May 1, 2003

Commitment Programs Face Cuts

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At a student-organized forum held yesterday in the Memorial Room of the Straight, 200 concerned students, community members, professors and program staff discussed possible budget cuts to the Cornell Tradition, Cornell Presidential Research Scholars (CPRS) and Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars programs.

The three programs–which together make up the Cornell Commitment–are confronted with an end to outside funding. The funding, from formerly-anonymous donor Charles F. Feeney ’56 and his group, Atlantic Philanthropies, covered all components of the CPRS program, as well as the programming and operations aspects of the Tradition and Meinig Scholars. All three programs depend on University funding to make summers of service work and research possible.

In letters to Commitment alumni and students, Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, wrote that the administration aims to “retain the essential elements of the program while recognizing [budget] realities.”

The forum gave students a chance to speak about the Commitment’s impact on their education, as well as ask Davis and Inge Reichenbach, vice president for alumni affairs and development, about the decision-making process.

Rachel Doyle ’05, a Tradition fellow and founder of the student group Glamor Gals, argued that if cuts affect programming, “the portion [of the program] that will be lost is the uniqueness.”

Davis noted that Cornell is “in a very difficult time financially,” and said that the University was looking at possibly “consolidating activities across programs.”

Davis also called the Commitment “the strongest recruiting tool Cornell has,” and “a powerful program for student development.”

Program administrators and students pointed out that the external funding had a definitive endpoint, one that the University knew about well in advance. “They’ve always known the [outside] funds would not be a bottomless pool–they should have diversified funding sources from the start,” argued Tradition Student Advisory Board member Sudha Nandagopal ’03.

According to Guest, the initial funding agreement for the Tradition was for outside funding to gradually decrease, while University funding increased.

Several students argued that placing a value on individual program components was counterproductive.

“You say things like ‘consolidate,’ and it’s an easy thing to say, but it has much larger effects than [on] profits,” Doyle said.

However, many close to the programs felt that the University was too late in inviting student and community input.

“The University’s original decision schedule didn’t include mechanisms to get input from students, alumni and the community, which are integral parts of the program,” said Nathaniel Guest ’98, associate director of the Tradition.

Many credited the website, organized by Tradition alum Itai Dinour ’01, as having forced the administration to include students in the decision-making process.

“They wouldn’t have included student input at all if it weren’t for the website,” said Sudha Nandagopal ’03, one of the forum’s organizers.

Dinour felt he needed to act after the administration did not renew the term appointments of Julie Albertson, the director of the Commitment’s alumni programs, and Peggy McKee, CPRS’ assistant director. Dinour also hoped his website would educate alumni about the importance of funding the operations side of the Tradition.

“To me, and I think to many other alums, if it was just a scholarship program, it wouldn’t be true to the vision of its original founders. If you strip away all those facets of the program, you might as well change the name, because it’s not the Cornell Tradition anymore.”

Davis recently sent an e-mail to alumni asking them to complete a survey on their experience with the Commitment. While, according to Guest, the Tradition has had a professional researcher on staff for its 20-year existence, Davis argued that the new survey would more accurately capture students’ sentiments towards various aspects of the programs.

In response to criticism about asking for student input so close to the end of semester, Davis cited the long deliberations on the part of the administration.

“Quite frankly, the University has been struggling with how to deal with [funding], and came to realization that we wouldn’t be able to make up the lost funding after many months,” Davis said. “This is not something that was planned.”

A student asked Reichenbach and Davis to elaborate on which aspects of the programs were up for cuts.

“I can’t say to you tonight what’s going to happen to each piece of the programs,” Reichenbach answered.

Brit Holmberg ’01, a Tradition alum, felt the forum brought administrators and students closer in their goals.

“If we’re not on the same page, we’re at least in the same book,” Holmberg said.

Others were less certain.

“In a year, everything in the program [CPRS] is a big question mark,” said CPRS Student Advisory Board member Galia Porat ’05.

According to Davis, elimination of any program in its entirety is not on the table.

“I’ve not been in any discussion where concern about eliminating a program has come up.”

A resolution in support of the Commitment passed unanimously in Thursday’s Student Assembly meeting.

The Tradition was established in 1982, the National Scholars in 1944 (changing names in honor of the Meinig family’s donation in 1998), and CPRS started up in 1996. Students in all three programs regularly win prestigious fellowships, including two Rhodes Scholarships this year.

In the coming weeks a task force composed of students, alumni and faculty from each Commitment program, as well as Davis, will meet to make funding recommendations.

Archived article by Dan Galindo