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