October 6, 2013

OH: Investing in Town and Gown

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Last week, The Sun featured three articles concerning the relations between Cornell and Ithaca, generating strong reactions from both sides. In a battle over how much money Cornell should pay the University, one side argues that Ithaca is benefiting tremendously from Cornell in its job creations, spending power, and subsidized infrastructure. The other side retorts that local residents cannot keep up with ever-increasing cost of living that caters to wealthy Cornell students. Yet, the debate over how much an educational institution — particularly a tax-exempt non-profit institution — should contribute to its surrounding community has been an ongoing dispute for years. The extent of the history surrounding this issue, however, would shock most people.

The contention between an education institution and its locality, or simply “town and gown” goes all the way back to medieval Europe, where the higher learning of the Western civilization began. The language of the learned in the medieval period was Latin, while the common people spoke some version of Old English with varying degrees of similarities from Old Norse and Old French. Besides this linguistic barrier that hindered communication between these two groups, the young scholars hailing from other parts of the country often pursued a drastically different lifestyle than the local settlers.

The medieval universities, in large part, were also funded by the Catholic Church of Vatican, an organization exempt from compulsory levy obligation to the local municipality as well as civil authority and jurisdiction discipline. Unruly youngsters, with their strange language and culture, frequently clashed with the local people. At one point, the Pope himself and the King of England had to intervene and order municipal governments to reverse its harsh rulings against the scholars. The arbitration apparently wasn’t enough to assuage mutual despise, forcing some scholars of Oxford University to leave the town of Oxford and establish a brand new institution in Cambridgeshire, England.

Winding the clock forward some 800 years, here we are in a small city in upstate New York. No, we do not all speak different dialects, nor can we get away with legal offenses (well, except those closed-door meetings in Day Hall, perhaps), but we are still tax-exempt and our aloof, arrogant attitude has never gone away. We’ve claimed the Hill. We breathe the clean air and strain weekend ambulance demand with completely unintentional, unforeseen medical emergencies such as alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses. The ever-present construction on campus brings heavy trucks and machinery that clogs local traffic and increases road hazard. Collegetown on the weekends is a bustling public space where heated intellectual debates include dropping f-bombs outside of our local neighbors’ windows every five seconds.

Yet, Ithaca and Cornell should not be competitors, hungry to steal a penny from one another; we are partners. Cornell invests in Ithaca, and as a result, Ithaca becomes a safer, vibrant, more charming place.  This, in turn, makes life at Cornell more appealing — a campus’ surroundings are a significant factor in attracting prospective students and faculty. Students and professors have come to Cornell from University of Chicago, Duke University and Johns Hopkins University for the less than ideal living environments in South Chicago, Durham and Baltimore. Believe or not, there are even individuals who prefer quaint, small town of Ithaca over the cosmopolitan neighborhoods of Morning Heights next to Harlem.

We should be grateful that we don’t have to tab our student ID to enter a gated campus like Yale. Cornell libraries are open to everyone, both students and locals, which is made possible by Cornell’s generosity but also through Ithaca community’s cooperation. On the other hand, Butler Library at Columbia needs 6’5” security guards. Cornell students and native Ithacans alike should be thankful for what we have.

The Apple Festival and the Ithaca Art Trail this past weekend are perfect testaments to Ithaca’s charm and vibrancy. Ithaca is a dynamic community of its own that attracts artists, environmentalists and free thinkers. It is the fourth most popular destination for Cornell alumni after New York City, Washington D.C. and the Bay area. If a large number of us will remain in the area even after graduation, why not invest our time and financial resources into cultivating a greater sense of community? We can continue to fight with our main base or we can boldly invest in it, knowing the yield will far outweigh the cost.