November 8, 2015

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Cornell University: Perpetuating Bad Common Sense

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To the Editor:

Ideally, a college education should teach students an important skill that, in my experience, no longer seems to be a concern in secondary education: critically questioning received ideas and “common sense.” Yet even this “common sense” idea that universities merely “teach skills” excludes the university’s (disappearing) role in making future leaders reflect critically on their relationships to institutions, fellow citizens and the world. Two recent incidents on campus suggest that undergraduates — in their shared governance roles, at least — are learning not to think about their responsibilities to others. Instead, they are encouraged to enforce and perpetuate received ideas that are destructive in our university community and beyond.

The first incident involves a report in The Cornell Progressive suggesting that the Student Assembly Finance Commission worked with Gina Giambattista (Director of the Office of Assemblies) to create a confidentiality policy ex post facto to seal the SAFC’s records from a student organization’s appeal. According to The Progressive, Big Red Bikes lost its funding after missing an “arbitrary” filing deadline set by the SAFC when they failed to release application materials on time. If The Progressive’s allegations are true, undergraduates should be outraged that student leaders managing their activity fees believe that they can cite policies of confidentiality fabricated for the face-saving convenience of the SAFC. Moreover, if Ms. Giambattista colluded with the SAFC, this is indicative of a corporate administrative culture at Cornell that encourages student leaders in their improper behavior. The message being conveyed is, ‘If you are in a position of control over resource allocation, and you do something despicable, don’t worry about it: People in power stick together and protect one another.’

Unethical institutional corporatism is nothing new for university administrators and leaders in student governance on this campus. Another illustrative incident involves the Student Assembly Appropriations Committee’s initial reaction to Cornell Cinema’s request for additional funding. According to a report in The Cornell Daily Sun, the SAAC recommended rejecting the request on the basis that Cornell Cinema should find a way “to reduce costs by … more selectively showing screenings, reducing the number of days that Cornell Cinema is open or … alternative mechanisms.” The statement sounds more like something from a group of shareholders to a corporate board of directors than from a student governance body to a wildly popular, student-run cultural institution. As a community, we should be alarmed when students uncritically repeat the jargon of Wall Street executives in a situation as bland as routine distribution of fee monies for on-campus programming. How will these students behave when they ultimately have power over allocation of resources after their time at Cornell?

In the latter case, the broader Student Assembly voted against the SAAC’s recommendation. It remains unclear, however, whether student leaders know that they can and should question the common-sense application of profit maximization strategies to every realm of life. Questioning those underlying terms of these debates is necessary to end inequitable exclusion from resources in our community and beyond.

Alex Brown grad