Michael Wenye Li / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A student reacts to a Student Assembly meeting at which members voted to defund the Cornell Cinema.

November 30, 2017

Student Assembly Votes to Defund Cornell Cinema

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This post has been updated. 

The Student Assembly voted on Thursday night to defund the Cornell Cinema, after a drawn out contentious battle between the University and the S.A. on how the Cinema should be funded.

In a 19 to 5 vote, with three abstaining, the assembly approved the S.A. Appropriations Committee’s recommendation to end byline funding — from $10.90 to $0.

Yuji Yang ’19, Cornell Cinema student advisory board president, said at the meeting that voting to defund would be a “vote to make Cornell Cinema disappear.”

But S.A. members disputed that claim. Gabriel Kaufman ’18, vice president of finance and chair of the Appropriations Committee, has said that ending the byline funding would not be “an apocalyptic deathblow” and would only result in a decline from “five movies to four movies.”

Cornell has previously said that it will provide $36,000 to $40,000 to the Cinema in the next byline cycle. However, University officials have declined to comment whether this agreement will be affected, if at all, by the S.A. vote.

“The provost’s decision of today was to provide the 36 thousand dollars. The assembly had a decision to make. This was not a negotiation. The provost did not vote.” Paul Streeter, vice president for budget and planning, said. “The Student Assembly had a decision to make and they made that decision.”

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly has also voted to increase its funding of the Cinema from $10.54 to $11 per graduate student.

Audience members became emotional at the body’s decision and began shouting at the assembly, despite attempts by the chair to maintain decorum.

In particular, Noelle LaDue ’19 accused Kaufman of personally insulting employees of the Cornell Cinema. Kaufman said he had “apologized” for it in previous S.A. meetings.

“This is the most disrespectful process I have ever been part of,” LaDue said. “I ran into Gabe, and they told me that I should jump up and down and thank them for giving me 36 thousand dollars to keep my job.”

Nathan David Chazan ’19, an arts writer on The Sun, interrupted an S.A. member defending Kaufman against LaDue’s allegation, accusing Kaufman of threatening his job security.

“You told us we were here because we had financial investments, that we were mobilized by robots. I am going to lose my job, and I am going to seek a new job, and it is a fault of you. I am not an automaton. This is not some interest. You are taking away our livelihood,” he said.

S.A. members and the Cornell Cinema staff consistently failed to agree on many facts. The two parties even failed to cite a consistent figures when referring to the provost’s contribution.

“[The provost’s office contribution] was around 36 thousand dollars. That’s not 40K, what the Cinema said,” S.A. President Jung Won Kim ’18 said, in an in interview before the meeting.

Kaufman and Yang disagreed on even basic accounting issues. Kaufman claimed that undergraduates will continue to subsidize professional wages under the new structure, while Yang said they will not.

“The only reason I asked for a decrease is because the Cinema is directly paying themselves —  directly taking money from the activity fee,” Kaufman said. “The compensation for the Cornell Cinema is currently made out of earned income [made possible by Student Activity Fees].”

However, Yang countered Kaufman’s argument, saying that the additional $40,000 from the provost’s office “will cover the portion of the student activity fee that currently pays for staff wages.”

“The [provost’s] contribution, as well as other University funding and revenue streams, would mean that professional staff wages will be fully covered by sources other than the undergraduate student activity fee,” Yang said.

Appropriations committee member Olivia Corn ’19 said, with tears, that the decision to defund Cornell Cinema was not an easy one.

“I feel horrible. I understand the massive ramifications. This was not a decision that I made lightly,” Corn said. “The University needs to be funding these wages and it’s unfair to have to the people of the Cinema to have to keep coming back to us every two years for their salary.”

Jaëlle Sanon ’19, first generation representative, laid the blame on the administration for the current situation because she said they neglecting to pay the wages of the Cornell Cinema staff.

“Why is the Student Assembly deciding whether someone’s livelihood is intact or not? Whether someone will lose their job?” Sanon asked. “We ask that the provost will do its job and pay its employees.”

And yet, a member of the audience found it “appalling” that members of the S.A. would assign blame to the University instead of themselves.

Mary Fessenden, Cornell Cinema director, said that the Cinema has never hidden its intention to use the student activity fee to cover staff wages, calling Kaufman’s comments “patently false.”

“We were invited to apply for activity funding in 1988, with the S.A. fully knowing that we were not like other byline funding organizations,” Fessenden said. “Our budgets clearly show that we will no longer need to use the activity fee to cover staff wages. To argue against this is clearly false.”

Fessenden also said that the provost has agreed to provide the money to fill the earlier proposed byline funding decrease to $8.50.

“The amount of money that the provost has said he will contribute guarantees that we will not need to use any undergraduate activity fee for staff salaries,” Fessenden said.

Cornell Cinema currently receives only 30 percent of its budget from the S.A., compared to other byline groups, which obtain 100 percent of their budget from the S.A., according to Fessenden.

Mayra Valadez ’18, chair of the financial aid and diversity committee, referred to the “lack of financial transparency” between the Cinema and the Student Assembly which dates back over two decades.

“The question of whether or not someone gets to keep their job should not be the responsibility of Student Assembly undergraduates, but rather that of the University,” Valadez said. “While I do not agree with funding the full $8.50, I disagree more strongly with the decision to fully defund.”

Kaufman said he is more than willing to work with Cornell Cinema to develop an alternative solution.

“I am more than willing to advise and work with the staff and student leadership of Cornell Cinema and help develop a new budget model in light of this decision that can best impact in a positive way a campus community to provide students with a unique cinematic experience.”