Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

May 11, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Virtual Slope Day Demonstrates Why Funding Needs Transparency

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Slope Day is one of my favorite Cornell traditions. It signals the end of a rigorous academic year, the end of gloomy, snowy weather and it is a chance to celebrate a year of memories with great friends. This year, Slope Day looks different; transformed under the new title of the Virtual Music Festival, it will be hosted on our laptops or smartphones, wherever we are around the world, alone. There is no question that the coronavirus has fundamentally shifted what our end-of-year concert looks like, as it has done to every aspect of our lives. And obviously, the quality of this experience will not match up actually being on The Slope.

I cannot help but question how the music festival is even happening in the first place. Last we heard about Slope Day, Vice President Lombardi confirmed that the event was cancelled, and in a separate Slope Day Planning Board email I received on March 14, it was reported that much of the budget had been contributed to the Cornell Access Fund to aid students in “emergency expenditures.” If this is true, then where have the resources come from to suddenly put on a two-day concert?

This is not to say that the concert is not a worthy effort; in a time of great stress and uncertainty, even a virtual concert is an opportunity to relax and is something for which I am extremely excited. However, the news of a virtual Slope Day made me initially angry. From my perspective as a student who was wholly unaware that this would happen, the fact that the University was suddenly able and willing to fund these concerts appeared to directly oppose the mission it claimed to set out in response to COVID-19. President Martha Pollack has detailed tremendous losses to the finances of the University, writing that the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses will lose $160-210 million in the upcoming fiscal year, with millions more lost in the following years. Whatever costs that the Virtual Music Festival incurs are sure to be a drop in the ocean compared to these losses, but to me, on face value, it appears that the University is diverting funds to something that is not “essential” in a time when essentiality is the name of the game. The thought of University dishonesty, or at least misdirection, about funding in these difficult and sensitive times was seriously off-putting and made me question how much we should trust the administration with millions of our dollars.

Sure, it’s possible that the Slope Day Planning Board, Cornell Concert Commission or the Multicultural Concert Funding Advisory Board had some sort of reserve fund for a virtual concert set aside, or that regulations on how student activity fees can be spent mean that the best possible option is this virtual Slope Day. However, an issue arises when we consider the possibility of conflict regarding the funding source. Without public discussion of how the funds were procured, suddenly, the Virtual Music Festival was announced. Ultimately, there was far too little transparency over where the funds came from to sponsor the event, making it all too easy to assume the worst about the source of the money.

Admittedly, issues of university funding are broad and convoluted, but that is precisely the point. Currently, we students know little about the funding process, and in this specific case, the majority of us were largely left in the dark with little to no knowledge on how the University has simultaneously funded a virtual Slope Day while balancing its impending financial losses. Unless an explanation is provided, can we be faulted for having skepticism or harboring anger about the University’s handling of Slope Day or other financial matters? Without transparency, it becomes too easy to jump to the conclusion that the University could be recklessly spending money in a way that counteracts their public statements on the necessity of cost-saving measures, something we all should be avoiding. In her latest email, President Pollack wrote that in the effort to relieve the University’s financial situation, the administration would “benefit from the direct participation of our faculty, staff, and students.” Not openly discussing the funding of a virtual music festival seems to act against the interest of community participation.

The Virtual Music Festival exemplifies how important it is for the Cornell administration to be more transparent about funding and allocation, especially in these uncertain times. If there were an addendum in the virtual Slope Day announcement explaining how the concerts could be funded, then there would have been no reason to grow concerned about where the money came from in the first place. Communication is always key, and in this case, my jump to a hasty conclusion would have been easily preventable if the administration had more openly communicated how the funding came about. When facts are readily available, we can make informed opinions; if they are not, how can we be blamed for fearing the worst? I am not attempting to say that this is an extremely easy undertaking; explaining complex policies and details in layman’s terms takes effort. However, students deserve to know where and how their money is being spent; if the administration believes it can continue to operate in this insular manner, then it is not serving its community as it is charged to do.

We must demand that the University become more open and transparent on how student activity fees, event funding and other expenditures are raised and used not by tucking it into some back corner of an obscure Cornell University website, but by publicly, repeatedly, and directly engaging us as a community. Doing any less would be a massive disservice.

Kevin Zong is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.