November 9, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | A Great Way to Shoot the Hostage

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Over the last two weeks, a group of Student Assembly members, supported by several leaders of student organizations, has been on a crusade to cut student funding to the Cornell Cinema. This culminated in a joint statement with Provost Michael Kotlikoff on Wednesday committing to “begin a collaborative process to ensure Cornell Cinema does not shut down.” This statement is genuinely encouraging; however, despite this qualified success, the nature of this campaign has been quite concerning. In an effort to take a stand, the S.A. held a valuable institution hostage, and put the livelihoods of its full-time employees in jeopardy. Setting aside individual intentions, the tactics that these students have taken, both in public statements and in a letter to the editor  this week, have ranged from bizarre to downright reckless. The power to control large organizational budgets carries with it the responsibility to be considered and thoughtful. Regardless of the outcome, on this issue, the Student Assembly has not met this responsibility.

The reasoning for abruptly cutting 30 percent of the Cinema’s annual budget has evolved quite a bit over time. After spending a few days on the claim that it is simply too expensive and inefficient to ask students to fund, proponents quickly pivoted to a more reasonable argument. Writing in The Sun on Wednesday, a cohort of current and former campus leaders expressed their support for defunding the Cinema by claiming that they were actually trying to save it. In an all-out sprint to a moral position, the writers argued that they were trying to force the University administration to fund the Cinema themselves. This, they claimed, would be more sustainable, and would not improperly burden students with the cost of supporting a University resource.

To be clear, they are probably correct. Cornell undoubtedly owes more to the arts, whether in programming or student activities. I fully support the University prioritizing meaningful student enrichment over the vast majority of other projects into which it pours resources. The University would also likely be a more stable source of funding than the Student Assembly, if for no other reason than that revenue could not be jeopardized by a handful of quixotic students. However, using the threat of devastating budget cuts in order to shame the University into action is absolutely irresponsible.

The potential consequences of this political stand are very real. Setting aside for a moment the harm done to students and faculty who rely on Cornell Cinema as an outlet and resource, just remember that there are human people whose salaries are tied to this thing. While the loss of funding may not have completely shut down the theater, it is plausible to think that employees could have seen a reduction in hours and wages. Even if the theater were only closed for six months, that kind of lost salary can be catastrophic for a family. For the Student Assembly to even threaten this kind of measure was just unconscionable.

Just as troubling is the apparent lack of any organized advocacy on the part of the S.A. prior to this week. Before this abrupt decision to cut the Cinema’s funding, it does not appear that any members of S.A., nor signatories of the letter, arranged meetings with Cornell administration or organized any collective action in support of Cinema funding. This was not the culmination of a long-term campaign to secure better University funding for Cornell Cinema. If it had been, perhaps such a drastic threat may have been warranted. But to my knowledge, there have been no rallies, resolutions, meetings or op-eds in support of this particular issue until just now.

This lack of organized effort is also clear in the vague way in which the letter demanded University funding. There is no particular source that was specified, or even an amount of money they sought to see allocated. In general, I don’t expect students to have all of this information, nor is expertise in University finance a prerequisite for demanding better services. However, if students are going to threaten to cut off a vital source of funding for an organization based on the expectation that the University will make up the deficit, their burden is much higher to know where that money will come from.

Moreover, even despite this week’s statement, it is far from certain that the University will fully capitulate to this last-second ultimatum. Kotlikoff’s initial response, reported Wednesday, was that the University would be unable to make the budget shortfall in 2018. Given how vast and intransigent University budgets are, it is by no means guaranteed that this collaborative process will be successful. Given that the S.A. has now already made a public show of cutting off all student funding to the Cinema, one has to be uneasy about what the future holds.

Regardless of how pure its intentions may have been, it was wholly inappropriate for the Student Assembly to hold a gun to the head of such an important program. It threatened the passion and work of numerous students and professionals, and lacked a robust plan to follow through. This use of the Cornell Cinema as a leverage point treated students and staff like talking points. In addition to being a highly risky strategy, this gamesmanship was not a responsible use of the power entrusted to our student representatives.

Politics in general, and student politics in particular, has a tendency toward public declarations of virtue. We are all predisposed to seek the immediate gratification of something done. So, rather than pursue incremental improvements to the Cinema’s funding structure, our Student Assembly opted to take a dramatic step and loudly declare how virtuous it was. Yet, as is too often the case, this comes at the expense of the countless people whose lives are profoundly influenced by the decisions our political leaders make. Moving forward, I hope the Student Assembly does a better job resisting the politics of self-gratification that led to this callous set of choices. The Cornell Cinema deserves better, and so do we.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdanbergbiggs@cornellsun.com. The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.