the well-being of millions of people. Our infrastructure, urban design, housing stock, disaster relief programs, legal frameworks, business models, and international geopolitical systems need to accommodate the dynamic movements of human and non-human species and ways of thinking and relating to each other and the world. 

Mother and baby whale migrate through a blue ocean

With their capacity in research, teaching, and engagement, universities will play an important role in preparing future leaders, artists, scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and community members to tackle the challenges of a world on the move. Cornell, in particular, is uniquely poised to be a global leader in migration studies. Our broad-ranging and distinctive expertise spanning multiple academic units enables us to study and teach migration from different perspectives, disciplinary approaches, spatiotemporal scales, and socioecological contexts. The university is a world-recognized leader in a number of fields that all weigh in on migration studies, from the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences. Bringing people in these different units together, and supporting new research, teaching, and engagement at their intersection will improve our work, generate new insights into critical problems, provide a stronger evidence basis for policy, and place Cornell at the fore of migration studies around the world. 

We view migrations as multispecies phenomena emerging from dynamic socio-ecological systems, as well as driving changes in those same systems. The deep evolutionary and historical roots of human and non-human migrations mean that they reflect and record changes in cultures, climates, economies, and other environments. Each has their own distribution of resources and power that shape inequality and well-being. Consequently, only through an interdisciplinary, multispecies, and systems-level perspective can we understand and anticipate the causes and consequences of migrations for people and the planetA task force comprised of 16 faculty representing nine colleges and schools contributed to this initial report, identifying focal areas and activities of interest.

Underlying these areas and activities are three core principles that define our approach to Migrations:

I. Incorporation of socio-environmental dynamics and complexity 

As individuals, populations, and species move, a variety of elements shift, often driving further migration. For instance, rising global temperatures can alter migratory patterns of plants, animals, and other species, just as rising sea levels can damage or displace ecosystems and communities. As the distributions of species change, so too does exposure to the native and invasive pathogens, pests, and parasites that affect the health of human and non-human hosts and the ecosystems upon which we all depend. The resulting impacts on social and ecological systems are expected to provoke movements at scales not seen since previous geologic epochs. Climate-related shortages in food, water, and economic resources, and associated conflicts are projected in some reports to result in 200 million environmental migrants by 2050 and over 120 million more people in poverty by 2030. 

II. Recognition of multiple spatiotemporal and hierarchical scales 

Feedbacks among social and environmental systems play out across a wide range of spatiotemporal geo-scales and units of analyses (e.g., individual, population, species, ecosystem). As such, geography is a natural building block of migration. Changing ecosystems can create conditions that expel migrants “out” (e.g. warming climate, fire, invasive species, drought), and the converse can attract them “in.” Overlapping jurisdictions at the supranational, national, state, local, and neighborhood levels also drive different dynamics in governance and civic engagement. These factors sometimes operate in tandem but often conflict as competing cultural and political forces differ on what the top priorities might be for human dignity, animal protection, and ethical environmental preservation. These dynamics can change over time, prompting important theoretical and empirical considerations for both multi-scalar and longitudinal inquiry. 

III. Attention to the roles of governance, democracy, and authority 

Social, political, and economic factors shape the decision to migrate and the barriers that are often erected to regulate these flows. Along with these barriers come institutions vested with the authority to enforce rules and laws, which are sometimes responsible for protecting the rights of affected entities, but often also represent interests that cause harm. Collective attempts to hold institutions and governments accountable also often emerge alongside migration phenomena. These are often in tension with a global market that shapes migratory flows (including people, animals, plants, or other goods). Taken together, these three forces (state, market, civil society) are central analytical foci for any inquiry into migrations.

We contend that these three cross-cutting themes are critical to any migrations studies agenda that takes seriously the impacts of the natural and built environment on human behavior, and the relationship between people, other species, and the migration trends that often tie them together. While not all efforts associated with the Migrations initiative will necessarily be interdisciplinary or multispecies, our intention is to widen the lens through which we approach scholarship, engagement, and application. 

The Cornell Migrations Initiative is distinguished from other universities or centers of migration studies by our explicit recognition that collectively we will achieve something distinct from what the humanities, social sciences, or natural and life sciences can do in isolation. 

Focal Areas

Taskforce members have identified several focal areas as particularly critical or exciting for the study of migrations at Cornell. These are in no particular order and will be dynamic — they serve to exemplify the sorts of issues that interest us as a group and that we hope to tackle as we move forward with the initiative.

  • Migration and Authority
  • Multispecies Migrations
  • Urbanization and Regions
  • Coastal Cities
  • Disease Vectors
  • Refugees and Trafficking in People, Plants, and Animals
  • Economics of Migrations
  • Racism and Xenophobia
  • Walls and Webs: Data Visualization
  • The Right to Stay Home

Key Activities

One of the fundamental goals of the Migrations initiative is to cultivate and engage an interdisciplinary community of scholars and practitioners focused on migration studies. This intellectual community will engage individuals across a range of academic and career stages, as well as across institutional units and boundaries.

We propose to constitute this community through three principal avenues:

Advancing interdisciplinary scholarship, discovery, and innovation

1. Fund research and policy innovation

  • Competitive seed grants for faculty, staff, and students to support new interdisciplinary research around the theme of migrations
  • Post-doctoral fellowship program
  • Matching-fund program to leverage new or emerging collaborations with external partners, including non-academic ones
  • Support for working groups
  • Migrations Innovation Lab to support “big ideas” and transformative innovations

2. Connect individuals across campus

  • A website that facilitates connections among faculty, staff, and students
  • Topical or working lunches that feature talks from faculty, staff, and students working on migrations-related topics

3. Bring new ideas and opportunities to campus

  • Seminar series and/or high-profile lectures and associated events with invited speakers
  • Support for visiting scholars to come to Cornell for short stays or sabbaticals (e.g., The Society for the Humanities at the A.D. White House may serve as a model)  ​​​​
  • Partnership with the organization “Ithaca Welcomes Refugees” to host refugee scholars through programs such as the City of Asylum project

Training a new generation of scholars and practitioners

  1. Establish a curricular hub, beginning with the Migration Studies minor, to promote interdisciplinary, inter-college, and experiential learning opportunities and, possibly, eventually, an interdisciplinary master’s degree and a cross-college university major.
  2. Develop a seminar series and create opportunities for students, staff, and faculty to engage with invited speakers.
  3. Pursue collaborative opportunities with Engaged Cornell to co-fund curriculum development and/or student engagement.
  4. Develop a week-long intensive program in migration studies for graduate or post-graduate students, possibly to be held during the summer break.
  5. Promote peer mentoring by creating a funding mechanism for graduate students to hire undergraduates to be research assistants.
  6. Connect to undergraduates through Cornell’s Intergroup Dialogue Project or conversation series (e.g. New Conversation Series featuring “Colonial Genealogies of Fascism”), migration-focused First-Year Writing Seminars, book discussion groups, and/or other campus events.
  7. Expand the Law School’s immigration-related clinics.

Engaging the broader community

  1. Contribute to policy conversations in partnership with the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs and other Cornell networks.
  2. Provide competitive funding for outreach/engagement products or activities (e.g., film series or festivals, public events).
  3. Organize and contribute to high-profile events, such as keynote speakers, exhibits, and films, on campus as well as across different scales and geographies.
  4. Create a detailed, public-facing website to generate interest and increase visibility.
  5. Create and maintain a Cornell Migrations podcast series.
  6. Pursue opportunities to elevate Cornell’s thought leaders among relevant agencies and organizations, media outlets, and advisory boards.
  7. Develop engaging content for diverse audiences (e.g., coffee-table books, films, slide sets with infographics and data visualizations).