February 17, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Cornell is not a Democracy

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To the Editor:

Recent university policy changes have caused a rift between students and university administrators. Disagreements over student health fees, the formation of the College of Business and non-renewable energy divestment have provoked criticism from students, putting University administrators on the defensive. It seems that students need to be reminded that they do not direct University affairs, and students do not need to be consulted when these types of decisions are made.

Not to downplay the student perspective, but it’s mostly important for recruitment. Prospective students look at financial aid packages, future job prospects and university rank when shopping for a college. These potential students probably aren’t thinking about the university procedures for new college formation. As an exercise to the undergraduate reader, did you research Cornell’s investment portfolio to ensure Cornell was divested from fossil fuels when you considered your college application? How about a thorough review of the Student Assembly’s policies and powers to make sure you agreed with them before applying? Once prospective students begin to care about these issues, then you’ll see Cornell weigh the student perspective more heavily.

After a student has enrolled, the student perspective loses importance, mainly because of its predictability and singular point of view. Take the student health fee for example. It is of little utility for administrators to solicit the student opinion if they already know what it’s going to be. Of course students will complain about a mandatory health fee or increased tuition costs, much in the same way that they’d complain about more testing or lengthier homework assignments. Additionally, it’s highly unlikely that students have a thorough understanding of the overall complexity that is higher education administration. Cornell has over 100 academic departments spread across 14 colleges, filled with nearly 10,000 faculty and staff teaching some 4,000 courses. It’s easy to imagine how each of these people, departments and colleges will have different agendas and thoughts about how Cornell should be run. And that’s not including alumni, the Board of Trustees or other stakeholders.

I’d encourage students to remember that they picked Cornell because of what it offers them, not because they thought they could change it. Students need to trust that University administrators really are trying to improve Cornell for the better. To be sure, mistakes will certainly be made along the way. Excluding the Faculty Senate from the new College of Business formation decision-making process was an avoidable error, however this should be attributed to a misstep rather than a deliberate attempt to circumvent faculty powers. Cornell administrators might not always make the right decisions, but we should understand that they have student interests at heart.

R. Alex Coots grad

  • Cornell Alum 2012

    Easily the best article the Sun has published (ever?)!!

    • You sit on a throne of lies. 😛

  • Cornell Staff Member

    Your article makes sense when the university-student relationship is viewed as a parent-child relationship, but although students are often young, they are not to be viewed as children. They are customers. They are informed consumers who choose where to spend their money and how to devote their time. If the university downplays the power and importance of its customer base it will lose business, degrade its reputation, and ultimately hurt itself.

  • Rashid

    Arrogant let them eat cake type of response. The equivalent of “be good children and let the grown ups decide”. And tell your parents to keep those tuition payments coming. The students are the customers, Paying customers at that. They have a right to dissent. The arrogance of this ether defies belief.

    • Student

      Students do have the right to dissent as customers. But like any customer, they can decide to continue to pay for a good or service, or not pay and not receive said good or service. Students can try to enact change all they want and if it works, that’s great. But the administration makes decisions based off not only the students they mostly cater to, but to the health and future of the many variables that go into making a world class institution function to its highest potential. As students, we are not privy to the inner workings of the administration and how the many complexities the article refers to work together. Just like how a customer isn’t privy to the inner workings of any company they choose to do business with. Cornell’s administration makes many decisions every single day. Some executed flawlessly and some riddled with mistakes. Some are popular and go unnoticed and the ones that are unpopular at the surface grab our attention. Student dissent is admirable, should continue, and may have some influence, but being aware of this relationship with the university, which is the point of the article, is important.

  • 2015 Grad

    While your point about students not caring about these issues such as the investment portfolio or Student Assembly powers prior to applying to Cornell is probably true, I would argue they did do other pertinent research just from different perspectives in two issues that you actually point to yourself – one of rank and one of finances

    To present two examples: They definitely did care prior to applying that the Hotel School that it would remain as it has been since its inception. Enveloping it into a wider college was not what they had been promised – they had been promised the #1 Hospitality School in the world with all its independence and current exemplary structure. They also probably did research if there was a fee on not enrolling in the University health insurance when deciding if they could afford all the possible finances involved with this college. Should not these pre-applying perspectives be as respected?

  • Guillermo A., an alum

    What’s wrong with students having an opinion about the environment they live in and care about? Isn’t that part of education, forming discerning minds capable of having an intelligent opinion and willing to voice it? One would think that we should all have a voice in those issues that affect us. And who can be a better judge of what affects each person than that person him or herself? To have students get involved seems to me to be a good thing. Why try to stifle or belittle this? It’s not only about being a customer, or an appropriate representative. It’s about caring.