April 14, 2014

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT: The Big Issues

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By DARRICK NIGHTHAWK EVENSEN

After four years of serving as your student-elected trustee, it’s time for me to step down. This is my last Daily Sun column; at the end of this month, the entire student body of the Ithaca campus will elect one of two very able young women to replace me on Cornell’s highest governing body. This article is to the entire university community, but is targeted particularly at my two potential successors. I end my term by highlighting the major issues that will face Cornell over the next two years — over the term of the next student trustee.

First, and far above all else, the next student trustee will be one of the 19 people tasked with selecting the thirteenth president of Cornell University. What an honor and what a responsibility! Talk about getting thrown in on the deep end. Before my successor officially takes office, she will attend several meetings to prepare for this major national and international search. She has her work cut out for her. I must warn the entire campus in advance, you will not find a president as qualified, dedicated, caring or humorous as President Skorton. It just won’t happen. Unless, of course, Provost Fuchs decides to apply for the position. Then, you just might find such a candidate. Not better, but as good.

In the midst of replacing perhaps Cornell’s best president ever, my successor will also be readying the campus to celebrate 150 years of Cornell educating the world’s best minds. Why did I need to retire now? The partying next year will be outrageous! As part of the Sesquicentennial, we are concluding the massively successful capital campaign that the trustees have overseen. The outreach to alumni will be as never seen before. My successor will be the face of graduate and professional students in many high-profile events that not only recognize Cornell’s past but also gaze forward into our distant future.

While the Sesquicentennial will be a joyous time, the work of a Cornell trustee is far from a continuous party. We are in the midst of making transformative decisions about online learning that could have a massive effect on the way education occurs at Cornell and even on the definition of a “campus,” in the decades to come. We are considering the structure of departments, programs and colleges throughout the entire University. Will some units grow? Will others shrink? Will some programs and departments combine to realize greater synergies? I will not answer any of these questions, but my successor will likely have to.

And what about the new Cornell Tech campus in NYC? I cherish being a member of the Board of Trustees that approved our bid in the contest that created this Cornell treasure. But I have only seen the most incipient stages of this quickly-growing game changer. Cornell Tech is a campus for graduate and professional students. My successor will be the direct representative at the highest level for all the students on this campus. How will she ensure these students are included as members of the Cornell community? How will she create opportunities for Ithaca students to benefit from the new opportunities that this innovative campus on Roosevelt Island affords?

Cornell will continue to discuss divestment from fossil fuels. I have had my say on this issue; we now need a fresh graduate/professional student perspective. We need someone who can listen diligently to all student views and then act in the best interest of the entire University. The conversation on this topic is far from over. Divestment could be a huge symbolic message that labels Cornell as a forerunner in the sustainability movement, but it is not clear this is the best way to pursue our sustainability goals. What is clear is that if Cornell does not divest, it needs to needs to take some other major action to communicate nationally our commitment to sustainability. To my successor: Identifying what that action is may be your job.

In the last few months, several issues related to graduate student compensation and benefits have arisen. I have even heard the whispers, here and there, of interest in graduate students organizing with the intent of pursuing collective bargaining rights. While I will not request that my successor take an activist role on these issues, she will need to work assiduously to understand how a broad range of students feel about these topics and then communicate that information to the Board of Trustees.

A good student trustee is like a good sociologist. You need to be able to perceive how social structures operate, to understand individual and collective perceptions and to identify factors affecting beliefs and understanding within the student community at Cornell.  You need to summarize this data well and convey it to the other trustees.

To my potential successors, Annie and Ann, this is a busy and exciting time for Cornell. One of you is about to take on massive responsibility. I know you will do well.

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