November 30, 2015

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | What Does Cornell Owe Us?

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By ANNIE O’TOOLE

Universities are laboratories for ideas, scholarship and discovery. A university’s academic mission is its top priority. At the heart of that academic mission is teaching students to become the next generation of thought leaders. But when students pay tuition and decide to attend a University, they expect more from the institution than just what they receive in the classroom. How much “extra” should the university be expected to provide?

There is such a thing as too much involvement in students’ lives. When our parents and grandparents were in college, the in loco parentis doctrine applied. Universities could interfere with students’ personal lives and repress what they considered immoral behavior. They routinely imposed curfews, regulated relationships between women and men and restricted free speech.

This doctrine has fallen out of favor, and I don’t think many people wish to return to it. Yet, we do expect our University to have an impact on our students’ lives outside of the classroom.

We expect tangible infrastructure and amenities — housing, dining, transportation, health services, physical fitness centers, student centers and libraries. We expect a rich community experience — student organizations, resource centers, Greek life, speakers and the arts. We expect a positive campus culture and climate — thoughtfulness, respect, opportunities for speech and expression, acceptance and kindness.

Still, the debate on college campuses and news outlets throughout the country has drawn increased scrutiny to the question: What does our institution owe us?

How much can Cornell dictate what our students, faculty and staff, think or say? How much should Cornell dictate what we think or say? What is healthy disagreement and challenging one’s own thoughts and beliefs, which should be encouraged? What is hateful speech that should be condemned? Where is the line? Around that line, how can we and how should we stamp out the undercurrent of ignorance and judgment that runs through our campus?

These are not easy questions to answer. But in taking on the responsibility to provide an educational experience that shapes both our minds and our lives, Cornell owes it to us to work towards answering these questions.

We are right to expect infrastructure and amenities, a rich community experience and a positive campus culture and climate. Cornell is our home, our community and our cultural sphere.

But when we think about what Cornell owes us, “Cornell” does not just mean the administration. The responsibility for answering these difficult questions does not lie with a single actor. The administration is responsible for enforcing the Campus Code of Conduct when bias incidents occur. But we cannot reduce the frequency of these occurrences without grassroots change.

Cornell is all of us: It is the administration, students, faculty and staff.

We must work together to confront the aspects of our campus culture that range from uncomfortable to hateful. We are all part of the Cornell community, and our climate will not change unless every corner of the community takes ownership over tackling these challenges.

Annie O’Toole is the graduate student-elected trustee. She can be reached a  anniedotoole@gmail.com. Trustee Viewpoint appears on alternate Tuesdays this semester.