April 17, 2013

ATHANASIOU: 57 Years, No Progress

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Four weeks and seven coffees ago, I began reading “A Century at Cornell,” which was put out by The Cornell Daily Sun for its 100 year anniversary. Its contents were exciting and interesting — a means of turning back the clock and exploring the University’s complex history. Though often shat on, this newspaper does play an integral role in recording the history of Cornell. But the most shocking thing about the articles included in the book is not that the University was trying to ban apartment parties back in the day, though I did feel a pang of pride when I read the sign: “Apartment parties are MORAL!! EDUCATIONAL!! NECESSARY!!” The craziest part about flipping back to Sun editorials from the ’50s was realizing that the same editorials could be written today. One article in particular struck a cord, as all of the grievances stated are still pervasive today. I felt a strange sense of solidarity with the Cornellians that derailed the University’s a) reactive policies, b) timing of major announcements near/during breaks and c) superficial consultation of students in the ’50s.

Cornell’s response to crises tends to be liability-oriented and heavy-handed, without dealing with the true issues at hand. For example, in 2010, Cornell decided to ban freshmen from fraternity parties as a means of curbing binge drinking. Many upperclassmen can attest to the dysfunctionality of the  fresh(wo)men social scene that led to lost newbies running through Collegetown in search of festivities. The editorial “1956: Should students have a voice?” denotes the same kind of disconnect between administrators and reality when Cornell banned liquor at football games. The students explain that banning drinking at the football stadium would only motivate secretive prohibition-esque activities. This point drives me to the question: What is the goal of these policies? What will they accomplish? Apart from allowing the University to wash its hands of liability, does this in fact create a safer student experience?

The editorial continues: “Second, we question the timing of the announcement. Two days before Fall Weekend is hardly the time to prepare students for a dramatic re-orientation of the University’s attitudes on what amounts to a ‘moral’ problem.” This blew my mind. It’s 2013 and the University is still pulling the same shit. While Cornell promotes the idea of civic engagement and public service, the administration repeatedly makes major announcements during or near breaks, making it nearly impossible for students to express dissent. Examples include, but are not limited to: The removal of SAE fraternity brothers from their house during the spring break of 2011, the elimination of financial aid guarantees during the summer of 2012 and the budget restructuring hearings during the winter break of 2012. Additionally, the changes to the Africana Studies and Research Center, as well as the implementation of bridge barriers were also announced during recesses. These examples show either the University’s fear of student engagement or a lack of care for their feedback. Perhaps most egregiously, the administration attempts to describe itself as participatory and democratic by “consulting students,” but only after their decisions have already been made.

Another editorial from 1957, entitled “Who Will Enforce the New Social Rules?” delineates how the University handed down new fraternity rules. Strikingly similar to the recent Greek system reforms, decisions were made in top-down fashion, requiring students to acquiesce and enforce policies, regardless of their own ideas. Bitingly, the 1957 editors wrote: “But we do not sympathize with the committee. It has chosen its path and it must stick to it: As long as it disregards student responsibility for obeying the code, as it does, it must disregard student responsibility for enforcing it. The job of enforcement, like the job of imposition, should be up to the administration.” At a University that so values “public engagement,” the opportunity to take student concern, value it and incorporate it into plans is still minimal. How does the University expect our social culture to transform if it rules with such a heavy hand? The next line of the editorial captures this perfectly: “Of course the committee could not set up efficient police enforcement of the code even if it wanted to; it must depend to a large extent on student cooperation, the kind of cooperation which it ignored so summarily in the formulation of the code, but which it needs so badly now.”

Perhaps the most interesting (and depressing) part about peering into the Sun’s past is that our grievances are not new or revolutionary, but historic. We have such a short, almost non-existent institutional memory with students moving fluidly in and out of the University every few years. How can this change? Where do we go from here? Do we sit-in, demonstrate, write snarky editorials? I wonder how we can facilitate productive action that can prevent editors from writing identical editorials via cyberblogs in 2050.  Furthermore, I consider the question: What could lasting student engagement on Cornell’s campus look like today?

Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Arch­itecture and Planning. She may be reached at kathanasiou@cornellsun.com. Kat’s Cradle ap­pears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou