April 13, 2004

Call to Engagement Inspires Discussion

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A crowd of about 100 people gathered on Ho Plaza at noon yesterday to discuss a wide variety of campus issues with President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 as part of Call to Engagement Day.

The event was sponsored and staffed by the Student Assembly and is part of a year-long project known as the Call to Engagement — which began as a set of eight questions that Lehman sent out by e-mail to the Cornell community. His questions ranged from what the University should teach to how the University should be organized.

“I was told that people would be looking to the president for an agenda,” Lehman said in his opening remarks to the audience. “The Call to Engagement was sort of a resistance to this approach.”

He went on to discuss the alternatives that were considered to the Call to Engagement, including a blue-ribbon task force whose job it would be to determine the mission of the University over the next few years. This approach was rejected, said Lehman, because it would mean “assigning the responsibilities to a small subset of the community. [The Call to Engagement] was designed to draw in as many different elements of the community as possible.”

According to Lehman, about 500 individuals and over 30 groups submitted answers to the eight questions. Lehman posed the first question, “What should we be teaching our students?” to the Ho Plaza audience. After one person replied that diversity should be a core element of the University’s teaching mission, the discussion quickly moved away from the eight questions to other items of concern to participants, from affirmative action and diversity among faculty to class sizes and tuition concerns.

Vladimir Gogish ’07, the S.A.’s new student representative, asked Lehman what Cornell is doing to combat the rising cost of tuition. “There is a structural problem in higher education,” Lehman said in response to Gogish’s question. “Costs are driven by the wages of higher-skilled people which rise faster than the CPI [consumer price index]. We need support from the state and federal government, which has been declining over the past 15 years,” he added.

Lehman went on to stress the importance of debt management and scholarship assistance, saying that the University is asking alumni to contribute money to finance scholarships. Responding to a question about whether the University was looking for ways to reduce class size, such as having professors spend less time on research and more time teaching classes, Lehman said, “the expectation is that faculty should teach. We don’t want to move people entirely out of the lab. We’re looking for a healthy balance.”

The Ho Plaza forum was not without contentious moments, with two groups of protesters attending the event. A group of students from the Cornell Organization for Labor Action were present, protesting Cornell’s use of the uniform provider Cintas, which has been accused by labor groups of a variety of unfair labor practices. “We want you to meet with us personally to discuss an ethical purchasing policy,” said Chris Repole ’06 to Lehman, who responded, “I don’t think its particularly productive for me to sit down and talk with you.”

Lehman noted that COLA met with Barbara Krause, a senior advisor to Lehman, regarding Cintas and that a committee of administrators is being set up to look into the idea of an ethical purchasing policy. An ethical purchasing policy would require that the University take into account a supplier’s labor and environmental practices when making purchasing decisions.

Regarding allegations that Cintas is a frequent violator of labor rights, Lehman said, “We have not been given conclusive evidence that this is absolutely and completely true.”

Members of COLA were not satisfied with Lehman’s response to their concerns.

“He indicated that there were administrators looking into the issue but he failed to tell us who they were and what they were doing,” said Patrick Young ’06, “I’m offended that he has failed to meet with us considering that 1,000 people signed the petition to drop Cintas.”

Regarding Lehman’s statement that he had not seen convincing evidence that Cintas has been a violator of labor laws, Young said, “I think that two workers dying is enough evidence.”

The other group of protesters that attended Call to Engagement Day were the residents of the 660 Stewart Ave. co-op who denounced the University’s plans to build a parking lot at the site of Redbud Woods, which is located next to the co-op.

“To the extent that we have to have parking for students, this was done in a responsible fashion,” said Lehman, replying to a question asked by Will Kruse ’05 about the University’s plans to build the parking lot and its possible detrimental effect on town-gown relations.

Lehman — who denied that the lawsuits surrounding the proposed parking lot have negatively impacted Cornell’s relationship with the City of Ithaca — asked “Do you believe that students would support banning cars for freshmen or banning cars for all students?” Audience response to Lehman’s question was overwhelmingly negative.

Though the bulk of the questioners engaged Lehman in serious discussion, one participant added a bit of levity to the event. Robert Miller ’07 made his way to one of the microphones and said “You’re my boy J-Money. Don’t worry about those Cintas people. Keep rocking the ‘Nell!”

“Keep rocking the ‘Nell,” Lehman repeated in a somewhat amused tone.

An audience member then shouted, “It means we like you.”

Archived article by Daniel Palmadesso
Sun Staff Writer