March 3, 2020

GUEST ROOM | A Tale of Failed Governance

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Last fall, while Cornell students began finals last semester,  their classmates on the Student Assembly aimed to raise their Student Activity Fee by 40 percent — approved unanimously with minimal debate. Amidst the gasps from students, I was not shocked. The whole semester, S.A. members engorged themselves at an all-you-can-eat buffet with your money.

What is most shame worthy is that the S.A. knows the underlying problem: new club proliferation. Resume-building students duplicate clubs to appear as “self-starters.” By creating short-term, low value-add, identical clubs, these rent-seekers drain the public treasury. Previously, the S.A. built systems to tackle this issue by creating the Organizational Review Committee. But when it came time to use their tools, they had left their toolbelt in Cayuga Lake. Whether this was out of negligence, recklessness or the lack of political courage, we don’t know. It’s most plausible that it was a mix of all three factors. The blame is not entirely on our S.A. colleagues, though. I share some of the blame because I chose to study abroad instead of serving another year on the S.A.

Luckily, after student efforts voicing their displeasure with the SAF hike, President Pollack made an intervention. With their red name cards, our classmates in Willard Straight Hall cemented their legacy. For the first time in University history, the administration rejected the S.A.’s  SAF proposal. President Pollack opted for a graduated increase closer to 30 percent. Although President Pollack’s alternative is still too high, it should be taken as a wake-up call for the S.A. and the campus.

Instead of collecting more empty titles for themselves, maybe SA members should focus their attention on tangible issues. In years past, we’ve seen what the S.A. is capable of: NetPrint reform, streetlights on West Campus and supplementing mental health resources at Cornell Health.

Perhaps, it is time for the Board of Trustees and students to reconsider the S.A.’s role on campus. The S.A.’s unwillingness to manage spending reveals an urgency for change. The solution may lie in displacing the appropriating process altogether in favor of a student-oriented approach that empowers students to make decisions with their money. One way of doing this would be to have Cornell set a fixed activities fee. For example, $300. Students then have the power to put that money into their club or distribute their $300 to multiple clubs. Imagine, no more SAFC applications! This would save SAFC application headaches and preserve responsible spending habits.

A second proposal is to pin the SAF to tuition as a percentage ratio. For example, let’s set the SAF at .25 percent of tuition. This means that during the appropriating process, the SAF is already determined: .25 percent of $55,000 tuition would be $137.50. The SA then distributes the allotted SAF. The difference here is that the S.A. can’t simply raise the SAF when they run out of money. This keeps the S.A. accountable because it forces them into making tough financial decisions. For those concerned about a fixed sum, it’s worth considering that the SAF will continue to increase because tuition always increases. This means there will be a steady and rising income to student organizations, and it keeps the S.A. responsible.

Ideally, this would mean that S.A. members can spend less time catering to favored organizations and redirect their priorities toward tangible improvements on campus. I would encourage my colleagues on the S.A. to explore what Cornell’s Shared Governance looked like in the 1970s. Back then, Shared Governance was focused, their members responsible and their impact high.

Let’s not let ourselves be distracted from the core issue though. The problem isn’t just about the SAF … the problem is the S.A. Because of their inability to take their responsibilities seriously, we’ve witnessed the erosion of the S.A.’s legitimacy and authority. Consequently, the S.A.’s feckless actions have stripped the voice of the student body — that is, your voice. President Pollack’s intervention is appreciated by the student body. But let’s be clear: President Pollack shouldn’t have to intervene to restore responsible decision-making on behalf of the S.A.


John Dominguez is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He served as the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) Representative on Cornell’s Student Assembly last year. Comments may be sent to [email protected]