September 27, 2020

SAMILOW | Decency is on the Ballot

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Beginning Tuesday, students will have the chance to cast ballots in elections for the Student Assembly and University Assembly. While these shared governance bodies usually attract little attention, students who value mature, responsible and decent governance should pay close attention to next week’s elections. You have the opportunity to send a powerful message to the S.A. leadership that its bullying, disregard for rules, abuses of power and political grandstanding are unacceptable.

For students new to campus or for those who have had the fortune of not paying attention to the S.A., it may be helpful to briefly recap the S.A.’s misdeeds from just the last few years. This account is, admittedly, incomplete as this newspaper only allots me so much space.

To start, in April 2019, the S.A. voted by secret ballot on BDS Resolution 36. In front of a packed Memorial Room in Willard Straight Hall, a majority voted for anonymity even though the parliamentarian and president insisted the S.A.’s standing rules required a recorded vote. Notably, the S.A.’s leaders had no hesitation about flouting their own rules in front of hundreds of students. That they are comfortable acting so brazenly in public begs the question of what they do when no one is looking.

Indeed, we, unfortunately, have the answer to that question too. In a column in The Sun last May, a member of the S.A. described the tactics the S.A. leadership uses to keep people in line. Anyone who questions the fanatic activism of the S.A. leadership has their character and reputation savaged. Representatives who consider voting against the leadership are shouted at and personally vilified. Given that the S.A.’s executive officers are internally elected, it’s no surprise that representatives who seek advancement fear bucking the leadership. This intimidation mostly occurs behind closed doors, but make no mistake; this is how the current leadership routinely conducts business.

As if mistreating students weren’t enough, the S.A. has also been an irresponsible steward of the student funds with which it is entrusted. In June, the Student Activities Funding Commission, a subsidiary of the S.A., donated $10,000 to the Cornell Students for Black Lives. Regardless of whether a cause is worthy, multiple University rules explicitly require that funds from the Student Activity Fee be used solely for student activities. Instead of admitting that in haste a mistake was made, the Vice President of Finance took to social media to accuse those concerned with the donation of racism and sexism. Her attacks were cheered on by some of her S.A. colleagues, including a current candidate for S.A. president.

Students also cannot count on the University to hold the S.A. accountable. After inquiries were made with the University’s counsel, Vice President Ryan Lombardi admitted, in a curt email, that the donation was improper and that the funds had been replaced by private sources. He would not, however, say what remedial action was taken or how the University would prevent a similar misuse of funds in the future. To this day, three months later, SAFC has still not apologized for its mistake.

The conclusion is clear: Accountability will have to come from the student body. The only remedy for the S.A.’s malfeasance is at the ballot box. With that in mind, I would like to offer a few suggestions as you decide who to support next week.

It may be cliché, but the first step in solving a problem is admitting that one exists. And the biggest issue affecting the S.A. is its culture of intolerance. Dominant within the S.A. is the mentality that diversity of thought is unacceptable and people who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy are not worthy of respect.

This mindset was on full display Thursday at the S.A. candidate forum. Bennett Sherr ’21, a candidate for the University Assembly, dug up and cherry picked reasonable articles written by his opponent during a summer internship and, in previous campaign literature, made vague attacks on his opponent’s past writings. Instead of making an affirmative case for his candidacy, Sherr resorted to ugly and misleading distortions of his opponent’s past advocacy. Decent people of all backgrounds and persuasions should reject these tactics. Those who habitually impute nefarious motives to their opponents are unworthy of leadership.

But electing dignified and respectful candidates is just the first step. The student body also deserves leaders who are focused on solving genuine student issues. While some candidates might indulge fantasies of solving the world’s great geopolitical crises, voters should focus, instead, on candidates who ground their platforms in issues that affect students’ day to day lives and that the S.A. is actually situated to address. Ensuring access to mental health resources, holding the University accountable, and lobbying against tuition hikes will do much more to aid students than opining on the voguish political issues of the day.

It’s important to remember that the Student Assembly is its own social ecosystem and much of the leadership hails from the same social cliques. To break this stranglehold, support candidates who haven’t previously been on the S.A. or who are running on fresh ideas, not institutional experience. It isn’t a panacea, but electing some new blood is the first step towards change.

The S.A. leadership has shown us time and time again who they are. The question now is what we are going to do about it. On Tuesday, make sure you vote and support candidates who can bring the reform the S.A. so desperately needs.

Matthew Samilow is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at msamilow@cornellsun.com. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Friday this semester