Over the past week, the editors of The Sun have conducted in-depth interviews with all five of the candidates for the office of undergraduate student-elected trustee. After much consideration, The Sun has decided to withhold our endorsement. We do not take this decision lightly, and we want to share with you why we have declined to endorse any of the five candidates.
The student-elected trustee is a fully-vested member of the Board of Trustees; they must be comfortable working with, and arguing against when necessary, entrenched and powerful interests. A position of this gravity demands the most experience possible from those who would seek to occupy it. While Lauren Goldstein ’20 brought to her campaign unbridled enthusiasm and a willingness and capability to learn on the job, she lacks the leadership experience on campus and throughout her career that The Sun must see in any candidate we endorse. Furthermore, as a freshman, Miss Goldstein would have only slightly more than a semester of time at Cornell to draw upon as trustee. Although the student-elected trustee serves a two-year term, they must be prepared on their first day to represent (and so possess a deep understanding of) the entire student body, and one semester of experience is not enough time to gain that understanding.
The student-elected trustee is the singular representative of the 14,000-strong undergraduate student body. Caleb Sturman ’19 has lived his whole life in and around Cornell and is incredibly familiar with the inner machinations of the University, his father having served as an assistant dean in the School of Hotel Administration. Mr. Sturman is correct when he calls on the Board of Trustees to forego the short-term gratification of a positive press release for the long-term stability: he cited the mishandling of the College of Business rollout as an example of a Board too interested in positive press and rather than functionality. However, Mr. Sturman is asking the 14,000 undergraduates to trust him when he says that his extended time at Cornell gives him access to information and relationships unavailable to his competitors. It is impossible to verify that Mr. Sturman can use the connections he boasts of (and on which bases his campaign) to leverage his position on the board to advance the interests of students.
The job of the student-elected trustee is not an easy one, but Jimmy Putko ’19 has never bothered taking the easy path. As a freshman, Mr. Putko was both a member of Cornell’s varsity soccer team and enrolled in Navy ROTC. Mr. Putko’s time in ROTC has taught him how to work within the confines of a system to achieve one’s goals while not disrespecting authority, an invaluable skill when engaging with the Board of Trustees and the Cornell administration. Moreover, Mr. Putko would bring a much needed perspective to the Board of Trustees and to Cornell as a campus leader: he is truly an outsider, and has made it central to his campaign to reach out to portions of the Cornell community not usually involved in or even aware of student governance. Mr. Putko was genuine and spoke at length about his desire to engage directly with as much of the student body as possible, a mission much appreciated by The Sun. However, Mr. Putko appeared unfamiliar with many of the prominent issues facing Cornell today, especially the safety of undocumented students and the question of free speech as it relates to campus speakers. That being said, Mr. Putko is a capable leader and would serve well as a member of the Student Assembly.
The only candidate to present The Sun with a clear platform and outline of priorities was Olivia Corn ’19. Miss Corn’s top priority is making the Cornell campus a safer place for students — she proposes several initiatives to expand blue light services and increase awareness among students of existing campus safety resources, as well as an expansion of Gannett/Cornell Health to provide more emergency services and an increase in the number of gender neutral bathrooms across campus. The Sun wholeheartedly supports these initiatives and appreciates the specificity with which Miss Corn presented her ideas, a facet of her campaign that set her apart from her competitors. However, The Sun has serious reservations about whether Miss Corn is the appropriate candidate to advance those ideas. As the leader of a prominent campus organization, Miss Corn has shown an adeptness at generating controversy and argument, but less so unity and cooperation. As recently as last week, in the midst of her campaign to represent all 14,000 students, Miss Corn cited a Sun article on social media and included a caption intentionally and inaccurately impugning another prominent campus organization. While Miss Corn stated in our interview that the post was a mistake which she regrets and assured The Sun that her personal ideological leanings would not affect her decisions as trustee, actions like these, as well as dismissive comments on the renaming of the Cornell Botanic Gardens and the misreading of the Cornell community throughout last semester’s Rick Santorum debacle, call into question if Miss Corn can be a unifier on campus and on the Board of Trustees.
The final candidate, Dustin Liu ’19, has served in student government since he arrived at Cornell, as both Freshman Representative and LGBTQ Representative on the Student Assembly. He spoke at length about his commitment to “putting students at the table” and forging relationships between the trustees and the student body. Exceedingly personable, Mr. Liu discussed with us how he views the role of the student-elected trustee to represent Cornell as it is in reality to the often-detached board members. However, Mr. Liu did not present us with a platform, and despite repeated questions asking for specific policies or changes he would like to see enacted, he did not provide The Sun with a clear indication of what he stood for. Although Mr. Liu made clear his intention to establish continuous dialogue with a broad variety of campus organizations to remain appraised of the issues, he resisted staking out a position for himself. A student-elected trustee is the sole voice of the students on a 64-member board — it is essential that the trustee have a tangible plan to guide themselves. There is no opportunity during a trustee meeting to check back with a campus organization; the trustee must be able to stand alone. Moreover, it is impossible to hold accountable a trustee who has never voiced a commitment to a specific plan or policy. Putting students at the table is an admirable goal and one that The Sun can support, but it is not a platform.
All that being said, The Sun was pleased by the unanimity displayed among the candidates in regards to issues such as administration funding for campus organization security fees, graduate student unionization, defense of Cornell’s undocumented students and increased minority representation among Cornell faculty and administrative staff. While we are unable to offer our endorsement to any candidate this year, we hope that whomever is elected will serve with integrity and advance the interests of the student body in an effective manner.