March 25, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | On Looking Back and Moving Forward

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It seems strange to be writing a Trustee Viewpoint at this moment — and not just any viewpoint, my last viewpoint. This is my last semester serving as the graduate and professional student-elected trustee on Cornell’s Board of Trustees. It is also, likely, my last semester at Cornell before I graduate. I had spent a lot of time thinking about what I would write in this piece, and now, given the circumstances, nothing quite feels right. So, I’ll simply talk about what I’ve learned, seen and believe given this experience.  Simply put, I really think Cornell is changing for the better.

I am a population and evolutionary geneticist. I study how different forces create genetic changes through time. I’m interested in how populations respond to pressure, both internal (like the emergence of a new mutation) and external (like a sudden change in environment). A population’s ability to change determines its ability to survive, but this process of change is messy. Different forces may push towards different changes, and these changes can often be at odds with each other meaning there rarely is one fixed point to move towards. Change also occurs in bursts, some small, some large, some even in the work direction. All of this means that change, even adaptive change, usually takes time —, except under the most extreme selective forces. But, one thing we know is that change is happening.

I find myself relying on this framework of change when thinking about Cornell and its future. Cornell is always evolving. The expectations of students, faculty, staff, alumni and even trustees act as internal forces pushing the university in several directions. State and national legislature, financial recessions and global pandemics are external forces pressuring the University to respond as well. There are usually a hundred different forces acting on Cornell at any given moment, and, instead of stalling out, we continue to change. Sometimes this is really genuine, meaningful change, and other times it’s change we don’t agree with or understand. But, as we zoom out, and look at larger, longer timescales, Cornell has slowly but surely become a more effective, equitable and empathetic institution.

Now, that does not mean everything is perfect. We still have a lot of work to do. Students experience Cornell in very different ways, with those coming from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds sometimes experiencing the ugliest sides of Cornell. Cornell will have to change if we want to live up to our ideals and if we want to survive the current landscape of higher education. Over the past eight years, fewer and fewer students have been enrolling in postsecondary education, and fewer individuals perceive a college education to be very important. This is the result of several factors, which includes the increasing cost of tuition, concerns about the job market and the mental and emotional burden of attending college seen in the upwards trend of university students seeking mental health care. Cornell is feeling the pressure to change, and we will have to if we want to continue recruiting and retaining the best students.

Our community, particularly our students, hold the University accountable. Students vocalize their stances on issues, whether that be by writing opinion pieces in The Sun, creating new student organizations to raise awareness, gathering petition signatures, passing resolutions in the assemblies or by actively protesting on campus. Alumni similarly volunteer their time and resources championing causes and organizations they believe in. The administration and staff come up with incredibly creative solutions in order to respond to this pressure and actualize change. These are all forces acting to make Cornell a better place.

I will forever be grateful for this opportunity to serve on the Board of Trustees. I have had the incredibly unique experience of watching all of these forces play out and watching as Cornell responds to them. I’ve watched forces that have been at play for years finally result in change. A reminder that change can be slow, but it is happening even if we can’t always see it. I’ve also watched Cornell respond to sudden, unexpected changes with creativity and compassion. We are so lucky to have a community of Cornellians made up of students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni that care so much about the University — who care enough to continue pushing for meaningful change year after year. Some of my own efforts championing certain changes have materialized, others are still unfolding. I hope these changes move the University in the right direction and that I’ve fulfilled what I was elected to do.

It’s been an incredible privilege serving in this role and communicating the student experience to the Board. Even as I get ready to step down, I know that my time pushing the University to change isn’t coming to an end and neither is my connection to Cornell and to the community. I look forward to pushing Cornell to be the best version of itself, and, hopefully, you’ll be there with me.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. Munasinghe can be reached at [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.