April 22, 2024

CHANCELLOR | The Hollow University

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The chimes ring with the alma mater, students walk with friends to class or a dining hall and snow falls on the cherry blossoms. Welcome to Cornell University, same as it was and will be, even if the students change, the fashions change, the technology advances and new buildings that assault eyes are erected. A part of the Ivy League, which — while technically just the name of our sports conference — signifies that we are part of a storied institution that has produced numerous Presidents, Congresspeople and Supreme Court Justices.

The current problems of institutions like the Ivy League — and Cornell specifically — are not, as many on campus today claim, rooted in their histories but are in fact a modern or even post-modern problem. The problem is that our traditions throughout the campus mean nothing. Where in the past they were filled with life, they now, just like our mascot Touchdown, are empty. 

There is no better example of this than Cornell’s system of shared governance. Born out of the historic Willard Straight takeover in 1969, where students fought and won the right to help run the University. While shared governance still exists in name, the actual institutions are laughable: just look at the administration’s complete bypass of the system to implement the Interim Expressive Activity Policy. Rather than passing productive resolutions, the members of organizations like the Student Assembly treat their institution as a reenactment of House of Cards. And for those who think the current saga in the SA is a new phenomenon, whether it be in 2024 or 2020 the S.A. has spent a long time treating ethical standards as suggestions. 

With ethics as strict as a College-town bar I.D. policy, one might at least hope that the Assembly manages to put together productive legislation. Unfortunately — even when they’re not advocating for foreign policy changes — the S.A. has embarrassed those it is supposed to serve. They’ve made Cornell a national laughing stock by trying to mandate trigger warnings or disarm the campus police.  But one cannot completely blame the students on the Assembly or the fraction of students who voted for them, because the problem that affects them is much deeper. The true problem is that institutions like the S.A., and with them the most integral qualities of a university,  have lost their sense of purpose.

This lost purpose allows us to keep the facade of the same institutions and traditions, but  with hollowed out meaning. This is what allows Cornell to give out the same degrees despite the perpetually decreasing knowledge behind them. Every year, more and more students are crammed into lectures that Professors and students alike  couldn’t care less about. Cornell and the university system has lost its purpose, education and research, and instead has chosen to industrialize the degree process to the point that students outnumber beds. 

The reason why the S.A. operates as a blight on Cornell is because its members and the student body at large have lost track of the reason for shared governance. And while some on campus are rabid to solve this problem through abolition, that too ignores the original purpose of shared governance fought for by previous generations. As with any institution, reorienting it back to its purpose requires evaluating the history of the institution. The history of the S.A. tells the story of students struggling against the administration to better their university — such as adding an Africana Studies center on campus. Shared governance allowed for that to happen and hopefully will allow future generations of Cornelians to share their frustrations with the administration rather than create more frustration among the student body with rank partisan resolutions and Game of Thrones-esque intrigue. Once the institutions of shared governance find their purpose again and become filled with life instead of a hollow shell of themselves, and provide an example to the rest of the University to find its purpose as well.   

Armand Chancellor is a third year student in the Brooks School of Public Policy. His fortnightly column The Rostrum focuses on the interaction of politics and culture at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected].

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