April 25, 2022

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: RE: ‘Welcome to Cornell, Inc.’

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To the Editor:

The article “Welcome to Cornell, Inc.” by John Monkovic ‘24 raises many interesting ideas — some valid and others misinformed.  

He is correct that “shared governance” has become “nothing more than a buzzword.” For most of Cornell’s history, the faculty ran the show with very few staff in the central administration. The Trustees delegated power to the President, the faculty and a few specialized boards.

In the turmoil of the 1960s, this changed. The Trustees delegated policy and budgetary control over what is now called Student and Campus Life to the University Senate, and the Senate also controlled the campus judicial system. Gradually, the Trustees and central administration clawed back power, until August 2021, when the last area of authority, the judicial system, was removed and given to Day Hall. The Senate, which provided an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to work together, was shifted to a much smaller University Assembly and separate groups for undergraduates, graduate students, employees and faculty. The current Student Assembly lacks the credibility and maturity of a group that has a large number of older and more experienced members — the S.A.’s only remaining power is the allocation of the student activity fee.

I agree with Monkovic that so many Board-elected Trustees is unhealthy and makes the Board self-perpetuating. When the Senate Constitution was adopted in 1970, it called for 10 alumni-elected trustees, five student trustees, four faculty trustees, a non-tenured faculty trustee, a faculty trustee elected by the student body and four community trustees elected by the Senate. An employee trustee was quickly added. The plan was to replace the Trustee-elected trustees with this group, but the Board added seats rather than replace existing seats when taking the plan to the Legislature. When community interest waned, the Board later reduced these seats to their present level.

Monkovic shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Cornell’s nature. We are a hybrid of a public university and a private one — the only such member of the Ivy League.  Four of our colleges are units of SUNY, operating in state-owned buildings and receiving annual appropriations from the NYS Legislature. We also operate the Cooperative Extension program that serves every county in New York. This brings much more public accountability than occurs at Harvard or Yale.

Monkovic is also wrong about our endowment, which is better measured on a per student basis. Harvard has a $1,648,721.12 endowment per full time student; Princeton has $3,407,138.28; Yale has $2,304,579.36; and Cornell is at the bottom of the Ivies with only $284,715.92. So, Cornell is much more dependent upon grants and annual alumni donations.

Cornell’s endowment consists of more than 8,000 separate accounts that represent promises to 8,000 donors that their funds will be used for the designated purpose in perpetuity. In addition, Cornell invests deferred giving plans with the promise to pay some retirement savings back to donors or their spouses. It would be immoral to take and repurpose this money for other “spoils to the masses” purposes. Each endowment account is targeted for scholarships, faculty salaries, building upkeep or other designated purposes, and the diversity of these funds makes Cornell unique. The payout from the endowment to the 8,000 accounts provides about 10 percent of the operating revenues for the Ithaca campus and 7 percent of Cornell’s total operating revenues.

As a whole, Cornell has kept to Erza’s “radical vision,” but endowment spending must be true to the vision of each of its 8,000 donors.

Robert C. Platt ’73 law ’76