Language House
March 23, 2016

Cornell Language House Residents Call For Reinstatement Of Director Position

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Correction appended

More than two thirds of the students in Cornell’s Language House — a member of the Alice Cook House community — have signed a petition to reinstate the Language House director position, according to Arundathi Sharma ’17, one of the petition’s organizers.

So far, 38 of the 54 Language House residents have signed the petition — which students presented on March 16 to Cook House Professor-Dean Prof. André Dhondt, ecology and evolutionary biology, and Assistant Dean Jennifer Majka — Sharma said.

Last year, the part-time director position was held by Astrid Jirka, who had regular office hours, planned week-long student trips abroad and met with Native Speakers and house fellows to organize programs, according to the petition.

The vice provost for undergraduate education eliminated the director position at the end of the 2014-15 academic year, according to Majka.

Dhondt said west campus senior staff felt the Language House had not fulfilled their hopes of contributing to the West Campus community.

Last Wednesday, the petition’s four student organizers discussed the issue with Dhondt and Majka, who discredited “every point on the petition,” said organizer Oscar Rieveling ’16.

Sharma said she believes Dhondt and Majka treated the students disrespectfully during the discussion.

“We were only given 30 minutes to explain our problems,” Sharma said. “In this time, we were interrogated, lectured, repeatedly interrupted, misled and maligned.”

Majka countered this claim, saying that she did not even speak in the meeting, only reminding students at the discussion’s conclusion that she is always available to speak with them about any concerns. Dhondt also disagreed, saying he made an effort to be accommodating at the meeting.

“I went out of my way to have a meeting before spring break and offered to meet them the following week, but they had to meet Wednesday — the night of our weekly house dinners that I am required to attend,” he said. “The tone of the meeting was not the best, but it was so on both sides.”

Dhondt added that residents also should have reached out before creating a petition.

“What they should have done is talk to Jen or to me as soon as problems emerged,” Dhondt said. “If they have issues, they should have come to me six months ago not a couple days ago.”

After the discontinuation of Jirka’s position, her duties were absorbed by Cook House Graduate Resident Fellow Jonathan Reinhardt, according to the petition.

In the petition, students argued that the Language House cannot be managed by a single resident fellow and requires a director who is responsive to its members.

“After September, [Reinhardt] seemed to have disappeared; he cancelled his meetings with Native Speakers and rarely responded to emails,” Sharma said. “He didn’t even send out emails or respond to students waiting to hear about the status of their application to the Language House for next year.”

The incoming Cook House Professor-Dean Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources, said she is unsure that the petition represents the views of all Language House residents.

“The majority of residents who are returning to Language House next year do not support the petition — only two returning LH residents signed it,” Allred said. “Also, no new admits to the Language House signed the petition.”

Allred added that many of the points in the petition are not factually correct and “did not match up with data we have.”

Reinhardt responded to the petition, saying that the Language House’s administrative changes are based on “a decade of alumni feedback, which unfortunately finds no voice in the petition.”

“The changes we’re making have strong institutional support on West Campus, among our supporting faculty, and from the various levels of the Cornell administration,” he said.

Although the meeting with Dhondt and Majka did not succeed in convincing administrators to reinstate the director position, Sharma said petitioners intend to reach out to Language House fellows to gain their support on the matter.

“The communication started months ago, but somehow these concerns didn’t translate into action, and when we tried to engage in a larger conversation, we were dismissed and treated rudely,” Sharma said. “It speaks to an attitude that is managing the greater Alice Cook House community.”

The Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education’s office had planned for this leadership structure to be temporary, seeking to develop the program to better “ensure its success and student satisfaction,” according to Majka. She added that the process has now been put on hold.

Josephine Chu ’18 contributed reporting to this story.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Astrid Jirka was dismissed by west campus senior staff. In fact, the director position was eliminated by the vice provost of undergraduate education. 

  • John F.

    Without knowing any details about went on here, I have to say the professors’ responses sound defensive, evasive, and rather weak. Excusing an unprofessional meeting because “they made me do a meeting before spring break” and (more or less) “but they were mean, too!” sounds more like a high school student’s “dog at my homework” kind of response than the reaction of a mature leader of a residential community; and the attempt to dismiss the petition because “a majority of residents who are returning to Language House next year do not support” it seems weak as well — how would non-residents be motivated to sign, given that they haven’t experienced the impact the change of management had on the language house? And while it seems a fair point that decades of alumni feedback went into the decision to change the way the house is run, this in no way suggests that the current management has successfully addressed whatever greivances there may have been (from the reporting in the article, it actually seems like the opposite is the case).
    (To be sure, I am not myself involved in the language house, so this assessment is solely based on the article and the facts/quotes reported here.)

    • John F.

      [Correction: on second reading, it looks like rather than “the meeting had to be before spring break,” the first excuse was “I had to attend a language house dinner” — which, however, doesn’t strike me as a much more convincing response (is attending a weekly event really more important than addressing a petition signed by two thirds of the language house residents)?]

  • Former resident

    Has anyone even considered the suppression of the position of director was mainly a budgetary cut? I understand the students would be attached to the former director, but in the current state of West Campus, and Cornell in general, it doesn’t strike me as surprising that a part-time position that seems redundant (why couldn’t a resident fellow take care of it?) would be simply dismissed. That also would explain why there are no week-long trips abroad anymore. The article seems to miss a lot of information, on top of everything. Are the claims in the petition true? Did the new director really stop doing his job as the article seems to suggest?

    • Alex Brown

      It’s possible it was due to budget cuts. If the allegations of the petition are true, and the state of the language house has really deteriorated, it doesn’t matter what the reason was for cutting the position. What matters is that the new setup isn’t working. In that regard, it is kind of unfathomable that Mr. Reinhardt uses the support of the Cornell Administration as his defense. You only have to look at the bus pass, the health fee, and the new Collehe of Business to know that admin is super out of touch with students. It seems like giving a warm reception to students voicing their complaints in a respectful way would be the kind of thing that Cornell professors and its housing education staff would want to promote and take seriously. We are, after all, an educational institution, so instead of yelling at and humiliating these GROWN ADULTS and treating them like kids at camp, the folks involved would do better to take them and their ideas seriously instead of imposing an administrative hierarchy.