March 11, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Dear Cornell, From a Senior

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To the Editor:

“We are a strong community and one in which we support each other.” This was the phrase that most caught my eye in the email sent on March 10 to the Cornell community regarding the disappointing changes coming about as a result of coronavirus. These changes are devastating to many of us, especially seniors. It struck me as tonally discordant for that phrase to slip out of an email that otherwise insensitively detailed the steps Cornell will be taking to wash its hands of any future outbreak without explaining much in terms of rationale.

While I’m sure there is a rationale, I want to take a moment to highlight the confusions we have as a student body, the intense disappointment we had in learning this news and how important it is to consider, very carefully, what exactly future versions of these decisions will mean for us, especially seniors graduating in May.

We have many questions, mostly concerning the thought process behind the decision. If there aren’t any cases in Ithaca yet, why should we leave campus to return to other parts of the world that are either already dealing with COVID-19 on a much larger scale or are just as likely to have cases pop up soon? If concerns over students’ safety is at the heart of this, shouldn’t we strongly encourage students not to leave, no matter what, and only require that students who absolutely must leave not return? It is impossible to know when and at what rate coronavirus will spread across the country. It is understandable to cancel large group gatherings and educational experiences off campus. But encouraging people to leave entirely seems like a knee-jerk reaction, with an explanation that doesn’t seem to be rooted in a desire to protect our community members.

I am sure there are answers to our questions. I want to be clear that I do not at all doubt the competence of those in charge. However, having learned a bit about community engagement from my urban studies degree, I will say with confidence that telling us a “team of leaders” consulted with “experts” is not remotely convincing. We are Cornell students. And we’re your community members. If we’re going to receive crushing news — for example, that we need to leave the place we’ve worked so hard to get to and grown so much within, especially right before we finish — we need a proper explanation.

If we consider ourselves a “community,” we should not make decisions like a corporation. Students have not come here for business reasons — hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for putting a line on our resumes would be a terrible transaction. It is, for us, and purportedly to you, a community, and one that many of us have put ourselves and our families into deep financial debt and logistical strain to be a part of. But, just for the sake of argument, let us consider Cornell as a corporation, and thus also consider the financially absurd situation forced on students by that corporation’s decision.

As we’re all aware, the prospect of virtual education is laughable. We did not spend tuition dollars for recorded lectures from our professors, especially in the modern era when the best lectures in the world can be found online for free. Our reasons for doing business with Cornell go far beyond what online learning can achieve.

We paid all this money to brush shoulders with the nation’s brightest. We worked this hard to have access to the 19th largest research library in the United States. We traveled this far to discuss film in our theaters, to experiment in our labs, to design in our studios, to debate in our seminars.

And what happens to people who have paid for housing and food already? They have to petition to be sheltered and fed? What about students who return to spaces that are housing insecure or food insecure? What happens to them? We understand the risk involved with people living together in dense spaces, and the complications regarding Tompkins County’s limited healthcare infrastructure and how these factors would influence the decision that was made. But just being told to leave seems wildly insensitive, and more the method of choice for a corporation to cover its rear end than a “community” to make a decision that takes all of its members into account. This verdict has put my low-income, housing-insecure and work-study friends at great risk. The email absolutely should have detailed avenues and resources to help those individuals. To put the burden on students by asking them to petition to stay in the place they’ve already secured seems absurd.

However, the point of writing this was not to simply enumerate the ways in which the announcement left us confused and saddened. I mean only to highlight that there are elements of this that seem rash, and that vastly undervalue what Cornell means for students, especially undergraduate seniors who are on the precipice of reaping the rewards of doing our absolute best in school since we were small children. And in highlighting them, I write this to encourage the decision makers in high places to consider, very carefully, what the events planned for May mean for this community.

These last months are just about everything to us. Our friendships, our futures, our final projects — as a community, these last months hold our most important rituals, events and memories, ones we’ve looked forward to for years and that our families would do anything to share with us. We want nothing more than to say goodbye properly.

Final performances, sporting events and club socials are already gone for many seniors just because of the decision already made. In the time since the email hit our inboxes I’ve heard dozens of stories of the things lost due to this decision that mean much more than credit hours or a diploma ever will. I encourage students, and especially seniors, to share those stories.

But most of all I beg this administration to think very carefully about its crucial next decisions, to incorporate community members into making those decisions and to share with community members precisely why decisions are made, with sensitivity to the fact that we, especially seniors, have never been more proud to be at Cornell and have never been more excited for what is to come in these final months far above Cayuga’s waters.

Nathan Revor ’20