August 20, 2020

GUEST ROOM | College Knowledge and Common Knowledge

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Wednesday’s news about the Ithaca City Schools having delayed their reopening plans until early October, when more data about the impact on the broader community’s health of Cornell’s re-opening is available, is mostly heartening. In this time of so many well-earned desperate feelings on the part of all employees of the district, as well as its students and their parents, the confirmation that the ICSD administration struggled to listen to many divergent voices with a willingness to re-evaluate its own earlier decision-making, reminds us that democratic values remain alive in Ithaca.

Of course, many in the community share distress that the tensions between college versus public school openings were not resolved in reverse, with Cornell delaying reopening in order to privilege the public education of the broader community’s young people. The current crisis confirms what a good kindergarten teaches: When we humans face unavoidable tensions in any social negotiation, our priorities should reflect deeper concern for the human beings whose needs and promise are typically undervalued. In this case, our children — who have already suffered months of absent social stimulation and erratic-at-best educational opportunities — were undervalued.

Related, should in-person classroom life resume in October, paraprofessionals cannot be placed in the untenable position of being present in classrooms where teachers have opted to work remotely.  Rank and file members of all three associations representing teachers, paraprofessionals, and all other employees of ICSD have already voiced opposition to such a scenario, made possible by the administration having offered the choice to teachers only about whether they would work remotely or in person.  The hope now is that absent a spike in coronavirus infections between now and October, the reasonable fears of most of the teachers who were wary of returning to the classroom will be allayed.  Of course, should infections spike, both Cornell and the public schools will need to reconsider their reopening plans.

The above highlights another related important social justice issue, which is the fact that not all employees of the ICSD earn a liveable wage. Given the current heightened focus of all of us on the horrific costs to whole communities of unconscionable levels of wealth inequality, and related racism, we are in a moment when this injustice needs to be corrected. Cornell President Martha E. Pollack has eloquently pledged to act against the social inequalities that led to the murder of George Floyd. What a perfect opportunity to invite Cornell to fund the necessary increase in the wages of all employees of the ICSD so that those who contribute to the local educational mission at all levels are guaranteed a liveable wage — the receipt of which marks the community’s agreement that a person has the right to live.

Finally, another impetus for delaying school reopening was the need to complete the costly work of ensuring better ventilation of the ICSD buildings. Here again is an opportunity for Cornell to fulfill its pledge to address the deadly costs of social inequality in this community and to help compensate for the losses incurred by our children and their families when Cornell put its own needs before those of the broader public educational mission.

The days when universities can claim that the specific dedications of endowment funds prevent their use to achieve their broadest mission – the enrichment of the lives of humanity through teaching, innovative research and service — are over. Cornell has the power to model for our community and for the world that institutions of higher education can remain relevant in this era by refusing to deny what the least educated among us already know.


Barbara Regenspan taught “Challenges of Modernity” in Cornell’s summer session for the past two years, is Emerita Professor of Educational Studies at Colgate University and is the author of Haunting and the Educational Imagination (Sense, 2014). Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this summer.