September 14, 2014

GUEST ROOM: A Soulless Egalitarianism

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In his final welcome address as Cornell’s President, David Skorton concludes with a prediction: “I am confident that Cornell will remain true to our founding principles and extend our impact as a world-class university with an egalitarian soul.”

Throughout the address, he paints the turmoil of our country as a contextual frame for Cornell’s own turmoil over the past year. Looking ahead, President Skorton proudly imagines the debates and difficult discussions that Cornellians will engage in over the coming semesters.

This optimism strikes a markedly different tone than that of his letter to the University Assembly Chair, quietly issued the day after students had left for the summer, in which he explains regretfully that he will not adhere to their unanimously passed resolution: “The University is currently not in a position to fund all needs and requests, as much as we believe in them or feel they are important. I cannot at this time find a way to subsidize TCAT beyond what we are already paying.” Setting aside the irony that his statement means that TCAT, in effect, is subsidizing Cornell for their transportation costs, we might do well to figure out exactly what he means.

When President Skorton says that he would like to fairly fund TCAT on principle, but can’t do so in practice, what does that mean? Ostensibly, a principle is one of our core values. Usually, a principle is understood to be a deeply internalized moral compass that guides our actions. At the end of the day, it is what we really believe. President Skorton, as his statement implies, really “believe[s] in” funding TCAT, and thinks it is important. Rather than funding TCAT, however, President Skorton decides to do the opposite. What kind of principle is this?

Our principles, here, lie in contrast to what we actually do, which is portrayed as some kind of inevitable compromise with reality, a deal that we make with our heart of hearts so our normal heart can keep beating. The implication is that the world would explode if we were to actually continually and consistently do what we believe is right. In this context, having principles doesn’t mean we end our complicity in the oppression of others, or even that we stop oppressing others ourselves, it just means we feel bad while continuing to do so. We feel dissonance between what we say we believe and what we do, and this expresses itself as patronizing guilt.

Perhaps we should think about principles and practices in a different way. The realm of principle and the world of practice are not actually distinct, bounded, autonomous worlds. They are co-dependent. In other words, every action has an implied principle, an implicit series of justifications and moral calculations that guide it. It is often not our principles from which we derive our practice, but our practice from which we can decipher our principles.

Using this rubric, we would no longer see the University’s refusal to fund TCAT as a reluctant, pragmatic solution for the time being. We would see it as what it is: a principled stand. However, instead of our principles being compassion, justice or some deeply buried “egalitarian soul,” our principles are something like profit, profit and public image, but only as it relates to profit. The Administration has revealed themselves as fundamentalists of the status quo.

In this sense, “cannot” is a fitting word for the University’s current predicament. “Cannot” is a word that evokes an immovable restraint, a counterforce that causes an inability to act. As if it were the force of gravity, this enormous, multi-billion dollar institution finds a few hundred thousand dollars to be an insurmountable obstacle. Meanwhile, the utterly unnecessary Klarman Hall project proceeds, hiding only the 2010 $285 million capital projects loan that made it possible. While this does not mean that Klarman Hall was directly funded by this loan, Cornell’s finances are not fixed, so when the University needs additional loans, it often can take out a loan. After years of unbridled expansion and large scale development powered by their incessant fundraising, the administration’s backhanded decision to not fully fund TCAT, justified through the banally evil word “cannot,” can only feel like a slap in the face.

For many of us, “cannot” is a word that we have been waiting for the University to use for some time. As in, Cornell University “cannot” financially and symbolically support a brutal occupation and the recurring bloody assaults on Gaza. As in, Cornell University “cannot” financially support the destruction of the climate. As in, Cornell University “cannot” oppress its workers and exploit the local community.

It is time that we find a new context entirely for the word “cannot.” As in, we “cannot” go on like this any longer. It is time that students take a principled stand for principles that are worth standing for: worker power, student self-governance and community control. Egalitarianism is not found in the soul; it’s found in the streets.

Daniel Marshall is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences.  He can be reached at [email protected].  Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

CLARIFICATION: This article originally stated that Klarman Hall was made possible by a $285 million capital projects loan made. Klarman Hall was not funded by this loan directly; it was funded through gifts and other funds.