kotlikoff 4-18
April 18, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Kotlikoff, in defense of shared governance and the campus code

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To the Editor:

Over the past 10 years Cornell has made an enormous investment to ensure that any person can pursue a Cornell undergraduate education, through an extraordinary increase in financial aid. We should all be proud of Cornell’s commitment to access and the impact that this investment has had on our student composition.

In fall of 2015, I formed an Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group that included student, faculty, and college and administration leaders and was chaired by Dean Barbara Knuth. The Working Group was tasked to examine whether the university’s financial aid funds were distributed as fairly as possible across our undergraduate student population given economic trends since the last adjustment of our policies in 2012. The group was also asked to examine options that might be put in place were we to experience another severe financial recession and find our aid policies needed to be modified. The Working Group was explicitly instructed not to look to “save money” from financial aid under current conditions, but to address fairness and contingency plans. The group examined many ideas and possible modifications, all of which were summarized in early draft documents that were revised after each meeting, including ideas that were analyzed but would not ultimately be endorsed either by the Working Group or university administration. I had also repeatedly stated publicly that once the Working Group had made its recommendation I would discuss them with the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate, and have since done both. In addition, Dean Knuth actively sought comments from the faculty’s Financial Policies Committee and the Student Assembly’s Financial Aid Review Committee.

This semester an early draft document from the Working Group was leaked without context and misrepresented as an attempt to disadvantage poorer students and enroll more wealthy students, a gross mischaracterization of the charge to the Working Group. Other students on the Working Group were upset by this action by a fellow student, identified the student and approached Dean Knuth for guidance. One student initially approached the Judicial Administrator, an office that is independent of university administration and applies the campus code of the University Assembly. Based on the student’s report to the J.A., the J.A. discussed the issue with Dean Knuth.  Following her discussion with the student members of the Working Group who expressed concerns and knowing that one student had already approached the J.A., Dean Knuth filed an incident report, initiating the process in which the J.A. determines whether or not a violation of the campus code had occurred.

Dean Knuth’s role as Chair of the Working Group, and filing of an incident report of a potential investigation of the campus code after being approached by concerned student members of the AFAWG, have made her the focus of attacks that are both unfortunate and undeserved. Over the past few weeks she has been subjected to accusations by advocates of a student who violated the confidential processes of the Working Group, in many cases misrepresenting the facts of the referral and consistently mischaracterizing the motives and goals of the students, faculty and administrators who spent many hours working to improve Cornell’s undergraduate financial aid policies. Whatever the outcome of this case, involvement of students and faculty is critical in university governance and lack of respect for confidentiality undercuts our ability to work together to determine consensus policies. Further, the continuing mischaracterization of the aims and goals of the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group further damages the trust that is essential for all partners to engage freely in the vigorous exploration of complex and controversial issues, and makes it harder for the university to be both inclusive and effectively managed. Finally, Dean Knuth has led the AFAWG with integrity and fairness, and is one of the most effective and tireless university citizens who I have encountered. She has been an extraordinary advocate for this university for many years, and I want to publicly state my gratitude for her leadership.

Michael Kotlikoff VMD, PhD
Provost, Cornell University


  • Jess P

    “lack of respect for confidentiality … further damages the trust that is essential” So we are supposed to blindly trust the university without knowing what’s going on behind closed doors? It appears to me that you define “confidentiality” as the antonym to “transparency.”

  • malindaseymore

    One wonders what definition is given to “fairness” here. Does “fairness” really mean admitting more wealthy foreign students who pay full tuition, and giving less aid to transfer and new students from low income families? That is not the definition of “fairness” the US income tax has embodied from its beginning.
    And speaking of “fairness” how does that come in when the JA invents new meanings of Code provisions to charge a student with a serious offense for simply revealing information that should have been widely discussed from the beginning? How is a committee composed of 15 administration officials, two faculty, and two students ever going to produce a well-thought out and fair solution? Further, the “solution” is designed to respond to budget difficulties, of which CU has quite a lot, given its incompetent financial management and past debt-financed building and expansion decisions.
    Why put the burden of “solving” the resulting budget problems on low income students? Is that really “fair” in the administration’s view?
    And is it “fair” in any western legal system to ban particular faculty from the hearing, ban particular document submissions, and ban the participation of counsel? This is a star chamber, kangaroo court unworthy of a great university, It is tyranny, pure and simple. And VP Knuth has committed other serious infractions that suggest she is NOT the right person for this job. Shame on the Provost for not giving the task of reinventing admissions/financial aid to a large group of faculty and students with the knowledge, judgment, and independence to do a good job. AND to suggest other ways to shore up the budget than socking it to hard-pressed families.

  • Disappointed alum

    Nice try, Provost Kotlikoff. But you make it sound as if people would understand if only the document had not been leaked “without context.” So why not give us the context now? Then surely, once we understood, we’d think Mitch McBride was off base, no?

    Cornellians would not be upset if this case were handled fairly. So tell us, why was McBride “sentenced” to having a disciplinary mark on his transcript for SIX years?

    Where’s the concern for the Cornell student here? Is the university committed to helping students grow and learn while potentially even making mistakes, or is the Cornell J.A. simply interested in protecting its own?

    “Cornell Minds Matter” … don’t they?

  • Richard Bensel

    In her own words in an e-mail message to me and two other colleagues, the senior vice provost stated that she had filed a “complaint,” not an “incident report.” She also told us that she had withdrawn the complaint. The OJA later interpreted it as an “incident report” and then said it could not be withdrawn. That is how we got to this point. The description in the Letter to Editor is inaccurate.

  • michaelsimpsonalum

    And from what I understand, Knuth only talked to a faculty financial committee, and Kotlikoff only talked to the SA, AFTER the Sun published the leaked working committee draft.
    Telling people what you are going to do post-facto is not “consulting.”
    Did these two limited “consultations” have any impact whatever on the content or the limits of the working committee’s “charge” (as Knuth puts it) that money could only be saved from within the admissions/financial aid system, and not from other sources (like more prudent investment, getting Technion University to contribute to the NYC campus they benefit from, or reducing the number of deans and other high-income administrators)? I doubt it. This whole process, from start to finish, is driven from the top, in the profoundly undemocratic way all policy decisions are made at this university. Not to mention that the community at large has no input whatever in the selection of top officials. If they did, they would not select bullies like Barbara Knuth to govern them.

  • Lowly parent who thinks the provost is way out of bounds.

    What a complete embaassment for the author of this letter. Several points are worth noting. Apparently, the provost has lost all sight of what it means to have a fair hearing. It means the heavy handed authorities who commenced this prosecution need to keep their mouths shut until the hearing goes forward, despite heavy criticism. It may not be much fun to be publicly criticized, but the Provost needs to think less about a compulsive need to have the last word and more about due process. The hearing is now hopelessly tainted. Shutting up is often a good choice.

    Just as importantly, this is profoundly dishonest letter, and I don’t use that word lightly. The key issue in this prosecution is what it means to misuse a document. The best reading, set out by the actually authors of the code, quoted by the Sun, have explained that misuse must be read in context with the prior words, such as fraud and forgery. The best reading of the word misuse, indeed the only possibly meaning, is the use of a document without altering that achieves a fraudulent intent. So, for example, if student A received a pass to check out a rare book and then Student. B used the pass to check out the book, it would be a misuse of the document. The Provost, acutely aware of this specific issue, works the word misuse into his missive, again tipping the scales and tainting the entire process. He knows full well that the meaning of the word “misuse” is at issue but nevertheless feels compelled to set out the extreme and indefensible meaning here.

    The letter is also a huge embarrassment because in his compulsive need to bias pending proceedings, and to specifically taint the meaning of a word directly at issue, he admits that the entire process is meant to chill free speech. The provost, refers to context over and over again. He is outraged, upset, befuddled, bamboozled, and otherwise red faced angry that his working documents were taken out of context. And yet….apparently not even understanding why the campus is upset with these actions, he fails to acknowledge that “inadequate context” is not a charge. But that is why he is so mad. So, the letter, while attempting to taint pending proceedings, serves as a admission that the point of the proceeding is to intimate and crush people who take work out of context.

    Sloppy careless angry adminstrators, adminstrators who don’t define confidentiality, who lash out at students, don’t have the right to initiate proceedings and then blast those who criticize them for the purpose of getting a conviction. Nor do they get portray themselves, as the Provost does, as mere cogs in a just and fair system.

    I am just a lowly parent, who dumps full tuition into CU. Having graduated from a school that has a high alumni donation rate, I have always wondered why Cornell has such trouble getting donations from its alums. I mean, I think the faculty is first rate and the students impressive. I guess I know understand. Strutting, angry, dishonest key administrators value covering up sloppy work more than free speech and fair proceedings.

    Good luck explaining this away in years to come.

  • DJT

    Nice try Provost. A corrupt official defending a fellow corrupt, incompetent colleague. You really think people would believe in your non-existent integrity?

  • ImpeachTheDean

    Let’s restore dignity and integrity to Cornell University. Dean Knuth, it’s time to go.



  • Tom

    This letter illustrates the way a typical liberal bureaucrat thinks. You detractors don’t really get it. If you really understood how noble we are and how we only strive to fulfill progressive ideals, you would not be critical. You would actually be grateful that you have such enlightened leadership. Remember this you peons; transparency is not a good thing if it exposes how us elite administrators really think. Just pay your money and shut up.