April 24, 2019

EDITORIAL: A Messy but Acceptable End to the JT Baker Saga

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What a terrible mess. This year’s student-elected trustee race saw Jaewon Sim ’21 take the prize, but only after the ugly disqualification of JT Baker ’21, who ran a campaign focused on student-athletes.

The latest news is that Baker would’ve won were he not booted out for breaking an election rule. In light of that, the Committee on Board Composition and Governance opted to split the difference. The CBCG recommended Sim take the traditional student-elected trustee seat and Baker fill a vacant trustee seat. It’s an imperfect compromise — but perhaps the best option on offer.

The CBCG’s recommendation grapples with the tension that underlies Baker’s disqualification — whether rules or outcomes matter more. In this case, the CBCG decided outcomes should win the day. We agree. Permitting Baker’s minor rule violation is far better than tossing out all the votes that would’ve constituted his victory. Moreover, the entire ordeal underscores the need for reform of Cornell’s faulty electoral system.

It’s worth emphasizing the rule Baker is accused of breaking is a somewhat minor one. The Trustee Nominating Committee, in a near-unanimous vote on his disqualification, ruled that Baker failed to meet a requirement that candidates email the TNC about “potential violations immediately after they occur.”

The “potential violation” in question is an email sent out by Carmen Rogers, a Cornell Athletics director, expressing enthusiasm for Baker’s candidacy. The email violates an earlier TNC memo — distributed to all trustee candidates after Baker himself reached out — which barred any “official university unit” from taking any action that might resemble an endorsement, as Rogers’ email plausibly might.

Cornell Athletics officials did eventually walk back Rogers’ email, issuing a series of correctives and clarifications. But that was eight days after. Within that span, Baker had more than enough time to notify the TNC about Rogers’ email. The TNC reasonably concluded Baker broke the rules.

Yet despite Baker’s likely violation, we think the CBCG’s recommended solution is a fair one. The reality is that Baker’s infraction — which, to reiterate, was merely failing to tell the TNC about Rogers’ email — probably didn’t alter election results in any meaningful way.

What’s more, shutting down Baker’s candidacy would come at a serious cost. The prospect of thwarting the first student-athlete trustee on a technicality cuts against the principles of shared governance. The student-athlete community, which so ardently backed Baker’s successful campaign, deserves representation on the Board of Trustees. And Baker’s error is not grave enough to justify annulling hundreds, if not thousands, of votes — thereby ignoring an entire community’s democratic input.

The CBCG’s recommendation also means greater undergraduate representation on the Board of Trustees. In one seat sits Sim, a Korean international student and STEM major with experience on the Student Assembly. In the other sits Baker, an African-American Hotelie beloved by his fellow football players. All the better for undergrad voices being heard on the Board.

And just as voiding Baker’s victory would be undemocratic, so would undoing Sim’s victory, which has already been certified by the TNC. As such, the CBCG’s compromise solution represents a tidy remedy to muddy circumstances, the best solution available.

But it can’t be left there. This election was borne of a fundamental flaw in Cornell’s elections — namely, having no way to punish campaigns for rule-breaking short of disqualification. As we wrote after last year’s S.A. election meme debacle, “This all-or-nothing approach can produce an incredibly undemocratic result, by which the will of the voters can be overturned by an unelected committee operating in a confidential setting.”

Our preferred fix is instituting a 48-hour campaigning blackout period before polls open. Disqualifications would be announced in this period, ensuring no votes are cast for an ineligible candidate. But no matter the fix, concrete reforms, not just vague talk, are needed from Cornell’s administration so that the JT Baker saga is remembered as a one-off mishap — and not as the outgrowth of a dysfunctional electoral system.

The above editorial reflects the opinions of The Cornell Daily Sun. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional Sun editors and staffers. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage and op-eds.