October 28, 2021

BEARD | All EARS: It’s Time to Pay Attention to the Student Assembly

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So this is crazy, but apparently the Cornell Student Assembly actually does things.  I did not realize the extent of their power on campus, but it exists.  You’ll have to excuse my pointedness but if we’re being honest with ourselves, the assembly is mostly an “out of sight, out of mind” idea for many of us undergraduates. Yet, the S.A. has the power to really screw with the day-to-day lives of us students. In this case, the “screwing” in question dealt with proposed funding for the already embattled EARS mental health service. 

Before last year, EARS was a Cornell institution providing accessible mental health counseling to all undergraduate students. Unfortunately, last February, due to circumstances beyond the control of any elected student official, the University discontinued the service after finding the school’s insurance didn’t cover it. 

Thankfully, EARS is back in a reimagined way providing mentorship training and similar services. Although more limited in scope, the newly designed EARS planned to open its doors once again to students which brings us to the recent actions of the S.A.’s Appropriations Committee.

As a student organization, the revamped EARS leadership requested an operating budget of $1.60 per student from the S.A.. When it came time for deliberations, however, the appropriations committee only wanted to award them $1.30 per student. Granted, it was only a thirty cent  decrease, but those thirty cents would have given an already cash-strapped mental health resource a twenty percent lower per-patient operating budget. That’s thirty cents per student saved, but at what cost? Fewer people helped and fewer on-campus mental-health resources? After what all of us went through the last two years, how could shirking mental health even appear to be a viable option to our student leaders? 

There is good news, though. The S.A. at large blocked this decision and rightfully awarded EARS its requested budget. But, even that news didn’t exactly give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I was still disturbed by the audacity of the budget decrease proposal itself. These were students, people who are supposed to have our backs, and yet our mental health still came to splitting financial hairs. We’re all attending one of the more demanding universities in the middle of a global pandemic that has already taken a toll on young people’s mental health but not even our student representatives could agree that a counseling service was something worth funding extensively. With the context of pandemic isolation, the campus tragedies of the last two years and an utter lack of normalcy, I found it appalling to think there was even an opportunity for student health to be neglected.

Of course, the low-balled funding proposal wasn’t allowed to happen and truthfully, I don’t think there was any malice intended by the representatives who proposed it. I also understand that the appropriations committee has the prerogative to ensure adequate funding from the S.A.’s own limited budget for all of the student organizations on campus. That being said, it’s suggestion signals a continued disregard for mental health on campus. A sentiment that is reflected in  our courses, our professors and the institution at large. In the interest of saving costs or maintaining convenience, the students are too often the ones short changed.

Instead of belaboring this point from my idealistic high ground, I think two clear lessons can be taken away from the EARS fiasco. Firstly, the S.A. matters. Turns out those first semester elections and cheesy “vote me for S.A.” Instagram accounts affect us as the student body. Looking past the symbolic resolutions and petty politics, our undergraduate representatives do make decisions and approve appropriations that impact the everyday welfare of students. Maybe it’s time we pay them the attention their actions warrant. Whether it’s by actively participating, staying informed or voicing concerns to your representatives, we must reduce the distance between the assembly and the students they represent.

The second lesson here is that the attention paid towards mental wellness and the public-facing statements made by the University are nothing beyond callous virtue signaling. By not providing a mechanism to sustain EARS last year and, instead, leaving it up to students to revitalize it, the University has once again shown us that we are on our own. Certainly, there is room to be frustrated with our student representatives but it’s not their fault that these decisions were left in the assembly’s hands. Mental health services should be easily accessible for all students and not distilled down to $1.60 per head. If the University’s cut-rate insurance can’t even accommodate mental health, maybe it’s time the administration addressed the larger issue.

Brenner Beard ‘24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. Agree to Disagree runs every other Friday this semester.