October 11, 2023

RUEFF | The Beginning of an End: Why Make Cornell Pay Matters

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I get it, you’ve read a lot of articles this month about the Make Cornell Pay movement. You heard about the draft settlement last week and the strike on Monday, and maybe you even knew about the council vote on Wednesday. Regardless, you may or may not agree that Cornell ought to pay Ithaca more (as long as it doesn’t increase your tuition — which it won’t).

But you’re tired of hearing about the Make Cornell Pay movement. It’s not like you can do anything to convince a couple of snobby bureaucrats to just “give up” a piece of their precious endowment. And even if you could, why bother? It’s just one school in one town, after all.

Well, here’s one more article about Make Cornell Pay that will show you — with data and everything — why this movement is such a huge freaking deal and what exactly you can do about it. If this is your first time ever hearing of Make Cornell Pay, I’d encourage you to read this article

Many private universities, including Cornell, are registered as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. This status means they owe hardly any taxes to their host city. While this is great for the University, it means that the city isn’t promised any financial compensation, despite the infrastructural support it provides for all of the University’s students, faculty and employees. If you took high school biology, you’ll quickly recognize this as a parasitic relationship: One entity benefits at the other’s expense (literally). 

But Cornell is just one of the hundreds of private universities across the country. You might ask, why focus on Ithaca? To answer this, I compared the amount Cornell, Harvard, Princeton and Yale pay their host cities as a percent of each city’s budget. I also threw in their endowments to put everything in perspective. Here are the full results.

In the attached data table, you’ll notice Yale pays the greatest percent of its city’s budget. In fact, recently, Yale made headlines for its $135 million, six-year voluntary payment to New Haven because it became the Ivy funding the largest percent of its city’s budget. And even then, Yale is only funding less than a fraction of a percent of its city’s budget using just above a twentieth of a percent of its endowment. Why do we live in a society where a university can spend a twentieth of a percent of its endowment on its city — a place it literally could not exist without — and make headlines? 

Cornell, you’ll notice, is doing the worst. While Cornell has the smallest endowment of the sample, it still pays both the smallest percent of its city’s budget and the smallest percent of its endowment. Cornell, which prides itself as a world leader in sustainability both off campus and in its local community, is starving its city even more than the rest of the Ivies sampled. A starved city has to focus on surviving: It keeps its public infrastructure afloat and manages day-by-day, reacting as issues arise. It doesn’t have time to rest, even for a minute. It can’t think ahead to the sustainable, equitable future we need now more than ever. 

Of course, none of these universities are adequately supporting their cities. Even in New Haven, where Yale made headlines, the city struggles more each year as Yale affiliates encroach deeper and deeper into the city. They use more and more of its services without matching, fiscally, what they really owe. 

This issue is so much bigger than Cornell or Ithaca. Private universities across the country have been called out for feeding off of the hospitality of their cities, depriving them of the ability to flourish as they themselves have.

So, why are these universities still getting away with this exploitation? Well, in Ithaca at least, the city cannot create its budget for the next fiscal year until it has settled with Cornell. As Alderperson Jorge DeFendini ’22 said at last Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, “This is not a partnership, it is a hostage situation.”

At last Wednesday’s council meeting, Mayor Lewis announced that the council would delay voting on the draft settlement of $4 million until October 11. The Make Cornell Pay movement now has two more weeks. Two more weeks to push for increased visibility of the negotiations and decrease the length of each MoU. More importantly, it has two more weeks to be heard by Cornell. Now, more than ever, Make Cornell Pay needs you. If you want to get involved in this movement, a movement that has the potential of making national headlines and redefining the relationship between countless private universities and their cities across the nation, contact me. 

This can be the beginning of an end to the exploitation of hundreds of cities, but only with your support. 

Katie Rueff is a first year in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].