October 29, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Re: ‘Cornell’s Student Assembly: Is This What Democracy Looks Like?’

Print More

To the Editor:

Having been a student in two international graduate programs as well as a facilitator in many international training courses, the intercultural interactions are usually extremely enriching, while working through the normal friction that arises with differences. I have fond memories of one colleague who managed to hijack just about any topic with lengthy commentary on social justice issues. When you were sleep-deprived and merely wanted to absorb the information from a lecture that was crucial for an exam or finishing a paper, it could be intensely irritating. Nevertheless, there was always a kernel of truth in the injustices he pointed out. The professors were reasonably adept at weaving the discussion back to the original objectives of the lecture while valuing his often tangential input.

So when The Sun published an article and an editorial on the ejection of Julia Feliz from the Alliance for Science program, my prior experiences make me inclined to be empathetic. I do firmly believe that whenever a participant’s behavior is in question, it is vitally important to ensure that de-escalation and due diligence are followed prior to resorting to ejection.

At the same time, I was troubled by The Sun’s mention of “numerous and repeated complaints” from the other fellows. It triggered a memory of a bad incident in an intensive short-term international program similar to the Alliance for Science. One of the more outspoken participants complained about harassment from another participant. Her complaint was summarily dismissed by the program director as merely “cultural differences.” Many of the participants in the program confided in me how they had experienced the same harassment but were reluctant to speak up. It was only when the harassment intensified that they spoke up. Again, they were dismissed with the same excuse of “cultural differences.” Finally, the situation exploded when one of the participants was hospitalized from excessively high blood pressure after an encounter with the harasser. He was summarily dismissed, but I am sure that the situation could have been de-escalated with far earlier intervention.

So I was disappointed that The Sun did not follow up with further investigation of the experiences of the fellows in this program to either refute or provide more clarity on the specific complaints and relative level of severity. I am glad that Joseph Opoku Gakpo provided a few more details about the nature of the allegations that were lacking in The Sun’s reporting.

I was even more disappointed to read how the Student Assembly appeared to shut down the concerns of some of the fellows who attended the Assembly meeting. I cannot imagine that the fellows who dared to attend that meeting felt welcome or safe. I can understand the concern about not traumatizing Feliz further. Yet I cannot understand why the Student Assembly could not have established a safe space for the fellows in the program to have been able to fully air their concerns. I believe all parties deserve to be fully heard, particularly because this situation seems to have involved complex intersectionality.

I hope that Cornell University, the Alliance For Science program leaders, the Student Assembly and The Sun reflect deeply on their roles in the experiences of all the 31 fellows in this program as a platform for improving the program in the future.

Susan E. Burger ’93