Isabelle Jung/Sun Graphics Editor

April 19, 2024

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | The Referendum Language Violates the S.A. Charter

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To the Editor: 

Re: Divestment Referendum Opponents Argue Questions Not Phrased Neutrally, S.A. Stands by Validity of Referendum (news, April 18)

At Cornell, a “referendum must contain a single or a series of referendum questions that are neutrally worded and call for a yes/no response,” according to S.A. Charter Section 8, part B, subsection i, lines 108-109.

When the Student Assembly placed the “Should Cornell University follow their 2016 Guidelines for Divestment” referendum on a ballot for the entire undergraduate student body, it violated its charter by including a loaded, biased question. If the S.A. wants to abide by its own rules, this referendum must be scrapped from the ballot. 

The 2016 guidelines for divestment state, “the board will consider divesting its endowment assets from a company only when the company’s actions or inactions are ‘morally reprehensible,’ constituting apartheid, genocide, human trafficking, slavery or systemic cruelty to children, including violation of child labor laws.”

Regardless of whether you believe Israel is committing genocide or what you believe to be the proper war strategy for Israel, even the International Court of Justice has not declared it a fact that Israel is the perpetrator of genocide.

The International Court of Justice in South Africa v. Israel “found it plausible that Israel’s acts could amount to genocide” and issued six provisional measures to ensure such an act does not occur. This is not the same as finding Israel’s actions to be an actual “genocide” and thus does not meet the 2016 Guidelines for Divestment. The language is not neutrally worded when it misleads the reader to believe the 2016 Guidelines for Divestment have been met. 

The first sentence of the referendum leads voters to believe that divestment is the only sensible choice because it claims certainty on matters of debate: these companies are “supporting the ongoing war in Gaza,” and the war is a “plausible genocide.” Moreover, the second sentence assumes that divesting from these companies will lead to alignment with the 2016 guidelines — another loaded question.  The question could be considered “neutrally worded” if it read as “Should Cornell University divest from the following weapons manufacturers?” The non-neutral wording coaxes voters into a “yes” rather than providing an objective question and allowing voters to respond in kind.

In the charter, a referendum is made to “determine….student needs and opinions.” Student opinion cannot be accurately discerned from the results of a survey with leading questions.

Referendums can act as a democratic tool to gain the input of the Cornell undergraduate community on pressing issues. Just like public opinion polling, asking good, objective questions is essential. A referendum, however, like this one, which violates the charter and other governing documents has no legitimacy at Cornell, or among the general public.

— Simone Shteingart ’24