March 31, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | They Are Not With You, Not Really

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Over the last several months, Cornell has suspended need-blind admissions for international students and considered doing the same for transfer applicants. More recently it has taken clear steps to actively dissuade its graduate students from forming a union, a clear violation of an agreement signed last May. For non-affluent students, rising tuition has made attending the University increasingly challenging and for some completely impossible. The point is, much as I do love this school, in many important ways attending Cornell is more like a hitchhiked ride than a chartered flight. Perhaps we are going to the same place — I would like a degree, and in general terms the University would like a student to have one, a student that might as well be me. Yet our relationship is exactly that incidental. To the extent that our interests align, the University is surely a blessing, but the moment they come at odds, our mutual relationship ends. Cornell’s solidarity is limited to its interests. By way of explanation, I would like to begin with a gaggle of teenaged window shoppers.

Cornell, the salesman, is always a force of nature. As the weather improves, teens and parents filter onto campus ready to believe the gentle suggestion that this is the typical climate. Then, with infomercial polish, tour guides backpedal across campus touting rose-colored trivia and administrators pack auditoriums to hock the Cornell Experience like it’s a bootleg DVD. On face, it’s a college trying to demonstrate the opportunities it offers, but just beneath the surface are the churning gears of a very big commercial enterprise trying to sell itself. In order to continue attracting the number of applicants it needs to sustain itself as a multi-billion dollar operation, the University has to be a business.

As a current student though, that reminder is always a little jarring. This is not because Cornell should not sell its brand — it probably should — but it is easy to forget that Cornell is not a purely academic institution. With a sprawling capital budget that includes investment in both fixed capital development and campus expansion, Cornell has a widespread interests far beyond its original scope. And the University seems to get that its job isn’t just to educate. For evidence, look no further than to its Board of Trustees, a group whose only meaningful qualifications for educational leadership are as shrewd financiers. In sum, Day Hall seems to believe its responsibility is to juggle a variety of competing goals, only one of which is the education of its current students.

The problem for students lies in the juggling of those goals. When the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group considered whether to introduce need aware admissions, they did so with the intent to balance a wide and complex budget. This may not apply to the individual members of the AFAWG, but certainly does to the broader institution in which they operate. They don’t sit around a table while staring at a copy of Cornell’s motto trying to figure out how to best offer any student any study. They instead  operate within the framework of an institution that is trying to do much more than just bring students to campus. The same motivations are clear in Dean Knuth’s involvement in the lead-up to union election on Monday. Her institutional role is to preserve a budget that has far-reaching obligations; in this case, her role was not to represent Cornell’s graduate students.

Crucially, though, I am not sure that any of these motivations are wrong; rather the problem is in the asymmetry. In reality, the University is truly both things. To its instructional staff, Cornell is an educator; to its administration, it’s a business. The problem is that students are never allowed to play the same dual role.

As a student, I know Cornell through its professors and students, that is, as an academic body. Thus for three years I have been inclined to see myself purely as a student, occupying a unique space in the world. We are neither meant to be consumers receiving a product nor workers producing a service; rather we are dedicated to this altruistic task of education and self-improvement. Hand-wringing universities push the narrative that students should never treat their education like a transaction. So while important parts of the University operate with the mindset of a business, we often think ourselves just lucky to attend, and submit to whatever is asked.

The consequence is that we rarely ask for things we should. University policy may sometimes be beneficial, but it is not often challenged in any meaningful way. If students were to view rising tuition as an excessive price hike on a good they were purchasing, or need-aware admissions as unfair price discrimination, perhaps we would be better equipped to sustain a long-term opposition to these types of policies. Perhaps if graduate students were encouraged to view themselves both as workers and students, rather than being suppressed in their non-educational role, they would be more inclined to push the University to value their labor differently. Remember that the people who lose out are those who needed solidarity the most to begin with. As long as part of the University treats its students as agents in a transaction, we cannot act as though our only role is to play the student. I do not fault Cornell for being a business; I do fault myself for failing to act like it is.