October 27, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | A Message About Interim President Hunter Rawlings

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To the Editor:

This morning, Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings abused his position as president to send an email about graduate students to the whole community in order to sway public opinion in a debate wholly concerning graduate students. His conduct is unbecoming of the Office of the President, is detrimental to the community as a whole and sets a dangerous precedent for using the Office to meddle in the internal affairs of students. I hope that the student body and especially the Presidential Search Committee understands the gravity of these issues, and selects a president who shows greater circumspection, restraint and care for the community than Rawlings did this morning.

The unionization of graduate students has both positive and negative aspects. Though an undergraduate, I have talked with many graduate students who are both for and against unionization. The decision to unionize is theirs and theirs alone regardless of my personal opinion or the opinion of President Rawlings. The election, as Rawlings points out, is only for graduate students. I may not, he may not, and a vast majority of people who received his email cannot and should not make this decision for graduate students.

Yet President Rawlings thought that it was appropriate to send a biased communication regarding only the negatives of unionization to the whole community. At best, this propaganda should have been sent only to those making the decision: graduate students. Yet in order to pressure and isolate graduate students he abused his position to attempt to sway the opinions of the whole community. This is dangerous. This says to the rest of the community that if you attempt to do anything the President does not like, they will isolate you, disparage you, and attempt to turn the rest of the community against you. These are the same tactics used by then-President Perkins to prevent the formation of Black Students United and the Africana Center in the 1960s. Interim President Rawlings’ actions are similarly reprehensible and antithetical to the caring community Cornell claims to foster.

And this is most importantly a threat to the academic freedom that is a cornerstone of this institution. President Rawlings used his position to privilege one side of an argument. Graduate students in favor of unionization cannot send an email to the whole community regarding the benefits of unionization, and President Rawlings knows this. By sending this email, he is guaranteed to “poison the well” and unfairly shape the debate around this issue. Though disguised as information, this is little more than propaganda. If President Rawlings was truly interested in informing the community about the debate, he would have talked about them in the email or allow the Cornell Graduate Student Union to send a similar email to the whole community. Instead, in order to deflect this criticism, he gives two links to places where people can “learn more”. Both links offer nothing but more links, which lead to more links — a labyrinth of information that makes finding this information difficult, perhaps intentionally so.

This usage of the mass email system as President Rawlings did today is a stain on the Office of the President. Regardless of our personal opinions on unionization as undergraduates, faculty, or staff, this is a matter for graduate students to decide. President Rawlings’ actions are an insult to our intelligence and transparent propaganda. As students, we should ask for better of our president, and hopefully the Presidential Search Committee will give us better. In the meantime, I hope President Rawlings takes steps to rectify the damage he has done to the community and the reputation of Office of the President.

Christian Brickhouse ’17

27 thoughts on “LETTER TO THE EDITOR | A Message About Interim President Hunter Rawlings

  1. The University has a pulpit just as graduate student’s do. As an engaged Cornellian I would like to hear both perspectives while recognizing that both sources have implicit biases. This is how discourse works. This issue does not implicate simply graduate students, but also the student body and University at large. Why should we not be informed whether by email or town hall discussion as well?

    Additionally, as your opinion piece represents the same propaganda you decry against, please note that it is false to say that “[t]he decision to unionize is theirs and theirs alone.” Not everyone has the legal right to join or participate in a union, our ILR colleague could elaborate further I am sure.

    • If you read the letter, I am not against information. In fact I offereed multiple suggestions on how this could have been handled better and how it can still be rectified. As I said above, there are positive and negative aspects, but Rawlings used his unique position to force his opinion on the entire community in order to unfairly shape public perception.

      This is indeed a matter for graduate students to decide as evidenced by the fact that only graduate students are allowed to vote in it. If this vote were open to the whole community, I may feel differently, but it is not. It is disingenuous for me or anyone else to, without being asked, offer my opinion on how someone else should live their life. And it is reprehensible and divisive for the President of this university to do so in such a ham-fisted manner

      Further, you seem to misunderstand propaganda if you think this falls under that category. Not once in this letter did I take a side in the debate. My entire argument is that Rawlings’ privileging of one side of the argument is a dangerous precedent and a threat to intellectual freedom for everyone on campus on both sides of the issue, not just one. Not everyone has the right to join a union, but the decision by the NLRB says that these graduate students right now do have that right if they so choose, and it is not my business to tell others how to exercise their rights.

        • That would be more equitable, yes, and that is the exact course our last president, Elizabeth Garrett, used a year ago to air her grievances about the Cornell Independent Student Union (http://cornellsun.com/2015/09/28/letter-to-the-editor-on-student-activism). If Rawlings would like to respond with his own letter, I would welcome the dialogue. But if what he truly wanted was dialogue on this issue, rather than spreading divisive sentiment, he would have utilized a venue that allows both sides of the issue equal opportunity to voice their arguments. A mass email to the whole community which only he can send is not that.

          The Sun is far more equitable, and I’m sure they would relish the opportunity to facilitate this discussion in their paper. I encourage others, including Rawlings, to send letters to the editor to further the public discourse on this topic. Other suitable options would have been town halls, as have been utilized to inform students and community members of important discussions, or allowing CGSU the opportunity to similarly send their arguments to the whole community to show that this is indeed about dialogue rather than the silencing of dissent.

  2. I believe the President was justified in his action. Despite what the author of this letter argues, the debate does not merely concern graduate students. If graduate students unionize and collectively bargain for higher wages and increased benefits, where does the author think the funds for such benefits will come from? Unionization will increase the University’s operating costs, and the only way to offset increasing operating costs is to increase revenue by (a) increasing tuition, (b) cut other costs (e.g. scholarships/aid), or (c) increasing donations. Furthermore, a graduate student union could potentially bargain to allow only graduate students to serve as Teaching Assistants (which would benefit the graduate students financially) thereby inhibiting many undergraduates, who rely on the income from their student teaching roles for tuition, food, and housing, from working as TAs. It is the President’s responsibility to run the University in the most cost effective manner; at the end of the day, it is a business. The President is acting as a responsible manager by arguing against a decision that would increase operating costs in this business.

    • He’s not arguing for or against the unionization. He’s saying that the President abused his position by sending out a biased mass email to the entire University. So I don’t understand why you are arguing your position on the actual matter to be voted on. The scope of the letter is the President’s actions. gtfo

      • Concerned alum is trying to explain why the presidents action was justified. Since it affects the whole Cornell community, the whole Cornell community should be in the loop. Thus, notifying the school was an appropriate measure. I may be wrong (please correct me if I am!), but that is the impression I was left with after reading Concerned Alum’s comment.

        • Concerned Undergrad got it right. I would like to further add that the Cornell President can e-mail the Cornell community as a whole whenever he wants, about wherever he wants…because he is the President. Once you all graduate, you don’t get to cherry pick when and on what topics your boss or the CEO of your company e-mails you about…

    • The author doesn’t seem to know anything about Rawling’s long history of commitment to academia and the humanities as both a professor and a former graduate student himself. Terrible article written by an undergraduate with no experience as either a graduate student or an administrator. Simply garbage.

      • If President Rawlings did not want my opinion, why did he send this email to me on this matter? Further, as a professor of Classics for 18 years, Rawlings is no doubt well versed in the rhetorical strategies I analyzed here that he employed and well aware of their affectiveness to shape public opinion in facor of his will in the same ways that Cicero and Caesar, authors he and I have both read in their original Latin, used to shape perception in their favor. I write this because I believe Rawlings is intelligent, because I respect his work, and because I know he knew what he was doing. Being a professor or president does not make him infallible, and I never criticsed his arguments but the methods he employed to further them unfairly.

        While I am not a graduate student, I work closely with many of them on my three theses, have worked with many of them at conferences and in classes, and am currently collaborating with faculty at North Carolina State and Gallaudet on my research, so I am well aware of the opinions of graduate students and faculty because I talk with them about this. More importantly, as someone currently applying to graduate school and planning to pursue a PhD, this is a topic I myself have looked into thoroughly. If you would like to know more about my research and work, feel free to email me. If you only seek to lob hollow, unfounded invective at me, I assume this comment section is as good a place as any.

        • you want to know how you come off, christian? It sounds like you wanted to write an inflammatory article about something that will probably elicit a lot of comments and readers. Indignant and sanctimonious articles like these feel fake, and I think you know it. Stick to what you know and leave the poor schmuck alone or at least show some respect.

    • Why so passive? Is the office of the president such that it is unable to be criticized? Should we just pliantly submit to Rawlings’ will and assume that everything he does is right because of a word in front of his name? Elizabeth Garrett did not do this, in times of controversy she engaged with students through open forums with equitable access like the Sun. If Rawlings had a good reason for his methods, let him be plain. We are Ivy League students, professors, and staff and do not need to be talked down to as Rawlings has. He has showed contempt for our intelligence and abilities, why should we be any more deferential to him than has been to us?

      • As others have pointed out, Elizabeth Garrett was not constrained by an official agreement requiring her to send her statement in an email to the Cornell campus and post it on a public Cornell website.

    • Did you read what the document you linked said? From page two: “The administration may make one formal communication TO GRADUATE ASSISTANTS” (emphasis added). Now, from my letter above: ” this…should have been sent only to those making the decision: graduate students”. Perhaps you are the one who should be educated on this matter?

      Further, he is allowed to make this statement, that doesn’t mean he should or should have in the way he did. I suggest David Hume’s work on the “is-ought gap”. Educate yourself on the divide between what one can do and what one should do. Indeed I did not criticise that he made them, rather the method by which he did. This official statement need not have been sent to the whole community’s emails with the same heading he used to announce terrible tragedies such as the recent stabbings on our campus. It could have been made in the Cornell Chronicle, in the Sun as former President Garrett did, or on a University web page.

      • You do realize that right under that it says
        “i. The document shall be distributed via email to the Cornell campus (one time) and posted to a public CORNELL website(s).”

        It doesn’t specify just to grad students if anything it demands it be sent the entire campus.

      • Page 2 as well. “i. The letter shall be distributed via email to the Cornell campus (one time) and posted to public CORNELL website(s).” Don’t cite fragments that only support your case. I believe the document says “Cornell campus” very clearly.

  3. I would like to point out that this letter and comment section has already generated better public discourse about this topic than Rawlings’ email has. I welcome this public discussion, because I believe it is valuable. I encourage others to continue the discussion here, and by sending their own letters to the editor so that this discussion can take place equitably in the open, rather than unilaterally through a mass email. However, I have my own life to lead, and much of the criticism here is invective against me, so I won’t be monitoring or responding to these comments further. But please, continue the discourse so that we as a community can move forward together rather than be divided through flashy rhetoric and unequal power dynamics.

  4. I’d like to respond to a few arguments made in the letter. One argument made is that President Rawlings overstepped his bounds in sending an email to the Cornell community in which he articulated not only his dissenting opinion, but the dissent of Cornell University. The claim being that in doing so Rawlings “poisoned the well” such that there is now an undue burden on the affirmative supporting unionization. The author insinuates that Rawlings has insulted our intelligence by supposedly dictating his harsh bargain terms to an educated populace. I fail to see the link between an outspoken goal of education and voter turnout on the part of the President and pedantry. What seems to be truly “insulting” is that the Graduate student voters and the larger Cornell community are going to somehow read the email and suddenly not think for themselves. That line of reasoning seems to reduce Graduate students to mostly empty intellects to be filled with the President’s master plan. Here the author argues that the President enjoys such a lofty administrative position that it is impossible for the graduate students supporting unionization and occupying a lower authority to counter his message. This position fails on account of assuming a lack of voter agency and is fraught with poor practicality. The author characterizes graduate voters as having little agency believing that a widespread public message from the President is wrong because he himself is not a graduate student, does not vote, and therefore should not voice an opinion bringing evidence to one side. This seems odd as it results in an idealized silo where Graduate students are not in contact with public contentions in support of some goal. To the extreme even mere private conversation or a passive pamphlet on a wall could taint the purity of the graduate vote. The tacit claim here being that the author does not find sufficient link between a graduate vote, an actualized graduate union, and the rest of the Cornell community. As graduate students are often the conduits between undergraduates and faculty it is not difficult to establish even the smallest of links between a voting group and a larger population. Once this link exists it is easy for an undergraduate, faculty member, or administrator to reasonably communicate with the voters breaking the veil of ignorance surrounding each casting their ballot. The question of whether they ought to be able to do this seems easy enough to prove. Those not voting seek to promote their own private interests and thus try to educate the voters to understand their position. Practically, this is not too different from the President of the United States entering the briefing room to discuss greater gun control measures. For the graduate students to not be able to act properly is not only counter to common sense, as this supposes an impossible space of solely private opinion, but also mistakes the intelligence of the voter who recognizes the power their vote holds. I contend that Rawlings’ message is no the ham-fisted decree of an administrative tyrant, but an honest attempt at educating the electorate to a position that could harm the interests of a University he has worked hard to curate.

    I enjoyed your letter, Christian, it made me think a lot. I’d love to continue the discussion as I have interest in some other points.

  5. No Unions!!!! All they do is drive up prices and sink the quality of work being done!! The Prez knows that and has a right to air his opinion.

  6. The graduate students at Cornell are responsible for the research and work that earns many hundreds of millions of dollars for the university. The elite graduate students recruited by Cornell are critical to its mission as a research-oriented university. The solution is clear to me and clear to leading firms around the world that want to attract and retain top talent. Pay the graduate students an above average rate. Provide high quality housing so that they are not extorted out of their stipends by Ithaca landlords. Set reasonable boundaries on what is expected of these talented students in work and study duties with professors. A union is not the greatest loss to Cornell. A greater concern is that top graduate students prefer other universities and the research and teaching agenda slips behind. Pay for talent. It is not just fair, but economically sound. If Cornell (and Yale and all the others) treated their graduate students with this respect and wise outlook, they would see no union organization and instead would have a long(er) line of talent wanting to join.

    It is really simple and a valuable lesson in life, too. Consider a simple example. If I want my gardener to mow my grass each week (and to do a good job), I can’t expect to extract from him in a way that creates resentment. If I extract too much, rationally, the gardener leaves and is unhappy. I m left with important work undone. We both lose, but if my opportunity cost is higher, I lose more. Salaries and work arrangement are multi-period engagements. That is true about all business relationships. You can’t take (too much) from people and expect them to be happy afterwards. Cornell extracts from its graduate students and pays below what other places pay. Shame on the greedy leaders and professors. Game Theory, Economics, Religion, and general social thought all lead to the same result – be generous; it will come back to you many times more. Cornell should be generous. Few if any Silicon Valley firms or other aggregations of wealth and professional talent occurred by cheating the workers. You attract and keep talent by showing it in pay and treatment.

    Too bad the president did not take the opportunity to really look out for the university and its students, by announcing a new plan for graduate housing and pay. It is what is most needed, not a naive statement about the dangers of unions. I suspect his training in Classics would have provided him a perspective on what is right to do. I agree with the author’s fine article.

    Just a final thought: suppose the graduate students all went on strike and did not work on their research. It would be especially dangerous and lead to a loss of or breach of research grants.

    Pay for what you consider important. Be generous to those that help you succeed. It is a good perspective in life.

    – Two-degree Cornell Graduate Alumnus
    – Professor
    – Economist
    – Not a socialist or liberal
    – Conservative but kind
    – Owner of successful businesses
    – Known for paying graduate students above average – I get the best in the department, my colleagues wonder why. I wonder why they don’t get it.

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