February 28, 2016

DANBERG BIGGS | Jackets Full of Geese

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That guy in the new pastel vest is probably paying part of my tuition. He wears nice boots, and jackets full of geese, but his parents paid for my breakfast this morning. And surely, he does not know how to salvage a pair of shoes with some scotch tape for a few months; I guess we can’t have it all.

Over the last few weeks, there have been some days when buildings with gilded names have looked down with cold stares. These are the days when I’ve looked at this man and wondered how comfortable he must feel in a classroom he paid to sit in. Of course, I have had as much to do with my classmate’s parent’s income as they do, so it’s perfectly arbitrary that they should be a full-paying student as opposed to myself. But this makes it no less meaningful.

Maybe he gets angry sometimes, and marches to protest the College of Business or a new fee. Or maybe he’s just content with the knowledge that he is an indispensable constituent. Regardless, his experience with the University is underwritten by a belief that it owes him something. Without all of the hims and hers that do the paying, there would be no University at all. So I wonder what his expectations are.

Most dissatisfaction with the University stems from expectation. At its most basic, a complaint comes from the belief that the University failed to consider a particular student perspective. Be it a health fee or a college merger, the source of discontent is the belief that the primary constituency, the student body, was not consulted, or that consultation was purely tokenistic (see: “Letter to the Editor: On Shared Governance”). In the case of the College of Business, a portion of the anger stems solely from the lack of consultation. In other instances, the understanding is that, if  students and faculty genuinely were consulted, the University would have found universal dissatisfaction and would have adjusted its plans. Often, though, it isn’t that the decisions that are made are necessarily bad but rather that we expected to be asked about them first. So the question is, as a student, what is it actually reasonable to expect?

One place to begin is the issue of stakeholders. In this respect, one would think that the students should have the strongest voice, as their everyday lives are shaped by the decisions of their university. This, I think, is the basis of a lot of the expectations that have developed.

It’s not quite complete, though. To the extent that a person’s degree determines their success as a graduate, Cornell alumni should probably be consulted as well. This surely is the opinion of Lee Bender and the countless alumni who troll The Sun’s comment section like an angry 14-year-old looking to release some angst. It’s not an entirely unreasonable thought to have: you pick a school for certain reasons, and if the school changes, so too does the meaning of your degree. Then, of course, there are faculty, staff and donors, all of whom see their future to some extent shaped by the actions of the University. It’s a complicated and messy constituency; one we should not expect to dominate.

Students also, admittedly, have an incredibly narrow realm of concern. The scope of our interest is generally limited to four years, meaning we’re unlikely to have the kind of perspective necessary for certain long-term decisions. There’s also expertise, which was noted in a letter last week written by R. Alex Coots grad. University administration and educational policy often requires graduate level degrees, and as long as it does, it’s just arrogant to think that there isn’t insight that an administrator might have that a student does not.

We should not make too much of this, though. True, these considerations mitigate the extent to which students can demand absolute authority, but that’s not really the point. University decisions craft the world in which its students live, and contribute largely to the way they form their current identity. Students are the most direct stakeholders and the only group of people that experience the University’s primary function, its education. It’s important that their experience be given the greatest weight when shaping policy, and that they be trusted to speak for themselves.

This, I think, is the crucial bit. Campus decisions may not always go the way the student body wants, and nobody should maintain that as their expectation — it may be that creating a College of Business is legitimately the best course of action. But there is an inherent harm to failing to actively, openly and publicly consider the student perspective, even if that perspective is not reflected in the final decision.

The troubling consequence of opaque and distant decision-making is that students come to believe that their University is not their own; that it is not a breathing body of which they are a part. Theirs is not a shared endeavor. Instead, at best, the University belongs to someone else. It belongs to the woman with the jacket full of geese. At worst, though, it’s just a cold apparatus with which you interact, existing entirely independent of your life. And this belief has tangible implications. It affects one’s quality of work, their emotional and mental wellbeing and their ability to truly engage with their surroundings. It also acts as a quiet censor of those who don’t believe that their experience matters, meaning we are less likely to hear those voices when we truly need to. So, I guess, open ears is my expectation.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.