April 21, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | Bad. Bad. Not Good.

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Cornell’s administration spent the bulk of this week trying to hold someone accountable for his choices. The University charged a student, Mitch McBride, with a violation of the Campus Code of Conduct for leaking documents from the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group. I don’t much want to re-litigate the case. It was an arrogant sort of incompetence that led the University to hold McBride’s hearing in the first place — nobody expected this tortured reading of the Code to hold up, and it didn’t. In this absurd pursuit of accountability, though, the University has demonstrated a genuine unwillingness to take responsibility for itself.

There is a certain way in which Cornell, and institutions like it, avoid justifying their choices. It usually begins with a head fake towards good intentions and then a pivot to an easy issue. In a letter to The Sun this week, Dean Kotlikoff taught a course in this strategy. He wrote a three-part defense of University decisions labeled a “defense of shared governance and the Campus Code of Conduct.” He supported the McBride hearing, the AFAWG and Dean Knuth. It was not particularly persuasive, but it is important to read.

The first thing to note is the highly personal terms on which he went about defending the University. To be absolutely clear, personal attacks on the intentions of Dean Knuth or any individual members of the Administration are misguided and self-defeating. I have no doubt that nearly every member of Cornell’s faculty is fully dedicated to achieving the best for students. Kotlikoff was right to defend them. The problem is that the important criticism of Knuth, and the Administration more broadly, has absolutely nothing to do with intentions.

In the documents that leaked, the AFAWG considered the possibility of ending need-blind transfer admissions, should the University experience financial constraints. This would mean that transfer students could be denied admission, at least in part, based on their inability to pay tuition. Obviously, nobody is claiming that Dean Knuth, or any member of the group sees this as a desirable outcome. The outrage comes instead from the perception that, should the University have to tighten its belt, it would consider abandoning its founding mission. Even if the group was not told to save money, which Kotlikoff notes in his letter, it was given conditions in which achieving a need-blind admissions process would be financially impossible. This implies that, as a broader institution, Cornell has no absolute commitment to fully egalitarian admissions.

The problem with Kotlikoff’s response is that it narrows the issue to simply one of the AFAWG’s intent. While it is valuable to note their role, the vastly more important issue is the University’s trend towards pushing cost-savings increasingly onto students. Interestingly, Kotlikoff actually seems to hint at this, when he says the documents released needed proper context; however, he does very little to provide whatever context he believes we need. This points to an attitude of inevitability so often taken by administrators when they discuss the high cost of attendance. While it is true that Cornell, as it is currently structured, offers as much aid as it can, that structure is by no means fixed. There is no absolute reason why the University should spend the amount it does on capital development, administrative staff, or literally anything. It is a choice like any other. So instead of taking solace in the fact that the AFAWG is doing its best, we need a justification for the thousand other choices that makes its best so disappointing.

More disturbing is the defense the letter offers for holding McBride’s hearing. Kotlikoff was very quick to paint the issue as a defense of another student. He said that judicial action was taken because a student in the working group approached the Judicial Administrator’s Office, and that other members of the group expressed concern about the documents being leaked. Yet none of this is a justification of the University’s choice to bring a complaint to the OJA. The fact is, the University was the complainant in the case, and to represent the issue as simply mediation in a conflict between students is disingenuous. No, the OJA has to account for its overzealous application of the code of conduct, and the University has to explain its choice to pursue charges in the first place.The willingness to pit students against one another in an effort to shield the University from criticism is disturbing. Once again, the University made a choice — it has to justify it.

Again, I find myself returning to the fact that, in many ways that matter, Cornell needs to be understood as a business. The University treated McBride as if he were an employee who disclosed proprietary information, not a democratic representative pursuing a broader mandate for transparency. In fact, at McBride’s hearing, Dean Knuth cited competition with other universities as a compelling reason to keep admissions measures private. Similarly, the AFAWG acted in a narrow institutional role, constrained by the myriad other fiscal decisions that seem to deprioritize accessible education at the expense of a variety of other interests. Good intentions are an insufficient defense against this sort of criticism; deflecting attention onto other students is bad leadership. We need a better justification from the University for the choices it makes. We need something better than this.