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