May 3, 2011

Negating the Power Differential: A Call for a Student Bill of Rights

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A resident advisor barges into a student’s room without cause. A faculty member berates a student and tells him that his political views are all wrong.  A Student Assembly member brings forth a resolution banning a publication from using the “Cornell” name. A dedicated club member is denied a leadership position in a student organization because he is gay.

These incidents are all related. They all represent how a difference in power, whether between R.A. and resident, faculty and student, governing body and people, or club advisor and club member, regularly causes harm to the party with less power. The only way to negate this natural power differential is to come together, as students, and take a stand.

People assume that on college campuses, we naturally espouse a higher sense of morality; that justice comes into being automatically, that virtue is its own reward. The sad truth is that individual students have to create justice on college campuses. Students have to come together and say, “I am a member of the Cornell community, and as such, no one can infringe on my right to privacy, academic freedom, free expression, protest, publication, and all those other fundamental rights relevant to a University community.”

One way to attempt this noble aim, and to create a level of awareness of our rights as Cornell students, is to write our claims down. Sounds simple, I know, but a Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities could dramatically change the way we think about our relationship with the University. No longer will the Cornell student only think about his or her rights while sitting outside the judicial administrator’s office. No longer will the Cornell student blindly accept situations or behaviors that they perceive to be intrusions on their natural liberties. No longer will the Cornell student be victim to the natural power differential that occurs on college campuses.

If we, as students, took the time to educate ourselves and put together a statement that describes the extent of our rights, then perhaps we could defend ourselves in those situations where we feel powerless. We could speak with absolute confidence when we tell the R.A., the faculty member, the governing body and the club advisor that they are violating our rights. We could use our knowledge as a means to empower ourselves, and, as a result, we will be better equipped to exercise responsibility within the University community.

This Thursday, I will be presenting Resolution 79: Calling for a Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to be Promulgated to the Student Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Attached to the resolution will be a three-page document that I propose should be distributed to every incoming student during orientation. This document would serve as an articulation of the University’s commitment to recognize and support the rights of its students and would provide a guide for defining behaviors that the University considers inappropriate.

Some of the rights mentioned in the Statement may surprise you. For example, did you know that you have a right to control disclosure of your academic information? Did you know that you have a right to dissent in class without fear that you will be graded based on your views? Did you know that you have a right to be free from unreasonable searches within campus residences? The list goes on.

Now, some people may disagree with the resolution. They may say it is a waste of paper. That the 42-page Campus Code of Conduct is enough. That the Student Assembly should stay away from campus policy issues and focus more on the bread and butter issues such as club funding, campus dining, late-night programming and the like. What these people fail to understand is that a Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities is needed to make all these other activities more meaningful.

At Cornell University, life outside the classroom is an integral part of the educational process. I, myself, learned more about responsibility as a member of various student organizations than I did from listening to any lecture, and I am not alone. If we make an effort to raise the level of awareness of the extent of our rights and use this awareness to empower the powerless, then we could do a lot to help students exercise responsibility and develop as individuals and as citizens.

To further these objectives and in recognition of students as members of the Cornell community, I am asking the Student Assembly and the University adopt a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Hopefully, you will stand with me on this issue and urge the Student Assembly to vote “Yes” on Res. 79 Thursday at 4:45 p.m. in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall.

Andrew Brokman is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and an at-large representative on the Student Assembly. He may be reached at Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Andrew Brokman