April 18, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Kotlikoff, in defense of shared governance and the campus code

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To the Editor:

Over the past 10 years Cornell has made an enormous investment to ensure that any person can pursue a Cornell undergraduate education, through an extraordinary increase in financial aid. We should all be proud of Cornell’s commitment to access and the impact that this investment has had on our student composition.

In fall of 2015, I formed an Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group that included student, faculty, and college and administration leaders and was chaired by Dean Barbara Knuth. The Working Group was tasked to examine whether the university’s financial aid funds were distributed as fairly as possible across our undergraduate student population given economic trends since the last adjustment of our policies in 2012. The group was also asked to examine options that might be put in place were we to experience another severe financial recession and find our aid policies needed to be modified. The Working Group was explicitly instructed not to look to “save money” from financial aid under current conditions, but to address fairness and contingency plans. The group examined many ideas and possible modifications, all of which were summarized in early draft documents that were revised after each meeting, including ideas that were analyzed but would not ultimately be endorsed either by the Working Group or university administration. I had also repeatedly stated publicly that once the Working Group had made its recommendation I would discuss them with the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate, and have since done both. In addition, Dean Knuth actively sought comments from the faculty’s Financial Policies Committee and the Student Assembly’s Financial Aid Review Committee.

This semester an early draft document from the Working Group was leaked without context and misrepresented as an attempt to disadvantage poorer students and enroll more wealthy students, a gross mischaracterization of the charge to the Working Group. Other students on the Working Group were upset by this action by a fellow student, identified the student and approached Dean Knuth for guidance. One student initially approached the Judicial Administrator, an office that is independent of university administration and applies the campus code of the University Assembly. Based on the student’s report to the J.A., the J.A. discussed the issue with Dean Knuth.  Following her discussion with the student members of the Working Group who expressed concerns and knowing that one student had already approached the J.A., Dean Knuth filed an incident report, initiating the process in which the J.A. determines whether or not a violation of the campus code had occurred.

Dean Knuth’s role as Chair of the Working Group, and filing of an incident report of a potential investigation of the campus code after being approached by concerned student members of the AFAWG, have made her the focus of attacks that are both unfortunate and undeserved. Over the past few weeks she has been subjected to accusations by advocates of a student who violated the confidential processes of the Working Group, in many cases misrepresenting the facts of the referral and consistently mischaracterizing the motives and goals of the students, faculty and administrators who spent many hours working to improve Cornell’s undergraduate financial aid policies. Whatever the outcome of this case, involvement of students and faculty is critical in university governance and lack of respect for confidentiality undercuts our ability to work together to determine consensus policies. Further, the continuing mischaracterization of the aims and goals of the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group further damages the trust that is essential for all partners to engage freely in the vigorous exploration of complex and controversial issues, and makes it harder for the university to be both inclusive and effectively managed. Finally, Dean Knuth has led the AFAWG with integrity and fairness, and is one of the most effective and tireless university citizens who I have encountered. She has been an extraordinary advocate for this university for many years, and I want to publicly state my gratitude for her leadership.

Michael Kotlikoff VMD, PhD
Provost, Cornell University