December 4, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | A Wake-Up Call for Campus Democracy

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Heated debates on the Student Assembly floor are usually indicators of functioning campus democracy. But last week, our student government veered off course during a Zoom meeting on Cornell Police disarmament when representatives used little restraint in hurling personal insults at each other and talking over those with opposing viewpoints. Throughout the semi-finals week that followed — dubbed a “Week of Hate and Harassment” by The Sun, representatives suffered from bullying and name-calling. What has happened to our system of shared governance?

Right now, our student leadership could use a reminder that the most effective way to advance Cornellian interests is to rely on the time-honored instruments of campus democracy, such as mutual respect and a discussion of values, rather than resort to ad hominem, scorched earth attacks on fellow students.  

For many Cornellians, these debates on racial justice and police violence aren’t theoretical; they are of lived experiences. Some have been victims of racial profiling themselves, and recent national events continue to confirm that the threat of institutionalized racism is real.

But the reality of this threat does not require S.A. members to choose between Zoom chaos and radio silence on these pivotal issues. Instead, it means that there is an opportunity for our elected leaders to listen, lead by example and respond to constituents by charting a path for a constructive discourse in the face of political turmoil. It is precisely when the heat of the moment reaches its maximum that decorum, conflict resolution, truth-finding and collaboration become the most important.

In these times of contention, it gives me perspective to remind myself that the elected shared governance leaders are only temporary custodians of the instruments of campus democracy. So, what precedents will our actions leave behind for future generations of Cornellians to come? We have a duty to leave these borrowed tools — the assemblies — in a better state than when we found them by protecting the fundamentals of campus democracy through its ups and downs.

What I see as a critical threat to the preservation of our institutions is the Catch-22 of shared governance success: the S.A.’s efficacy relies on community buy-in, but ironically, Cornellians’ support can only be earned by demonstrating performance. It should concern all students that Cornell’s undergraduate election turnout was the lowest among all of our Ivy League peers, at just over 16 percent. Perhaps, given the political drama and infighting that has become a hallmark of our student government, the lackluster interest and participation should not come as a surprise.

Instead of creating a self-perpetuating cycle that delegitimizes Cornell’s democratic institutions, our community should actively discuss how to empower the S.A. to elevate student voices more effectively. Rather than reducing shared governance to little more than ineffective student government, let’s double down on campus democracy and give it the attention and resources it needs to prosper.

During my tenure at Cornell, I have been fortunate enough to have many times witnessed our student government work together to address community concerns. An S.A. push for inclusive housing options resulted in the introduction of mixed-gender rooming in Cornell’s residence halls. An Arts representative’s initiative to improve pre-enroll led to the addition of course syllabi to the online class roster. These were moments that renewed my faith in Cornell’s systems of shared governance.

With the student body dispersed worldwide during distance learning, the University’s undergraduate leadership has heightened responsibility to promote and defend Cornellians’ interests. Now is the time to come together to emulate our assemblies’ past successes in meeting today’s student needs.

Our robust systems of shared governance – that value open inquiry and debate – have long been tools to effect change on campus and beyond. But let’s not forget: They are only as effective as their users allow them to be.

Jaewon Sim is an undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.