Michael Wenye Li/Sun File Photo

Over 230 people attended the Student Assembly meeting over Zoom.

May 14, 2021

In Last S.A. Meeting of Semester, Community Clashes Over Israel-Palestine, Votes on Mental Health Measures

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The focus was both local and international at Thursday’s S.A. meeting, as representatives wrapped up end-of-year business, like reallocating funding and swearing in new members, and confronted escalating violence in Israel as conversations have rippled across campus. 

The meeting began closing out the 2021 S.A. elections, with director of elections Patrick Mehler ’23 announcing the new slate of assembly representatives and congratulating the assembly for a successful election season — with one of the most competitive of late and a 33 percent increase in turnout this year. In the past five years, this is also the first time that every seat has been filled without resorting to a fall special election.

Continuing with business, current S.A. President Cat Huang ’21 swore in incoming President Anuli Ononye ’22, who then swore in her fellow new members. Convocation Committee Chair Hassaan Bin Sabir ’21 also announced Roxane Gay as the 2021 convocation speaker. 

The Zoom call had high attendance — nearly 170 at the beginning, peaking at over 230 — foreshadowing a contentious meeting, with an audience filled with many students with Israeli flag backgrounds. 

After the first orders of business, Vice President of Internal Affairs Laila Abd Elmagid ’21, Vice President of Finance Uche Chukwukere ’21 and incoming College of Arts and Sciences Representative Joseph Mullen ’24 read a statement condemning Israel Defence Forces’ airstrikes in Gaza in the last few days. 

The statement, signed by 23 students, eight campus organizations and Prof. Russell Rickford, history, only represents the views of the signatories and is not voted on or enacted by the S.A. vote. 

Still, the statement called for an end to Cornell’s ties with Israel, which include a partnership with Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and previous cooperations between the Cornell University Police Department and the Experience Israel Training Tour — making it similar to those adopted by the S.A. with respect to China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia

The signatories’ calls touched back to the 2019 S.A. debate over whether or not to urge Cornell to divest from companies “profiting from the occupation of Palestine and human rights violations.” After nearly two months of discussing the resolution — and the larger geopolitical issue — at nearly every weekly assembly meeting, the S.A., in a secret ballot vote, voted against the resolution after two allocated community votes swung the results. The assembly also faced a similar resolution in 2014, before tabling the issue. 

During the open microphone period — when Huang had proactively disabled the chat and limited speakers to 45 seconds — some students harshly criticized the statement. 

Cornellians For Israel president Irene Partsuf ’22 opened the critiques, saying the statement’s characterization of the Israel-Palestine conflict lacked context. 

“In the past few days, over 1,750 rockets have been fired by Hamas at Israel,” Partsuf said. “Over a third of those rockets have landed back on Gaza. Hamas cares more about killing Jews than protecting its own people. The proposed statement mentions none of this. Hamas and Gaza have one goal: death to all Jews. Israel has an unequivocal right to defend itself.”

Beyond the specifics of the events — which have led to, by some measures, the “worst civil unrest in decades” in the area — Cornell students turned the turmoil to their campus communities.

As the statement called for better protection and support for Cornell’s Palestinian students, others talked about their perspectives on the conflict personally. Cornell Hillel President Lauren Kann ’22 spoke on her connections to the area — and urged caution in saying students know what’s going on. 

“After taking courses about the region, living in Israel and the West Bank, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know enough to propose any statement about the violence,” Kann said.

“Both sides are experiencing violence that is incomprehensible to most people on this Zoom,” she continued. “Yesterday was the first time that I needed to say out loud that my family and friends in Israel and Palestine are being bombed. They’re sleeping in bomb shelters. I’m scared for their lives.”

Ultimately, the assembly did not resolve the heightened conflict — the statement was not a formal S.A. resolution to be debated — and moved on to addressing the seven resolutions on the agenda, the last of the school year. 

By unanimous consent, the S.A. passed three resolutions relating to student mental health. Resolution 49 called for a choice-based grading system, which allows all courses to offer satisfactory and unsatisfactory options, and allows students to change these options until the last day of classes. 

This debate was an extension of arguments over universal pass-fail and longer periods of opt-in S/U grading last spring. For many, even though the University dropped this option, the circumstances have not functionally improved beyond the need for grading accommodations. 

The S.A. also approved Resolutions 50 and 52: to let students send updates to professors when they check into Cornell Health, and to allow students to initiate a leave of absence after the last day of classes, respectively. 

The leave of absence policy at Cornell has been known for being inaccessible, with the Ruderman Family Foundation grading Cornell’s mental health policies as a D- in 2018. Resolution 52 also advocated for the option to note an “incomplete” and return to complete this work on the transcripts of students taking leaves after the drop deadline. 

Many of the rest of Thursday’s resolutions pertained to internal changes, including a stronger relationship between the S.A. and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations Student Government Association and mandatory conflict resolution training for S.A. members.

The S.A. passed Resolution 47, which will give the S.A. ILR representative voting power on the ILR SGA board. Resolution 48, which calls for potential training, was tabled over a procedural concern about whether or not the assembly’s Research and Accountability Committee was proposing the resolution or issuing a recommendation. 

Madeline Rosenberg ’23 contributed reporting.