Student Assembly President Jordan Berger ’17 opened Wednesday night’s restructuring forum by asking students to raise their hands if they thought the S.A. was representative in its current state. Not one single person raised a hand.
Berger explained that the forum was prompted by last year’s addition of a first-generation student representative. The S.A. fielded requests from other minority groups on campus for representatives of their own but ultimately decided to rework the assembly’s existing structure instead of tacking on more representatives.
“It doesn’t make sense to just keep arbitrarily adding seats until we have a conversation about the structure of the S.A.,” Berger said after the meeting.
At the forum, the S.A. responded to a litany of grievances from students concerned and frustrated with a governing body they called opaque, unaccountable and inegalitarian.
Some students called for representation of all minority groups on campus, regardless of size. Seamus Murphy ’16, president emeritus of Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association, said there were only 22 student veterans like him on campus, arguing that they should not be shunted aside simply because they make up less than a percentage point of Cornell’s overall population.
However, Weihong Rong ’18, College of Arts and Sciences representative and a Sun designer, asked where the S.A. would draw the line.
“Even if you actively seek out the marginalized groups on campus and areas that are of concern, you’re essentially trying to look for an exhaustive list — and you can’t find that exhaustive list,” he said. “This system ultimately isn’t able to accommodate every voice on campus.”
Other students disagreed, saying under-representation of marginalized groups remains the larger issue.
“A big concern that we’re all having is that we’re going to keep adding chairs, and it’s just going to get way too huge — I don’t really see that as a problem,” Ana Bordallo ’20 said. “As a Pacific Islander, I want to see more people like me come through here. I want to make sure they have a place here by the time I leave.”
David Gouldthorpe ’18 described economic barriers to the political process at Cornell. He said he works 15 hours a week at an on-campus job to help support his mother and younger brother, which is why does not have the time or money to run for a seat on S.A.
“A lot of people get a few hundred dollars wired to them by their parents every week, whereas I have to wire money home every month to help cover bills,” he said. “I don’t have a whole lot to spare for promo items. I don’t have a lot of time to do chalk drawings.”
Involvement in the political process at Cornell requires significant social capital, and popularity comes at a cost, Gouldthorpe said.
“I’m not as popular because I don’t go to these social events,” he said. “I can’t pay membership dues to fraternities or Greek life that help people with connections. It is by design that poorer students like me are shut out.”
Julia Montejo ’17, vice president of diversity and inclusion, acknowledged that the S.A. needs to do more to include low-income students in the political system, but she said it is difficult for representatives to step outside their personal experiences when making legislative decisions.
“If you’re not living a reality, it’s hard for you to sympathize with it,” she said. “You’re going to homogenize that reality when you talk about it.”
A number of students said they have little idea what the S.A. actually does and they have little to no contact with their college representatives.
Berger said representatives were required to reach out to their constituencies at least once a semester but admitted that this often happened at the end of the term, just before the deadline.
Students were visibly frustrated with a system they characterized as reactive, rather than proactive.
“We shouldn’t have to ‘get cozy’ with anyone,” Gouldthorpe said, in response to S.A. member Gabe Kaufman ’18 saying he should reach out to his representatives to “get cozy” with them.
Samir Durvasula ’17, a member of the S.A. diversity committee, said he noticed a “huge disillusionment with the S.A.” after talking to students. He added that he is not disillusioned with the S.A. himself, but the community’s grievances remain a concern.
“There’s a lot of people who are just angry or have no idea of what’s actually being done,” he said. “I think that’s something that really needs to be addressed.”