November 21, 2003

Democracy Matters Holds Student Issues Forum

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Yesterday evening, students and local politicians gathered in Rockefeller Hall for the Student Issues Forum, a panel discussion sponsored by Democracy Matters. Organizers held the event in hopes that it would bring students into the local and national political process.

The panel featured representatives from both sides of the political spectrum, including Democratic Mayor-elect Carolyn Peterson and Mark Finkelstein ’70, chair of the Tompkins County Republican Committee. Also included on the panel were Assembly member Barbara Lifton (D-125th), Ryan Horn grad, executive director of the Cornell College Republicans, and Josh Katcher ’06, executive vice president of the Cornell Democrats. The debate was moderated by Joan Mandel, executive director of Democracy Matters.

“I think that one of the major Democracy Matters goals is to get students involved not just in issues, but in the politics that relate to the issues,” Mandel said. “Unless you take the next step, and link them to political change, you’re not able to affect much.”

Discussion revolved largely around local and campus issues such as the controversial Redbud Woods parking lot, alleged faculty bias, affirmative action and post-graduation job prospects. Panelists introduced themselves and gave brief outlines of their positions on the issues before debating questions submitted by audience members.

Panelists first squared off over the Redbud lot construction, weighing the value of city development against concerns for environmental conservation.

“I see this as an issue of property rights,” Finkelstein said. “It bothers me when I see people trying to use the legal process to take away rights.”

Peterson countered by arguing that citizens must also consider the historical value of a piece of property when considering development.

“There are overlying issues about protecting the environment of our community,” she said. “There are other issues along with property rights.”

The most heated debate of the evening occurred over alleged faculty bias, with Finkelstein and Horn asserting that Cornell faculty members tend to be overwhelmingly liberal in their political views. Lifton disputed that claim, arguing that political affiliation is not involved in the hiring process.

“It’s an appalling notion,” Lifton said. “[Faculty hiring committees] look at the merit of the person, and they make a decision that has nothing to do with political views.”

“When you have 97 percent of the faculty registered on the left side of the political spectrum, I think it’s enough to make even a reasonable person suspicious,” Horn said. “I think that’s why we need to have an academic bill of rights, and maybe some sort of committee to … investigate the possibility of bias.”

Peterson suggested that more research into the political makeup of applicant pools was needed before accurate conclusions could be drawn.

“I think there’s more delving to do before some of these claims are made,” she said.

Zach Hollander ’04, campus coordinator of Democracy Matters, was pleased with the results of the issues forum, the first debate of its kind that the group had organized.

“It’s great to have people that are actually passionate about their politics,” he said. “The student agenda isn’t the national agenda or … the local or state agenda. This event works directly with our goals in that it’s about giving students a forum with their local politicians.”

Peterson felt that the debate would have benefited by a broader dialogue between students and the panelists outside of the question-and-answer format.

“I was hoping to [have] a little bit more of a give-and-take with the issues that were most important to students,” she said. “I thought maybe there’d be some more talk about … what students mean to our local political scene.”

Democracy Matters plans to continue hosting student issues debates in the future and hopes to attract state- or national-level politicians to speak with students on campus.

Archived article by Jeff Sickelco