April 25, 2010

A Lost Opportunity for Discussion

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On Friday afternoon, one of the top-ranking and highest profile officers in the United States Armed Forces was on Cornell’s campus. General David Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command and a finalist for Time’s Person of the Year in 2007, met with ROTC cadets at an annual awards ceremony. He gave a speech to graduating cadets and met with faculty from the peace studies program for a question and answer session.

We fully support the private nature of the ROTC ceremony. These hard working men and women have earned the chance to engage with a leader in their field in a dignified, respectful setting. We fail to understand, however, why the peace studies faculty was trusted with the opportunity to meet and question Petraeus while the student body and Ithaca community were not.

According to ROTC leadership, the time and place of events were not disclosed due to security concerns. In addition, the events were not publicized since the visit was not confirmed until two days prior to Petraeus’ arrival. Security concerns, if valid, are a legitimate reason to keep private some details of a visitor’s itinerary — students should not be privy to the hotel room number of a leader of the United States military. And if a specific security threat arises, the University and the involved parties should obviously take appropriate measures to ensure the visitor’s safety.

We find dubious the claim about security concerns surrounding Petraeus’ visit. Distinguished and controversial leaders from the Dalai Lama to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have recently visited East Hill. These leaders met with students and faculty in a variety of settings for candid academic inquiries. That model of open dialogue is the hallmark of a university. The secrecy surrounding Petraeus’s visit seems like a way for the University to bring a high-profile guest to campus without stirring up the Cornell and Ithaca communities.

If, on the other hand, Petraeus himself refused an open forum with students, we question his purposes for visiting an American university. The visit on Friday was not a campaign stop, and even if it was, the academic environment is not the place for such a stifling lack of debate. Cornell should have set the terms of the visit in accordance with the principles of an academic institution, and not allowed itself to be used as a photo-op, courtesy of the University’s public relations office.

Even under the constricted timeline, Cornell should have announced the visit on the school website and informed professors and students by e-mail. ROTC and especially peace studies should have organized an open discussion, where the former leader of American warfare in the Middle East could inspire students and address criticisms. Instead, we found closed doors.

Now that Petraeus has come and gone, we wonder which other world-changing leaders might have stepped unnoticed onto East Hill recently.