April 13, 2010

Power of the Purse

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Last week, President David Skorton took on the difficult challenge of protecting freedom of speech while limiting discrimination in his response to Resolution 44 — the Student Assembly’s controversial anti-discrimination legislation. Skorton’s response stated that the University will continue to allow and recognize student groups that discriminate in their leadership policies, yet leaves to the S.A. formulation of rules regarding funding such organizations. While we commend Skorton for his tactful, yet fair, response to Resolution 44 and support his effort to enhance students’ jurisdiction and authority over financial and ethical issues on campus, some remain dissatisfied with Skorton’s response, believing either that it goes too far, or not far enough.

The existing University policy prohibits Independent Student Organizations from discriminating in their membership policies. Essentially, Resolution 44 extends this policy to leadership practices, but does not infringe upon an organization’s principles or ideological beliefs.

On the one hand, there are those who believe that by withholding funding for certain student groups, Resolution 44 violates the freedom of speech central to both our constitutional rights the principles of academia — regardless of a group’s discriminatory leadership practices. On the other hand, many think that Resolution 44 does not go far enough in curtailing discrimination on campus, as University recognition alone implicitly sanctions discrimination and affords these groups significant resources.

The S.A. — by definition — is the democratically elected undergraduate student government at Cornell. Though it operates under the authority of Skorton and Day Hall, “power of the purse,” (at least for distributing the Student Activity Fee) is inherent in the S.A.’s jurisdiction. If the S.A. is a democratically elected body, voted into office by students, it has the authority to set discretionary standards to decide which groups to fund. The S.A. cannot condemn a certain groups’ beliefs, but it can withhold SAF funding from them.

Similarly, on the national level, elected congressmen make decisions on what to fund and not fund every day, often based on personal value judgments. For example, one legislative body may choose to fund pro-choice organizations while another may prohibit funding for such groups. Neither Congress nor the President can eliminate an organization altogether based on its viewpoint, but it can legally choose to withhold funding.

However, it is important to recognize that, unlike Congress, Resolution 44 does not grant the S.A. the right to withhold funding from any group whose beliefs or ideology may be contrary to that of the S.A. Rather, both Resolution 44 and Skorton’s response apply exclusively to discrimination in leadership practices. Universities serve to foster the spread of ideas, even those that are extreme, offensive or discriminatory.

In light of this comparison, we support Skorton’s decision to grant the S.A. the authority to make such decisions regarding funding for student organizations with discriminatory leadership practices on behalf of the students it represents. Students — as voters — have the responsibility to make their voices heard by their elected student representatives and ensure that the S.A. follows the will of its constituents. Similarly, we encourage the S.A. to listen to its electorate and establish fair and appropriate criterion to determine what exactly merits discriminatory leadership practices.