I still vividly remember when I was in your shoes, eager to begin my four years on the Hill. My fellow classmates and I were excited to become active, participatory members of the Cornell community. Three years later, we are largely proud Cornellians who have carved out respective niches for ourselves. But collectively, our experiences have demonstrated a spirit of apathy and ambivalence toward the administration and decision-making process. By recognizing and mobilizing around the issues that will define your time at Cornell early, the Class of 2016 can rekindle a spirit of campus activism and take your rightful place at the Day Hall decision-making table.
The respective responses of the administration and students to major campus events during my time at Cornell illustrate both the promise of partnership and why many students feel alienated from University decision-makers. Three in particular are worth mentioning: the successful effort to build the New York City tech campus, major adjustments to the academic calendar and the changing nature of our Greek system.
The tech campus effort represents partnership between students and administrators at its best. Cornell lobbied hard for the chance to open an applied sciences school in New York City, and enlisted students to join the cause. Undergraduates started grassroots efforts and took advantage of social media to make Cornell’s case. The student support was unparalleled by any of the competing bidders and played a large part in Cornell’s success.
In another case, though, the student voice was far less effective. This past year, the Faculty Senate began the process of revising the Academic Calendar with the goal of improving student health. Ultimately, the administration voted to add an additional break in February at the expense of Senior Week, despite a Student Assembly-crafted petition opposing the change amassing over 1,500 signatures. A decision was purportedly made in the student interest, yet the vast majority of students seemed to disagree. Students were invited to participate in the crafting of the new calendar, but mobilized too late and with too little independent initiative.
Finally, changes to the Greek system have exposed a gap between how students and administrators view partnership. A few unfortunate events have demonstrated the need to eliminate egregious instances of hazing, and the University has demonstrated remarkable patience in working with students. But noticeable changes have yet to come to fruition because student leaders have been unwilling to collaborate in an initiative that is largely top-down. In other respects the administration has undercut Greek self-governance — not allowing houses the opportunity to provide safe drinking environments. If Greek student leaders were to have taken a less adversarial approach and demonstrated willingness to compromise, perhaps more desired outcomes could have been reached.
My generation of Cornellians has been faced with many changes, but we have failed to effectively respond and prove our worth as stakeholders. As incoming freshman, you have the ability to start fresh and show the administration you genuinely care. This means deviating from traditional, passive leadership structures and recognizing the full potential of social media. Don’t repeat the mistakes of failing to organize and conveying a tone of adversarial indifference to the administration. Student opinion should always matter, not just when Day Hall finds it convenient. In fact, we have a civic responsibility as members of the Cornell community to contribute our opinions regarding matters of campus importance.
Undoubtedly, your class will face a unique set of campus issues over your four years Far Above Cayuga’s Waters. It’s up to you as a group to naturally prioritize and let the student voice be heard when it matters most. I hope that you will immediately consider taking up the causes of Cornell’s affordability, academic organization and campus social life.
Recent changes to how the University grants financial aid have exacerbated the problem of a Cornell education’s affordability. That these changes were announced mid-summer is no coincidence. Demand a complete explanation and ensure that your class won’t graduate in 2016 burdened with debt.
Speaking of graduation, it is also imperative that your class guarantees courses of study are adequately preparing you for desired careers matching the changing economy. The announcements of a new sustainability major and University-wide business minor are promising, as was the creation of a unified Economics department. See to it that these are the first steps in creating a modern, streamlined academic experience for students.
And perhaps with most difficulty, you’ll need to convince administrators that you can operate a Greek system promoting safe, socially responsible fun. As a former officer of my fraternity, I recognize just how daunting a task this is. But I think President Skorton believes in the future of Greek life at Cornell and that you can bring back the best of fraternity social events while doing away with the worst of hazing.
I have little doubt that each and every one of you will become an integral part of the Cornell community in no time. But don’t stop there, as many in my class did. Take ownership of your campus, and take a real stake in issues that affect you the most. While my Class of 2013 left this task to a select few, your Class of 2016 should treat the student role in decision-making as a collective responsibility. Together, you will send a message to the Class of 2019 — perhaps in their Freshman Issue of The Sun — that the student voice matters and you can win in working with the administration.
Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.