October 7, 2013

GLICK: Imperfect Unions: What the Cornell-Ithaca Partnership Can Teach Congress

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The relationship between Cornell University and the City of Ithaca, if not quite at its nadir, is nowhere near its full potential. When City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 recently slammed the tax-exempt University’s paltry contributions to the municipal coffers, the University swiped back with its usual refrain: Ithaca would be incontrovertibly damaged if Cornell did not provide a constant stimulus. This rationale, though surely tainted by an undercurrent of Ivy League pomposity, is not untrue. Likewise, the mayor’s contention that the University does not do enough to support Ithaca is not entirely unfounded. In short, neither side monopolizes the facts.

I was planning on writing a column in which I took a definitive stance on the issue: Perhaps, calling on President David Skorton to balloon Cornell’s donation to Ithaca so that it more closely resembles Yale’s $8 million yearly endowment to New Haven. Perhaps, if my logic were to swing me in the opposite direction, I would have exhorted Mayor Myrick to appreciate the magnitude of the implicit financial contributions that the University makes to Ithaca with each passing Parents’ Weekend. However, I realized that while it was my instinct to make this rhetorical scuffle into a grandiose battle between Myrick and Skorton, Ithacan and Cornellian, such a dichotomous approach was inappropriate.

Despite Myrick’s remarks on the “shameful” lack of Cornell contributions to the city, and the University’s understandably robust response that slammed the mayor’s “counterproductive” public demands, the University still plans to increase its donation to Ithaca by about $20,000 (small, yes, but still an increase). There has been no sudden revocation of University funds to Ithaca, nor has Ithaca’s new budget included an attempt to curb the use (and abuse) of the municipal TCAT system by drunken Cornellians. There is no sign that the Ithaca Police Department will lessen its coordination with their counterparts on campus, nor any other sign of a diminished institutional bond.

There has, in short, been no shutdown.

As I tried to formulate a stance on the Cornell-Ithaca showdown, the most salient conclusion I stumbled upon was that it was not a showdown at all. The two parties, though they continue to disagree on substantive and impactful budgetary issues, have not shattered the social contract that has governed their relationship for decades. There have been harsh words exchanged (it’s politics, after all), but there has been no hint — by Cornell or by Ithaca — that this disagreement is a dealbreaker. The lack of brinksmanship in this admittedly-lower stakes budget battle brought me back to the resoundingly idiotic stalemate that has paralyzed the federal government of the United States of America.

At the core of this shutdown is a motley crew of about 30 House Republicans: Tea Partying lunatics who have hijacked control of John Boehner’s asylum and who now exert an undue amount of leverage over their exasperatedly orange Speaker. The crux of the Tea Party’s argument revolves around a withdrawal from the modern American social contract; it seeks to mangle the long-established coordination between the maligned federal government and its state counterparts. Tea Party members of the House have seized upon a genuine, legislative disagreement over the Affordable Care Act (never mind that this is a battle they have already lost) and made it an excuse to blow up the carefully maintained relationships between the federal government, state governments and the American public. Make no mistake: The specter of “Obamacare” is only the means to a much broader and far more radical end.

As Congress seeks to remedy this shutdown situation before a United States default shatters the global economy, frustrated Republican leaders — those who have not given up on a basic preservation of our social contract — can learn from the recent squabble between Cornell and Ithaca. The University and the City essentially operate on two different infrastructural grids; aside from the TCAT, Cornell utilizes its own security and emergency response forces, undergoes its own maintenance, funds itself through entirely different sources and answers to entirely different authorities. Yet, as Don Oh ’14 eloquently stated in his Sun column yesterday, there is a storied, mutually beneficial relationship that belies the undeniable independence of these two entities. Cornell and Ithaca work better when they are united than when they are solely self-reliant. To admit that is not to diminish either institution; it is only to acknowledge the basic truth that human governance is not easily accomplished without coordination. That is what Congress must remember.

No inter-institutional relationship will be perfect, whether it is between Cornell and Ithaca, Congress and the White House, or the federal government and its counterparts in the states. But substantive disagreements on the nature of these governmental relationships should not negate the fact that these relationships exist for a reason. President Skorton and Mayor Myrick have shown themselves to be exemplars of level-headed governance, in which the nature of financial and institutional dynamics can be parsed, debated and tweaked without disabling the very government that our leaders are, presumably, trying to improve. We cannot delay the work of the people — in Ithaca or in the nation at large — until our unions are all perfected; perfection, after all, is not something easily achieved.