April 5, 2010

Assessing the Compromise

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It has been several weeks since talk of Resolution 44 — the Student Assembly’s contentious anti-discrimination legislation targeted at student organizations — stirred up emotions and dialogue across campus. President David Skorton’s response to the resolution, which he submitted to the S.A. yesterday, will re-ignite those opinions and introduces several fresh angles to the debate.

The crux of Skorton’s response is his stance on organizations that discriminate in their leadership practices. The University, Skorton maintains, will continue to allow and recognize groups that discriminate in their leadership policies. However, Skorton allowed the S.A. to reconsider its rules regarding funding organizations — the S.A. could modify its requirements for a group to receive Student Activity Fee funding, and mandate that organizations seeking SAF funding not discriminate in their leadership practices. As Skorton lays out in his response, “student religious organizations that choose not to comply with the sexual orientation provision would not be eligible for SAF funding, but would nevertheless continue to have access to university space and services as a recognized [independent organization.]”

The key distinction here is not a matter of funding the groups (if they do not discriminate in leadership positions) or not funding them (if they do discriminate). By offering University recognition, Skorton is also offering the tangible benefits of recognition, such as office space in Willard Straight Hall, use of University property and resources and the ability to fundraise on campus. University recognition does not entail direct funding, but it is clear that such recognition involves a transfer of significant resources from the University to the student group.

Skorton is saying that the University is committed to providing every group, including those that discriminate, with its fair share of First Amendment rights. The marketplace of ideas at Cornell, in other words, will remain open for business. But, Skorton is allowing for the possibility that, in such a marketplace, some vendors selling outdated, unpopular ideas may go out of business due to restrictions on SAF funding.

The proposed standards cover a variety of issues other than homosexual leaders in Christian organizations. The ability (or lack thereof) to discriminate when choosing leaders is an issue that transcends individual situations and conflicts, and is a valid procedural stipulation for the S.A. — in its role as student government and financier of organizations — to require of student organizations.

By allowing the S.A. to reform its practices and withhold funding from discriminatory groups, Skorton is admirably staying true to the guiding principles behind the SAF — that students should be the ones to distribute student money. If students decide — through the appropriate processes of representative democracy — that they do not wish to fund organizations that discriminate in choosing leaders, then they should have the right to withhold student funding from such groups. Skorton is reaffirming this right. Skorton’s proposed changes to Resolution 44 maintain the University’s commitment to promoting and encouraging free speech and freedom of association through the use of University resources. However, the changes acknowledge that student funding should be allocated by students — an admission that may very well lead to funding being withheld from organizations that discriminate based on leadership.

The implications of his response indicate that Skorton sympathizes with the broader goal of Resolution 44: to decrease discrimination. He keeps one foot in the door by re-committing the University to support of all ideas, including those of discriminatory groups. However, he does not mandate that the students continue using their funds to support groups they do not approve of. His response is a reasonable compromise between the University’s duty to provide a open forum for all ideas and the student’s forceful disapproval of discrimination in all levels of campus life. One wonders if this compromise, mutually amicable as it is, is a missed opportunity for true social change.