April 9, 2008

Student Trustee Candidates Present Ideas

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Graduate candidates for the Cornell Board of Trustees responded to important issues affecting the Cornell community yesterday at a forum co-sponsored by The Sun and the Trustee Nominating Committee of the Office of the Assemblies. Participating were Shawn Kong grad, Xiaoxiao Li grad, Whitney Patross law ’10 and Mike Walsh grad.
“One thing I have found from my community leadership experience at Cornell is to be a solid communicator, and that is the role I want to observe on the Board of Trustees,” said Walsh. “I want to effectively communicate the needs of the entire student population at Cornell to the Board of the Trustees, while at the same time still obtaining a feedback mechanism for the undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell to learn about what they do, the decisions that they have to make, and engage in that decision making process.”
Other candidates also stressed the importance of communications and establishing an effective dialogue between the students and the Board of Trustees.[img_assist|nid=29663|title=Grad master plans|desc=Student trustee candidates, from left Shawn Kong grad, Mike Walsh grad, Xiaoxiao Li grad and Whitney Patross law ’10, present their goals at a forum in Warren Hall yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“The Board of Trustees is like the driver of the car and all students are the passengers of the car. As the driver on the Board of Trustees, we should listen to where the passengers want to go,” said Li.
Communications aside, candidates also looked forward to problem solving and improving student satisfaction within Cornell. Among the issues discussed were increasing financial aid, providing affordable health insurance, the graduate community initiative (GCI), improving undergraduate housing, sources of research funding and Cornell’s ranking vis-à-vis peer institutions.
Financial aid received particular attention, as a slowing economy and rising tuition costs have squeezed students financially, particularly graduate students who often support families.
“The first issue I would like to address [if elected] is financial aid. Only 64 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid. I would like the University to provide more financial aid so that we be debt-free when we graduate,” said Li.
Li later clarified that priority should nonetheless be given based on need, with students with an annual family income of less than $75,000 having priority.
Patross differed in her position on undergraduate financial aid, questioning the financial feasibility of ensuring a debt-free graduation. Instead, she placed emphasis on graduate financial aid.
“I think undergraduate [financial aid] is on the right track. I would love to see undergraduates graduate debt-free, but I do not think it is financially feasible right now. Cornell needs to make sure that in 10 years, it can still offer financial aid to undergraduates,” Patross said.
She continued, “I think graduate students are not getting the financial aid that they need. I know tuition at the Law School went up five percent last year. If it keeps going up five percent a year, at some point we might never go to law school.”
Providing specific numbers, Kong expressed his concern that Cornell is trailing its peer institutions in terms of its financial aid package and needs to improve in order to stay competitive.
“I did a lot of research on this issue — [current financial aid] is still not enough. On average, we give each Cornell student $8,600, however Harvard offers $17,900 and Dartmouth offers $17,300. Cornell’s financial aid package is still at the bottom of the Ivies and there is a big gap between us and all the other Ivies. Second to last is the University of Pennsylvania and they are more than 26 percent higher than us,” said Kong.
“I am considering changing the priority of the Cornell [capital] campaign to give a higher priority to student financial aid. We have only allocated 5.6 percent to student financial aid,” he said.
Walsh was the last to weigh in on the issue of financial aid. He said, “It is more of an issue that students are not getting the opportunities that they should be getting at Cornell. I have had leaders of campus organizations come to me and talk about ways to get the executives of their organizations pay, because they were losing people who had to focus their efforts on part-term jobs to pay for their education. Stuff that I have done already to try to remedy this include going to Albany and lobbying the State of New York for financial aid for the undergraduate and graduate tuition assistance program.”
Candidates also looked to continue initiatives started by the current student-elected trustees, such as the GCI, which is an initiative launched to improved graduate students’ access to housing and transportation, among other things.
The current student-elected trustees are Mao Ye grad, who is concluding his term at the end of this semester, and Kate Duch ‘09, who was elected last spring.
During his term as a student-elected trustee, Ye helped push through several changes, including encouraging CALS to release course evaluations and promoting international exchange between Cornell and foreign institutions of higher education, such as Renmin University in Beijing.
With elections starting online on April 14, Duch is looking forward to working with the incoming student trustee.
“I expect that the new student trustee and I will collaborate on issues while still pursuing our own areas of focus. For example, housing is an important issue for both undergraduate and graduate students, yet I may focus on improving housing in Collegetown, while the new student trustee may focus on improving on-campus graduate housing,” Duch said.
Cornell is one of the few universities in the country to include students on its Board of Trustees. Cornell’s Board of Trustees consists of 64 members, two of which are students — one graduate and one undergraduate elected directly by the student body to serve one two-year term.
As full-voting members of the Board of Trustees, student-elected trustees have significant responsibility to not only their fellow students, but also to the University as a whole, helping determine major policy directions and playing an important role in safeguarding the integrity of the University.