March 7, 2010

Cornellians Skip Out On Higher Education ‘Day of Action’

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Students in more than 30 states joined protests sparked in California against tuition hikes and cuts to financial aid last Thursday — storming buildings, vandalizing school property, and even, in California, forcing highways and schools to shut down.

Cornellians, however, largely abstained from the March 4 Day of Action for Higher Education, sponsored by the American Association of University Professors — a movement which City University of New York Professor of American History and founder of Angus Johnston speculated might have involved “upwards of 100,000” participants.

Students and faculty differed on the cause and significance of Cornell’s absence from the event, drawing both positive and negative conclusions from the lack of action. Yale was the only Ivy League school in which students took an active hand in the event, according to Johnston.

Freshman Student Assembly Representative Roneal Desai ’13 saw Cornell’s relative tranquility as indicative of the University’s ability to weather the economic storm without asking students to make up too much of the difference. Whereas some University of California schools have seen tuition increases of up to 32 percent, students at Cornell’s endowed colleges only suffered a 4.5-percent hike. New York State residents at the University’s contract colleges saw a 7.9-percent increase.

Desai said that the difference between Cornell’s tuition hikes and those of other schools was made possible by Cornell’s “hard stance on fiscal responsibility,” and stressed that the University had not cut financial aid for any students.

Like Student Assembly President-Elect Vincent Andrews ’11, Desai also emphasized that the transparency of the Reimaging Cornell process has dissipated much of the anger seen elsewhere. Andrews cited brownbag lunches and meetings with Provost Kent Fuchs as evidence that the Unviersity has “done a relatively good job communicating with the Student Assembly,” and, by extension, with the student body at large.

Tom Barnes ’10, president of Cornell’s International Socialist Organization, had a different view of why Cornell remained mum during the country-wide day of protest.

“We faced an incredible rise in tuition … while Cornell’s endowment [remained at] 5 billion dollars,” Barnes said, expressing the belief that there was ample rationale for Cornell students to protest.

Barnes attributed the lack of action to Cornell students’ sense of entitlement and privilege. “We feel as if we’re sheltered from rest of college educated students … because [we’re at] the top of the hill. Everything in [so much] of [Cornell students’] lives has been private … we don’t have that strong a sense of working together for the public good,” Barnes said.

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, who teaches a class on social movements, agreed with both of these sentiments, feeling that Cornell remained calm both because of an atmosphere of apathy and because the cuts here had not been quite as severe.

She added that campus activism, in her mind, had been “demoralized” by the failure of protesters to stop the University from bulldozing Redbud Woods in 2005. Sanders said that the Redbud Woods incident had diminished this communal faith in the ability to affect change — an occurrence she referred to as “cognitive liberation.”

Not everyone, however, saw the California protests in a positive light, as a beneficial idealistic struggle. Konstantin Drabkin ’11, President of the Cornell Republicans, said that the California protests were “a little too selfish for my taste,” and that he would “rather see that money go to the unemployed … to people who are literally starving.”

Angus Johnston, whose website tracked the different rallies and actions throughout the day, had justifications for Cornell’s lack of involvement in the national protests.

He said that, unlike the wholly public California schools, Cornell did not have a “comprehensible … electoral [body]” to lobby for change.

Another theory Johnston presented was that protests often occur in a domino effect, with students nearby responding to their neighbors’ grievances. “For whatever reason, there was no spark in New York State,” Johnston said.

Johnston added that, over the last 40 years, “the trend has been for public schools [to be more active in protests than their private counterparts].”

John Ertl ’11, Treasurer of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, said that although COLA strongly supports the students’ actions, “we really have our hands filled right now,” citing Thursday’s protest against Nike.

Original Author: Jeff Stein