October 27, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Student Assembly: Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

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I was very surprised by proceedings I witnessed on Thursday night when Cornell University’s Student Assembly passed a motion condemning the University and Cornell Alliance for Science over the dismissal of fellow Julia Feliz. At the end of the meeting, I said to myself, “this is more evidence of everything that’s broken with our democracy.”

There was no real examination of evidence before judgment was passed. Everyday principles of justice were suspended to allow for the misdirection of anger at University authorities. Students who claimed to be protecting the vulnerable from bullying engaged in the same terrible act, and the audience in the room seemed to assume that’s okay.

That is the democracy we live in today. Or more accurately, the “undemocracy” which we ironically praise so highly.

Isn’t it amazing that a motion on the floor seeking condemnation of the University and the program for dismissing Feliz after Feliz complained about facing racism and misgendering, which initially failed to pass when 12 members voted against adopting it, finally got approved with 24 representatives supporting it?

Cornellians should have been in the room to see how the energy in the room built up as the president of the S.A., Joseph Anderson ’20, screamed at the 25 student representatives that they must speak up for the dismissed fellow who has complained about racial abuse. What about the rights of those who stand accused?

Cornellians should have heard him threatening Nigerian farmer Patience Koku, a member of the public who stood up to speak against the motion, that the microphone would be taken from her if she used the wrong pronoun again when referring to Feliz.

Obviously, the poor woman comes from a very different cultural setting, but the president would have none of that understanding and would rather shout at her disrespectfully, exhibiting the same bully behavior and disregard for cultural difference that Feliz accused Cornell of. And dare I say, the behavior exhibited by Anderson to a black African woman was racist and sexist.

The atmosphere became so intimidating for the 26 representatives who were to vote that I was not surprised so many of them flipped by the time the fourth vote was taken.

The most disturbing part was an insistence by a member that no one ask the complainant further questions before voting because debating the issue was emotionally draining for Feliz. 

Really? Is that how democracy works now in Trump’s America? Looks to me like a very unjust process. Americans often look down on the “undemocratic” nature of decisions and elections in countries on the African continent. And yet, right here in America, this S.A. session showed me the most undemocratic process I have ever witnessed.

And the worst of it all was how the S.A. threw away its own values in coming to the decision to condemn.

The S.A. website says it is charged with “examining matters of interest to the undergraduate student community, and making proposals to appropriate officers or decision-making bodies of the University.”

Looks like this time around, zero examination of the issues occurred. Some S.A. members were bold enough to ask Feliz for specifics to back their complaints of racism, bullying and harassment. As to whether Feliz provided that is something I will leave to the judgement of all those who witnessed the proceeding.

But Feliz called out people who were not in the room and made serious allegations to which they had no chance to respond. Three current African Cornell Alliance for Science fellows, Pacifique Nshimiyimana, Rose Mukonyo and Mwimali Murenga, stood before the Assembly and complained bitterly about how “Julia was stopping us all from proceeding with our work.” They told the Assembly that Feliz had claimed supremacy over them and called them “empty vessels.” They spoke about how Feliz’s actions in class were a “distraction” which “impeded” their learning and caused them to be “too uncomfortable.”

They said Feliz acted in ways towards them that equaled the same racism Feliz accused the University of. They complained about how Feliz’s disruption of every single session “in a toxic and negative manner.” They spoke of how they felt Feliz “was not interested in dialogue but only in harm.” They complained that because of Feliz’s attitude, their “African dream” which they had come to Cornell to train for skills to help them achieve were being shuttered.

But guess what … the S.A. that claims to be the guardian of students’ liberty did not care about this majority who are also people of color like Feliz. It was not bothered that besides Feliz, the interest of these black lives also matters. It was not moved by the reasoning that Feliz’s rights must go hand in hand with responsibility towards the other fellows.

Could it be because they are Africans and Feliz is American? I honestly don’t think so. Rather, I believe it’s because the S.A. would prefer to be “politically correct” than lend a backbone to the ones who actually deserve it. The Assembly was more interested in satisfying its ego as the student group that condemned an all-powerful institution than offer a hand to which of the two sides in this debate deserves to be lifted up. I believe it was a situation of judging a case by a principle which says “whoever goes to the court of public opinion first, wins.”

I’m concerned because I don’t want to live in a world where it is only those with the loudest voices and most extraordinary fighting spirit that make it. I don’t want to live in a world where no one hears you unless you speak and can write the most polished English language. I don’t want to live in a world where the only way to win is drag people down on social media.

Populist posturing like what the Assembly displayed on Thursday night may have “feel-good” benefits in the short term. But the consequence could threaten the very future of all of us young people. I rest my case.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Feliz’s preferred gender pronouns. It has since been amended. We regret the error.

Joseph Opoku Gakpo is a 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Fellow. Comments may be sent to [email protected].