March 16, 2007

Skorton Comments On Apathy at C.U.

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With countless speakers, performances and community events each week, Cornell is a land of opportunity for students who want to get involved on campus. But are Cornell students really taking advantage of their options? Citing a low voter turnout for the recent Students Assembly elections and minimal attendance at President David Skorton’s Feb. 28 open forum, many have begun to wonder if Cornell students are just apathetic.

The Sun recently spoke with Skorton about his opinion of student involvement at Cornell since he took office last fall. He pointed out that in his experience at Cornell, as well as at Iowa, student involvement has “been in the range of the bell- shaped curve, so to speak.” He mentioned that at Iowa, attendance at his office hours ranged from four to 700 students, depending on the issue.

“The fact that students show up at all is very positive for me because any time you think about having a forum you’re asking students to give up something else they’re doing, including getting some rest. They come to something that’s not an assignment, not for credit and not something they necessarily have any particular vested interest in,” Skorton said.

Some feel that low student turnout for these events is not a sign of laziness as much as it is an indication that students are generally satisfied with the administration and student government.

“I don’t think you can broadly define Cornell students as apathetic. Everyone here is pretty intelligent, but also pretty concerned about [only] spending time on things that are important to them. I think that it’s pretty telling, in a positive way, that it wasn’t crowed [at the forum]. If Cornell students were really worried about the administration’s actions, I think it would have been packed,” said Ken Colwell ’09, who attended the forum.

This seems to be Skorton’s hope in encouraging discussion with students now, instead of later.

“As one grad student put it to me: ‘If there comes a time when we really disagree we’ll be in the habit of talking to each other. We won’t have to overcome the inertia of never having spoken to one another,’” Skorton said.

While it may be true that students are as involved as they need to be, Cornell’s administration has recently stepped up efforts to get students to participate on campus. These efforts include programs like the new Residential Initiative, which aims to keep more students living on campus and engaged in community programs.

Whether these attempts will be successful remains to be seen, as there is no definitive way of measuring student involvement.

“We just don’t know yet,” said Prof. Cindy Hazan, human development, when asked whether or not students have been more involved because of the initiative.

Hazan pointed out that Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, is currently tracking students through their four years at Cornell to see if programs like the Residential Initiative stimulate student participation on campus.

When it comes to attending events and giving their input, many Cornell students think it is not worth the trouble because the sheer size of the University can sometimes make them feel that their voice or input is insignificant.

“Cornell can feel like a big place, and with the all of the bureaucracy involved, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re going to be heard,” said TC Roady ’09.

Skorton’s availability to students and the Residential Initiative may be overcoming this problem, as Roady found when he had dinner on Wednesday with Skorton and his wife, Prof. Robin Davisson, biomedical sciences, who are also Becker House fellows.

Both Colwell and Roady agreed that Skorton’s openness and availability made them more positive about Cornell’s future, as well as more likely to attend events or contact Skorton with any future concerns.

Despite these efforts, however, there will always be Cornell students who are uninvolved, a fact no amount of enthusiasm will overcome.

“Apathy is at a personal level. At the end of the day it’s up to students to go,” said Roady.