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April 3, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Looking beyond graduate student unionization

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To the editor:

Five months ago, I wrote a letter to the editor arguing that President Rawlings’s email to the community against graduate student unionization “sets a dangerous precedent for using the Office to meddle in the internal affairs of students.” With the Sun’s article “Cornell, Union File Grievances on Opening Day of Voting” it seems my thesis has been vindicated: university administrators have been violating the spirit, if not the letter, of restrictions on them. This is not unique to graduate student unionization, but rather another example of the University prioritizing power and image over students’ voices. In my four years here, I have seen a University more than willing to throw its students, faculty, and staff under the bus.


Two years ago in snowy conditions, a Cornell staff member was struck and killed by a TCAT bus. Two days prior, a student was hit and killed by a car. Despite these deaths, the University did not view the conditions as dangerous enough to close. A month later, daytime temperatures fell below -30F. Instead of canceling classes, a CornellALERT message advised: “cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extreme cold”. Two deaths and lung frostbite were not enough to outweigh Cornell’s “pride in its lack of snow days” as DongYeon (Margaret) Lee recently wrote for the Sun. They closed two weeks ago not for our safety, but because the Sheriff closed the roads. The administration only acts when its hand is forced.

Take, for instance our “shared governance” system. The first assembly was created in 1970 as a concession to the black students and faculty who took over Williard Straight Hall after the university failed to address issues of racism such as a burning cross in front of Wari Coop. The University’s antipathy to the voices of Cornellians has only grown since. All four assemblies and the Faculty Senate have passed resolutions calling on the University to divest from fossil fuels. The Board of Trustees, in response, voted against divestment. In establishing the College of Business, the University ignored faculty and students. The Faculty Senate unanimously passed a resolution; in its entirety: “Resolved, that the University Trustees table consideration of the creation of the College of Business until the Faculty Senate can deliberate on the proposal.” The Trustees did not. Article XIII sec. 2 of the University Bylaws states: “The functions of the University Faculty shall be to consider questions of educational policy which concern more than one college, school or separate academic unit…” The Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking then-President Garrett to comply and consult with them before creating the college. She said no. The last thing the University wants is open debate and free thought.

Which brings us back to the University’s petty tyranny du jour: graduate student unionization. CGSU is not perfect, and I know many graduate students with legitimate grievances against them. But CGSU’s actions are isolated to this particular debate while the University’s actions are situated in a much larger history of undermining student decisions. Comparing CGSU’s actions to that of the University is a false equivalence. Consider Senior Vice Provost Barbara Knuth’s response to Paul Berry grad: “Your series of emails implying the graduate school does not do what we advertise we do for Ask a Dean is bordering on paranoia … Have you tried yoga or meditation?” Knuth’s trivialization of mental illness aside — in light of the University violating its bylaws, ignoring its shared governance bodies, and its callous indifference to the safety of the Cornell Community, Knuth has the gall to say the idea that Cornell would renege on its promises is “paranoia.” Then, to make sure no shred of professionalism remains in her email, she pettily echoes Berry’s original quip.

Cornell graduate students are asking for health insurance, for worker’s comp, for grievance processes, and are being met with contempt from the administrators who call it too expensive while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary per year. The median income for a Vice Provost such as Knuth is $149,591; Cornell’s president in 2014 (last year available) had a base pay of $872,800 ($1,618,328 including bonuses); Cornell graduate stipends are $25,780. Need-blind admissions for international students was the most recent “too expensive” and there will be more to come. Luckily, abandoning “any person, any study” is free.

The common refrain to these critiques is that we just don’t understand the complexities of University administration. This to the top minds in the world all while they try to avoid consulting us so that we can understand. From the University only establishing the University Assembly after students took over a building to the University ignoring the “shared” governance system; from Rawlings’ letter 5 months ago to Knuth using the Ask a Dean service to circumvent the stipulation of one University communication outlining its position; the contempt for transparency and public discourse by the University is obvious. They argue that our current financial straights are due to mismanagement during the 2008 recession, yet seem to think that the very policies of hubris and secrecy that led to our financial woes will get us out of it.

The row over graduate student unionization is just the University doing what it always has done. They have traded our safety for their pride; ignored their bylaws for expediency; subverted “any person, any study” for a quick buck; ignored the recommendations of Cornellians and refused to consult the best and brightest minds in their midst. All this just to play tyrant. They have already and they will again. The administration treats its interests as in competition with the interests of faculty, staff, and students. But our interests and the interests of the University are one in the same. Cornell’s success has come from collaboration, not petty tyranny. Rawlings, Knuth and their ilk are no Ezra, White or McGraw. They are Richard III, screaming not “any person, any study,” but our new motto: “my university for a horse.”


Christian Brickhouse ’17

  • grad

    So many things wrong here. Grads have health insurance, worker’s compensation, and a pretty good grievance process that actually gives equal voice to students and faculty in the final review board. Also, the average stipend is actually closer to $30,000. It makes no sense to compare that salary directly with the president, as one presumably has much more experience than the other. I don’t know about bonuses, but the base salary ratio of 27 is not terrible though it could be better. Also, that letter from Rawlings was not the university “meddling” in the election, it was the one sanctioned communication allowed in the agreement even if CGSU tried to paint it as an out of the blue thing. Fun fact, CGSU was shown that letter and allowed to comment ahead of time.

    Not saying the administration is beyond reproach, you are spot on with their snow day policy and yes some of their tactics were borderline in the election. But it is a far cry from the authoritarian beast this article tries to portray them as.

    Oh, and saying the administration is authoritarian while also pining for the poor defenseless faculty is a joke. The faculty are the real tyrants here. The college of business was great exactly because it angered them so much. Every bit of sovereignty taken away from faculty is a step in the right direction.

    • Christian Brickhouse

      Are you really a grad student here, because you seem to be having a difficult time analyzing an argument and forming a coherent response. ” It makes no sense to compare that salary directly with the president, as one presumably has much more experience than the other.” You clearly didn’t understand the comparison being made here. The line before the line you criticize: “Cornell graduate students are […] being met with contempt from the administrators who call it too expensive while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary per year.”
      “Also, that letter from Rawlings was not the university “meddling” in the election, it was the one sanctioned communication allowed in the agreement even if CGSU tried to paint it as an out of the blue thing.” Firstly, it WAS out of the blue for undergraduates like me and was inappropriate because it did not concern us. Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they should. If only there was a letter to the editor that talked about this. Also, according to the agreement, while CGSU was allowed to comment on the draft, Cornell didn’t have to listen to any of their concerns and “shall be permitted to distribute the letter as it sees fit”. So I’m not sure what your fun fact accomplishes. Cool, CGSU got to see the letter. So what?

      You say “[The administration] is a far cry from the authoritarian beast this article tries to portray them as” but then say “Every bit of sovereignty taken away from faculty is a step in the right direction.” So you applaud them for being authoritarian but then say they aren’t authoritarian. I mean, for someone who doesn’t seem to grasp that my issue isn’t “defenseless faculty” but the University violating its bylaws and reneging on agreements it made with Cornellians, I guess the logical inconsistency makes sense.

      • grad

        So, you’re saying the administration should have rolled over and not said anything against CGSU ever? You seem to be joining in with the hardliners who opposed any dissent to CGSU from any source, even other grad students. You’ll notice that CGSU lost the election and that many graduate students spoke out against them. Plenty of coverage in the Sun on the whole issue from both sides. The administration was allowed one blatant statement against the union, they took it, they should have taken it. They also should have respected the agreement afterwards, you’re right to question those tactics. As for the impact on undergraduates, this was primarily a graduate student issue. Yes, there were implications for undergrads. Yes, the administration wrongly tried to say there would be none later on. And the letter itself was pretty bad, and I have no idea why it was sent to the entire campus when there are plenty of graduate student only list serves. But the letter was perfectly allowed and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise.

        And throwing out two numbers back to back is meant to draw a comparison, which I found wrong to use in this case. A better comparison would be against post docs, or adjunct faculty. Of course, in either case there is the fact that grads don’t pay tuition, so still not a great comparison. We are paid far better than many other universities, and about average for a school of our caliber. And yes, administrators make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but at the end of the day, those highest paid admins only account for a drop in the bucket. This university has people from all sides asking for more, from falling apart dorms to better grad or other worker benefits, to more funding lines for better faculty. So yes, each and every request for more money has to be carefully weighed.

        I’m not applauding them for being authoritarian, I’m applauding them for diminishing the role of faculty in university governance. And Cornell can defend its own actions regarding their own bylaws, I’m sure they have every legal justification in the book. I freely admit my emotional response to seeing a bunch of ticked off faculty overrides my logical opposition to the way CCB was formed. Definitely a bad precedent, and should be questioned. What I find inconsistent here is putting graduate student unionization in the same article as faculty having their power eroded. It would be like writing about how Cornell doesn’t seem to meet financial need of all students, and then in the same article complain that VP level administrators are only getting a 1% raise this year.

  • JJ

    This tirade against Cornell is ridiculous. By the logic of the article, we should just never go outside ever, because with over 30,000 fatal automobile accidents annually, there is a risk someone could die.

  • Tom

    There is little doubt in my mind that most Universities waste millions of dollars. Establishing concentrations in ethnic or gender studies and hiring diversity czars are prime examples. Nevertheless, if this commentator hates Cornell so much, perhaps he should enroll elsewhere. Students who spend 4 years in Ithaca think they know all the answers, but generally do not know shit.

    • xyz

      great post

  • BioGrad

    This tirade is absolutely embarrassing–I’m shocked that someone about to enter the working world would attach his name to this. I’m not here to argue with you general thesis–that would never end–but to point out that some of your details regarding CGSU and its aims are incorrect, and this subverts your message. We grad students do have health insurance, a pretty good plan at that; we do get worker’s comp in situations when we’re injured doing university work–this whole thing stems from one incident a few years ago, most of my friends in the life and physical sciences shudder to think that we need more safety precautions; and, $25,780 is the minimum stipend for humanities students–the majority of grad students make more, up to around $31,000 / year.

    • John

      Hey BioGrad, hope you don’t actually get hurt while you’re doing your work. Fact is workers comp benefits are hellalow and only apply in hardly any situations. And no — it’s not all about one case from 2014 — the mgmt likes to say that to make it seem like the issue is resolved, it isn’t. Most of your time you’re producing intellectual property that the university owns and yet they still claim they have no obligation to cover you under even basic workers compensation programs. Serious injuries are very rare, hopefully we never have another one. But if it happens to you, you’d better believe you’re going to want better coverage than what’s available

  • xyz

    Geez, stop crying about cold weather. I’m coming from Eastern Europe, and such thing as “closing school because it is cold” was never heard of. Not to mention that not every family can afford a car for their kid, not to mention a Range Rover (what half of this school drives). Really, stop being such a sissy and walk few hundred feet to class.

    It’s very understandable for NYC schools or suburban community colleges to close because 90% of students commute either by highway or urban transportation system. So, when, i.e. subway, closess – it’s done. Cornell is a totally different story, because majority of the students live within a mile of campus. You think one mile is far? I walk from the commons every day, I walked to Cornell and back on the snow day, and I would do it again. It was fun.

    Man up people…

  • abc

    I’m still trying to figure out when the temperatures fell below -30F. The weather records for Ithaca give the record low for January as -25F (set in 1957) and February also as -25F (set in 1961). I walk to and from campus every day (more than a mile each way) and have never felt imperiled by cold. I do own a warm hat and mittens, though.

  • SecretSanta

    This guy is an undergrad ( Perhaps he should not write about grad issues, since he’s got his facts wrong