November 14, 2010

Bailed Out at Bailey Hall

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This past Friday I attended Cornell’s annual Hatfield Address, a program established in 1980 to bring a distinguished business leader to deliver an address at Cornell. Upon learning that this year’s speaker would be none other than Henry “Hank” Paulson, former Secretary of the Treasury and Chairman and CEO Goldman Sachs, I was excited to attend what I hoped would be a heated dialogue on one of the most monumental events of my lifetime — the $700 billion economic bailout. Unfortunately, the most interesting and contentious moment came before the address even began, when the following except was read from the Cornell Campus Code of Conduct:

“Those who dislike what an invited speaker is saying also have rights. The rights include distributing leaflets outside the meeting room, picketing peacefully, boycotting the speech, walking out, asking pointed questions and, within limits set by the moderator, expressing displeasure with evasive answers. Those who oppose a speaker may thus make their views known, so long as they do not thereby interfere with the speaker’s ability to be heard or the right of others to listen. Name-calling and the shouting of obscenities, even when they are not carried so far as to abridge freedom of speech, are nevertheless deplorable in a community devoted to rational persuasion and articulate controversy. Civility is a fragile virtue, but one upon which a university ultimately depends.”

The reading of this excerpt was met with derisive laughter from the audience, as was the point in Skorton’s introduction when he joked that Paulson would be berated with difficult questions during the address. The obvious amusement and disbelief surrounding the idea that there would be any verbal protest or outrage during the conversation between Paulson and Skorton or the subsequent question-and-answer period between Paulson and the audience was downright troubling. Though the initial economic bailout was defeated in the House of Representatives, and the package that eventually passed was met with public outcry and violent protest. Yet, the scene inside this year’s Hatfield Address was calm and inconspicuous. Why the implicit acceptance? Was I the only one who even noticed?

The value in bringing prestigious or distinguished individuals to speak at Cornell is typically found in one of two ways. As is the case with convocation, a speaker may deliver an address for the purpose of relaying knowledge and making suggestions grounded in vast experience to the student body. On the other hand, a speaker may also deliver an address to raise awareness and spark constructive dialogue on a debated issue, as was the case when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered an address at Columbia University in 2007. As I sat listening to Paulson on Friday, however, I could not help but wonder whether this year’s Hatfield Address failed to accomplish either of the two. Paulson reflected on the importance of bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Skorton inquired about Paulson’s career choices, but overall the address lacked both the imparting of knowledge and the challenging of controversial ideas.

But it is important to ask why there was such a lack of constructive debate and almost no challenging of Paulson’s decisions or the government-funded economic bailout during the address. Some obvious excuses exist, like the time constraints and fact that the subject matter occurred almost three years ago. More likely, however, I wonder if the Cornellians and members of the general public in attendance lacked an understanding or even complete awareness of the issues addressed by the former secretary of the treasury. This is understandable considering the complexity of the subject matter. Nonetheless, the address focused almost exclusively on the well-known and uncontroversial issues surrounding Paulson and the economic bailout. Skorton made numerous references to Paulson’s new book, On the Brink, and at times the address felt like little more than a condensed book summary.

In all fairness, the purpose of the Hatfield Address is most likely not to encourage heated arguments and protest. Furthermore, Skorton did ask the guest speaker some personal questions, and unfortunately, he only had the opportunity to take a few questions from the audience. Despite enjoying the event, the part I still remember most vividly is the laughter and amusement when the Code of Conduct was read and Skorton delivered his introduction. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, there were cries of fear all across Wall Street. When the $700 billion bailout was announced, there were riots all amongst Main Street. I couldn’t help but wonder why the scene inside Bailey Hall was so tranquil, and lament the fact that we had missed an ideal opportunity for valuable discussion on what should have been a contentious issue.

Shaun Werbelow is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be contacted at swerbelow@cornellsun.com. Second Opinion appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Shaun Werbelow