October 31, 2012

Looking Beyond the Bureaucracy

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The class of 2013 has seen a tragic, defining theme in each of our years at Cornell. Our freshman year saw a cluster of suicides, sophomore year untimely deaths of classmates, a string of bias incidents junior year and sexual assaults this fall. These incidents are frightening and often begin conversations throughout campus about reform and where to go from here. For the first time, though, I see more than just talk. I see action happening throughout campus across multiple spectrums. From the Assembly for Justice to the People’s School to the Student Assembly’s Illuminate the Night to Scorpions X — it’s happening. I don’t necessarily agree with each message or every means of communication. I am both happy and proud, though, that students are organizing themselves to take meaningful steps towards solutions in whichever ways they see most appropriate. We are beginning conversations, which up until now, happened mostly behind the closed doors of conference rooms or solely in the company of good friends.Though for those students that do not subscribe to one of the already established campaigns or organizations, the path to gain access to administrators is limited and unclear. From students, professors and alums, we often hear that “students are passive.” We don’t care about anything, apparently. But maybe that’s a result of the bureaucratic tangle that is this University. Maybe students just don’t know where to start, so their ideas or critiques die in their pre-natal states. Perhaps, if the University and its vast resources were more easily accessible, this campus would be a different place.Currently, no consistent, open forum exists to engage students. This is especially interesting to me because Cornell so often brands itself as an institution dedicated to public service. Just last week, the University produced a video entitled “Cornell’s Land-Grant Mission and the Spirit of Public Engagement.” The video features photos of Cornellians doing inspiring work throughout the world, which is exciting. But when looking inwards to our campus life, this mantra falls flat. Branding Cornell as a place committed to building communities and giving back seems far fetched on such a top-down, hierarchical campus.It seems this happens often. The University’s image of Cornell and reality are disconnected. The sentiments and the ideas presented are often positive and even motivational, but don’t translate into concrete action. In his most recent column, President Skorton wrote, “I invite input from the entire Cornell community.” Great! But, how? How are we engaging students?Due to our large size — 10 colleges and schools, 745 acres, over 20,000 students — this place can be hard to manage and even harder to navigate. Understandably, a long history of bureaucracy and “big red tape” makes it challenging for students to make their voices heard or turn ideas into realities. How are students practicing their civic responsibilities without the appropriate venue to do so?Let me clarify: There is some student involvement and interaction with Day Hall. However, those meetings are few and far between. And furthermore, they require titles: Student Assembly President, Panhellenic  President, senior Daily Sun Editors. By no means should these people be excluded. But the message we’re sending is a dangerous one. We are creating a community in which students must acquire titles to acquire relevance. We’re creating a divisive student culture where certain people have access and others don’t. We have, if you will, a select group of “campus leaders,” that absolutely deserve to be included in conversations, but should not be the only ones invited to the table.I see a large distance, a nearly impossible inertia, between the students that bring life to this campus and the administrators that shape the direction of the University. It’s not that I expect students to be consulted for every little decision. That’s infeasible. I am not suggesting that Vice President Murphy or Dean Hubbell guide students directly through their initiatives. But they have insight and knowledge to the University that nobody else does. When we, as students, get the opportunity to pick their brains about ideas we have, they can direct us to the appropriate resources. We leave every four (or so) years. The fleeting institutional memory of student organizations makes it difficult to pass on the knowledge one gains about “how things work” and “who can help you make things happen” without having a student or administrative mentor of sorts. The problem isn’t that we don’t have resources; it’s that we don’t know what they are or how to access them. We need administrators and staff members to play a fundamental “dot-connecting” and “people integrating” role.When we speak about creating a “caring community” or “changing campus culture,” these processes cannot persist successfully if lead by a select handful of voices. What makes someone a leader? What makes a student important or relevant enough to be invited to a meeting? Cornell is an endlessly complex place. We need to create more concrete, constant, accessible means of interaction between administrators and students.We need a consistent, structured, open forum through which we can express our ideas and thoughts about what is happening on this campus. Yes, the administration has hosted a number of themed meetings recently — about sexual assault, about bias and about safety. But these are reactive responses to crisis. What about a monthly “town hall” forum, where students could bring any concern to administrators and then be advised with whom to work with to move their ideas along? It doesn’t just have to be about emergencies or tragedies. It could be about academic concerns or extracurricular needs.As President Skorton expressed in a recent column, “Yet honest conversation pursued with openness, rigor, civility and a commitment to work together toward resolution, imperfect though it may be, is an essential step in building a more safe and caring community.” Where are these conversations happening? Who is being invited? Who isn’t? I invite you to ponder these questions and perhaps, to think about how we address “public engagement.”We are told we will be innovators, problem solvers, leaders. We can do it! “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Well, how? How do we expect students to leave Cornell feeling equipped and empowered if even within the University, we see the same systems of exclusion recreated?

Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture, and planning. She may be reacched at kathanasiou@cornellsun.com. Kat’s Cradle runs alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou