March 11, 2013

GLICK: Far Beyond Cayuga’s Waters

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For a college newspaper, The Sun’s headlines are notably broad in scope: terms like “DREAM Act” or “divestment” may very well soon overtake “fraternity suspended” as the most commonly used phrase on the front page.

Cornell, of course, has a long and storied history of grassroots activism, as well as a long relationship to the broader political context of the day. From the moment the University’s lifeblood began to flow from the tip of Abraham Lincoln’s pen when he signed the Land Grant Act, Cornell has always had an intimate relationship with national issues. It has never been an ivory tower built to absorb the shockwaves of an ever-shifting world. It has moved with it.

Through two world wars, a burgeoning feminist movement, and — unforgettably — a civil rights movement that spurred the takeover of Willard Straight Hall, our University has led the charge into the future. The University’s forward-thinking involvement in national issues has always been the essence of Big Red: a clarion call, however imperfect or premature, to signal that a change is coming.

Earlier this year, however, a Sun editorial decried the University’s adoption of Kyoto NOW!’s divestment protocol. On its face, a University-wide effort to reduce fossil fuels would seem a fitting continuation of Cornell’s forward-looking legacy, as the University seeks to tackle an issue with which our society is only beginning to grapple.

So, why the opposition?

Much of the editorial’s concerns lie in the (perhaps uncomfortable) reality that it will not be Cornell’s student body ultimately making this decision, but the institutional power structure of the University. The same, perhaps, can be said of Cornell’s recent step into the limelight on immigration reform: President David Skorton’s personal support of reform has foisted the issue into campus dialogue, not vice versa. A similar situation can be found in Skorton’s call for gun control after the Newtown massacre last year.

In 2013, Cornell seems to be expressing its progressive tendencies as an institution, with reform efforts spearheaded by its administration in response to student pressure that is perhaps not as visible as the massive rallies on Ho Plaza characteristic of the rambunctious student movements for women’s rights and racial equality. I would, however, disagree with the claim that these top-down efforts at reform are inappropriate for or inconsistent with Cornell’s place as an historic university.

At the heart of this argument is whether or not the administration ought to be able to follow an “agenda” in pursuing a set of policies. The fact of the matter is that the issues now facing the University are too complex for student activism alone. Whether there is a groundswell of student support for an initiative (such as KyotoNOW!’s persistent advocacy of divestment) or whether there is not (I haven’t yet seen a rally in Ho Plaza in favor of an immigration bill), all these future-oriented policies require, in the end, major administrative action. Gone are the days when a massive student protest of the Vietnam War would send a message to the nation in and of itself. For Cornell to lead the way on issues like climate change and immigration reform, the administration — as well as student activists — must be allowed to push for change.

While it may have been enough for the University to “foster dialogue” on equal rights or social equality for the sake of enlightening its students, no amount of dialogue on the dangers of climate change will stop another Hurricane Sandy from destroying the NYC Tech Campus before it has even been completed. No number of discussion panels on immigration reform will keep talented but undocumented students at Cornell unless the administration acts aggressively on a national and University-wide scale to ensure that they can. The issues of the day require not only an intellectually accommodating administration, but a proactive institutional structure that is able to advance the goals it deems critical to the University’s future. Acting on divestment or undocumented students is not so much a baldly “political” act as much as it is a recognition that the status quo is not and has never been acceptable to Cornell’s fundamental values.

If, out of a fear of overstepping its bounds as a steadfastly “neutral” institution, the administration abdicates its role in discussing and addressing critical issues such as climate change, immigration, gun control and sexual violence, the University will lose its sacred and time-honored status as a major player in American progress. You see, Cornell has never been “neutral:” as with any great institution, it has had a stake in every major societal shift over the past century. Why should that role wane now, simply because this latest batch of issues requires administrative, rather than only student-led, action?

Coming from a tradition of passionate students and forward-thinking administrators, it is Cornell’s student body, perhaps, that is breaking their end of the bargain, rather than a supposedly overstepping administration. Aside from a select group of students, it is hard to see the University up in arms about anything aside the interminable sniping over the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. If we students rediscover our ability to ensnare and redirect the often-antediluvian political discourse of the nation, the bold and forward-thinking actions of our administration will seem less out of place.

Jacob Glick is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­[email protected] Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Glick