March 15, 2018

DANBERG BIGGS | How to Honor Our Alma Mater

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By nature, student organizing is ephemeral. Its leaders are passionate and authentic; the moments they create are powerful and important. Yet the inescapable truth is that student activism is always the flawed product of temporary citizenship. The opinions we form about our University have just four years to emerge and instrumentalize before Cornell evaporates from our lived experience.

As a result, campus movements often have quite a short half-life. This is not due to a lack of dedication among advocates, and it does not mean that they can never be successful. But these movements exist to confront broad and complex problems that require immense institutional solutions. If we want a University that fully reflects the image and interests of its student body, we cannot afford to be temporary citizens. We need our alumni to do better, and they need to do much, much more.

Cornell alumni, for the most part, are asked to be fans. They should stay updated, give back and cheer us on. They should hang a pennant in their office and carry our values into each new space they enter. They should click New York Times links about Ezra’s Tunnel and live stream the hockey games. Sometimes being a good fan means attending a reunion or an alumni event, other times it just means reading the newsletters. Certainly, it always means donating when asked. So while students occupy a role that sits somewhere between citizen and customer, graduation seems to trigger some shift to passive supporter.

This is not to say that alumni never wade into campus issues, but when they do it tends to bear three important characteristics. First, it is almost always in favor of things as they used to be. Whether it’s the troubling tendencies of the Greek system, or the half-measure commitment to diversity and accessibility, we always assume that our alumni will be the greatest obstacles to change. It’s that massive, amorphous bloc of rear-looking stakeholders that makes every battle seem nosebleed-steep. You can find them writing one-off op-eds and commenting in the space below this article. However their presence is really felt in extreme incrementalism practiced by university leadership across the country who fear that any dip in donations will upset the delicate budgetary ecosystem they have constructed.

Part of this is the natural tendency towards rose-colored hindsight. New concerns supplant old ones, and the frustrations that many students feel are brushed aside as youthful ignorance. It’s a mildly patronizing perspective, but one that’s so universal that it can’t really be faulted.

A more troubling source of this status-quo bias is rooted in the particular construction of the alumni-alma mater relationship. While alumni are encouraged to think critically about their university, it always carries the basic premise that their college is, and always has been, fundamentally good. This is especially true of institutions like Cornell, which traffic so heavily in legacy and past greatness. As a result, the most common criticism we hear is that the University has failed to achieve some past virtue, not that it’s been flawed from the jump.

The second deficient characteristic that alumni involvement often carries is that it is woefully disjoint. Even when someone takes up a noble cause, genuine collective action among alumni is virtually non-existent. Instead, the only truly effective advocates are those individuals who are endowed with the financial clout to personally apply leverage.

And this is not for lack of pressure points. Cornell really does rely on a stream of small donations to support a lot of its key programming. For example, next week is Giving Day, Cornell’s annual made-up holiday that it celebrates by asking people to give it stuff. This is precisely the kind of moment that carries acute, obvious leverage. Moreover, alumni always have greater normative power to make demands because they do not suffer the tired label of “ungrateful-students-who-don’t-really-get-it.”

What they do lack, however, are modes of easy assembly and communication. They are spread around the world, and identify with countless communities more strongly than their alma mater. However this is only to say that it is more difficult, not prohibitive.

The last, and most crucial, fact about the way alumni care is that it’s necessarily impersonal. While we are here, students experience institutional policy and our campus community fully and tangibly. Tuition hikes and aid changes mean new loans and third jobs. Acts of hate and intolerance mean lost safety and peace of mind. Even those issues that do not touch our lives directly often affect our friends and classmates.

As soon as we step away, the tangible, personal issues in our lives are suddenly something different. They become local government decisions, workplace dynamics and national politics. I am well aware that one year from now, there will be much less reason for me to care about this community and the policies that affect it.

Of course, Cornell alumni have diverse interests and beliefs, and many do not agree with the causes I support. However, I think that there are many who do, who we rarely hear from in a meaningful way. So many students care very deeply while they’re here, only to have that energy dissipate soon after they leave. The result of all this is that while students are able to affect change around the margins, the basic direction of the University and the fundamental logic behind its decisions, are dictated the independent discretion of administrators and the interests of the most vocal, most wealthy alums.

So, as I hurdle towards graduation, I want to offer a handful of guidelines for being an effective, permanent citizen of this University:

We should hold onto the issues that affect us today, because they will absolutely matter to those that come next; and we should hold onto the frustration, the emotion and the urgency of it all, because these problems aren’t less tangible just because we don’t touch them. We should be shameless in the things we demand, even when it risks the appearance of complacency and ingratitude. Crucially, we have to maintain the sense of community, and the capacity for collective action that makes student activism so unique. Whether it is mobilizing alumni around issues or collaborating with students on campus, we cannot become atomized the moment we graduate. Finally, we need to recognize power where we have it. In the last year, President Pollack has attended 103 alumni events, meaning the most indispensable public for this University is its alumni. The only way to honor our University is to never let it take us for granted.

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.