September 1, 2017

DANBERG BIGGS | It Really Is the Small Stuff

Print More

Two weeks ago, Cornell quietly put an end to a pretty good idea. In an email sent to 30 participants, the University announced the cancellation of the Foreign Student Employment Program for the coming year. It was a truly tiny program that served a narrow purpose: for $40,000 a year, or .001 percent of its annual operating budget, the University subsidized part-time work for a handful of foreign students. Yesterday, President Martha Pollack reversed course, announcing that the program would be reinstated. It was a small, acutely bad decision to end this program, and a commendable choice to bring it back. Both of those facts can coexist, as should be perfectly clear.

However, regardless of the administration’s eventual reversal, the initial decision, as well as the way in which it was announced, fits a disturbing trend in University’s relationship to its student body. Instead of providing a meaningful justification for its choices, the University slipped into the dull and dishonest language of bureaucracy. Unsurprising, maybe, but ours is an institution that claims by rhetoric and reputation to have a unique role in American society. Cornell is meant to advance a democratic and forward-looking agenda. That only matters if we follow through on these small, quiet choices.

First, though, it’s worth noting why exactly this program is important. None of these students were able to pay tuition or cover rent with the money they made. But they probably could eat out with their friends a bit more. Probably, it bought them the kind of subtle normalcy that money brings you at a place like Cornell. I can say for certain that this is a real effect of work-study and for an international student the effect must be even greater. Far from home, and ineligible for a slew of financial aid programs, any amount must help these students. In its way, this program made it just a bit easier for some international students to attend Cornell — it didn’t move mountains, but it did do this one good thing.

Note also the context in which this choice was made. Over the last several years, small decisions like this have gradually made Cornell less accessible to foreign-born students. In 2017, the University ended need-blind admissions for international students, which made it possible for admissions officers to learn a student’s financial need before deciding whether to admit them. In 2016, the economics department discontinued the Curricular Practical Training work authorization, which made it harder to for international students to get summer internships. None of these make it impossible to attend, that’s not my claim, but in their own way, each made it just a bit more challenging.

And this stuff should matter to all of us. During a national moment when the distance between our country and the rest of the world feels historically great, spaces for value-neutral international collaboration have become intensely important. Cornell must do the hard work of carving out corners of the world where we can remain connected and foster trust. Thus, the presence of international students from a diverse array of economic and cultural backgrounds is an essential requirement of our campus community. Not only does it enrich our lives as students, it is indispensable to the role that universities ought to play.

The most important point here is that this was a choice with consequences. Regardless of whether you think that we should prioritize international students more, there is no question that there is a debate to be had. However, characteristically, the University did not treat it like so.

By way of explanation, students involved in the program were sent a 130-word email. When The Sun followed up with the department responsible for the decision, director Susan Hitchcock argued that the funds would be diverted to direct financial aid, and that the $40,000 saved could provide one international student with aid every year. Working with limited resources, her office believe this was the decision that would do the most good. Because the funds went to the departments hiring these students, rather than directly into the students’ pockets, her office determined that it would be more useful to directly subsidize international students — fair enough. That, however, is not the point.

Rather than asking how $40,000 can best be spent on international student aid, the appropriate question is, “why only $40,000?” Surely it isn’t a resource constraint. A university that spends over $4 billion every year only haggles over that sum because someone, somewhere, decided that was all they were willing to set aside. For every dollar spent on and off campus, a real-life choice was made, and with myriad alternatives.

We are surrounded by the results of these choices, whether they manifest themselves as  a new building or a beautiful statue. Set in the context of a university trending away from international accessibility, these reminders of choices made can be infuriating. Unless they’re justified. It is possible that all of this has a legitimate explanation, but silence in the face of important questions only results in distrust and frustration.

Cornell, as an institution, needs to do more to treat its students like stakeholders. Even in the incremental choices, those that affect only a few, it is our prerogative to understand the totality of the decisions that affect our lives. Last week, President Pollack said that Cornell needs to “stand firmly on the side of democracy, human dignity and the wellbeing of the many.” She is absolutely right. But Cornell’s righteous stand won’t happen in an inaugural speech, nor will it be complete with the large projects that catch headlines. Instead, Cornell will have to play its role through the little things, making small choices that do right. Yesterday’s choice to reverse policy in the face of immense pressure from the student body and faculty was a great start, but the University had to make a grave mistake in order to get there. To have more success, we’ll need to demand a more honest and good-faith relationship our university. That, I think, is our responsibility.