Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community

It’s been a rough few weeks for college students: Zoom crashed on what was the first day of classes for several schools, and, at best, they’re quarantining with terrible food; at worst, their universities are already closing up shop due to COVID outbreaks.

Most of the eight Ivy League schools—in fact, all but one—have chosen to either go fully remote or instate a staggered return to campus. The exception to that is Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“There’s a lot of subtle coercion. And you don’t want to say no to a professor as a grad student because then, you know, they’re going to talk to other professors.”

With its first day of classes set for September 2, the university recently shared that it would consider shutting down campus, moving to online-only classes, and quarantining—but only if there are 250 coronavirus cases in any one week during the fall semester. (In conflict with that plan, on August 27, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York colleges would have to close for two weeks if they hit 100 cases in one week.)

If the campus remains open, they anticipate 1,200 cases throughout the fall semester. On August 29, Tompkins County identified the first Cornell COVID-19 cluster, with nine students confirmed “following several small social gatherings where people did not social distance or wear masks,” reports the Cornell Daily Sun.

While neighboring Ithaca College announced on August 18 it would be moving online, Cornell is moving full steam ahead, rolling out a “COVID-19 student ambassador program,” where students will serve as community role models and help with PPE distribution.

Throughout the summer, there’s been a battle between the university and the communities it’s impacting, who have no say in that matter: local Ithaca and Tompkins County residents and Cornell employees, including grad students. Student journalists at the Cornell Daily Sun have followed the story closely. Meanwhile, amid a financial aid crisis, students are indicting the university online in meme groups and on Reddit

As students returned to campus, Cornell resident assistants (RAs) went on strike with an open letter that amassed more than 800 signatures, as students began returning to campus en masse. The following day, the strike concluded after the university’s administration agreed to meet with the RAs, but Cornell RAs are now seeking to mobilize RAs on campuses nationwide to push their universities for better compensation and protective gear.

Before RAs ever made the trek back to campus, Ithaca residents pushed the university to consider the potential impact that bringing students back into town would have on their families and livelihoods.

As of August 24, Tompkins County reported a total of 242 COVID-19 cases, in a population of just more than 100,000; residents suspect the return of Cornell students, and their anticipated 1,200 cases, could cause that number to spike.


Riparnia “Ri” Bornstein, a proud Ithaca native, educator, and organizer with Redirect Cornell, an organization that has launched protests, petitions, and a Facebook group for residents to discuss their concerns, is unwilling to let Ithaca carry the brunt of Cornell’s reopening experiment. “My mother’s family, my mother, I live here, my students live in these hills,” Bornstein says.

Bornstein and likeminded Ithaca residents are critical of Cornell’s plan, given that its best-case scenario, if all students comply with all procedures, still presumes there will be COVID-19 spread. 

“[Cornell’s plan assumes] no one will ever break quarantine, that if they do break quarantine they’ll have the campus police called on them via a tip line that’s supposed to exploit town-gown division, and send ‘bad kids’ back home,” Bornstein says. “Which is insane that we have public universities in this country who are abolishing their connection with city police departments in an effort to increase public safety on their campus, and this premier  institution has decided to deploy [this plan].”

Bornstein is also concerned for Cornell employees and students: “They have a terrible record of dealing with their graduate students, and they have an awful record of busting up their own unions. Cornell is not a single entity, it is a bunch of different departments that are going to handle this in very different ways.”

Cornell graduate students are in a particular bind: As university employees without power to challenge their employer, they have been organizing at the departmental level and elsewhere throughout the university. Cornell previously rejected an attempt to unionize grad students.

Grad students do not necessarily have to teach in-person this fall: The discretion falls to their supervisor, which, as PhD candidate and Cornell Graduate Students United member Kyle Wellmerling points out, places an unreasonable burden on the student, especially given the power imbalance between professors and grad students. 

“I’ve actually had an okay experience, it seems very dependent on which Professor you TA for. But then some people kind of get forced into teaching in person if they can’t procure a good reason to teach remotely, and by good reason, that’s Cornell’s interpretation of good reason,” Wellmerling notes. “Some professors, they say, if you feel uncomfortable, let me know and we’ll make sure you teach remotely. But, I mean, even if that happens, you still feel like if I want to say I wanted to teach remotely, then I know I’m putting extra work on the teachers who are teaching in person because they’ll have to pick up slack.”

Wellmerling also expressed concern about figuring out how to ensure students are following the school’s social distancing guidance, given that they’re not usually placed in such a disciplinarian role.

While Wellmerling is grateful for his positive experiences so far, he is quick to add that it’s not representative; he knows friends and colleagues have been put in complicated positions. “There’s a lot of subtle coercion,” he says. “And you don’t want to say no to a professor as a grad student because then, you know, they’re going to talk to other professors.”

Grad student Tim Luttermoser tweeted on August 24 that the university had told a department that the university did not plan for any “financial hardship support” if a grad student falls sick during the semester. Cornell Graduate Students United has organized against the university’s decision to reopen. 

Nonetheless, the University’s reopening is still on schedule for this week, despite the concerns of several impacted populations. It remains to be seen if Cornell has innovated a new way to continue higher education through the pandemic, or, as many fear, if it has chosen “business as usual” over the safety of people.

Print
Print Share Comment Cite Upload Translate Updates

Leave a Reply

APA
Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free (2023-03-29T20:40:34+00:00) » Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/.
MLA
" » Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community." Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free - Tuesday September 1, 2020, https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/
HARVARD
Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free Tuesday September 1, 2020 » Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community., viewed 2023-03-29T20:40:34+00:00,<https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/>
VANCOUVER
Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free - » Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community. [Internet]. [Accessed 2023-03-29T20:40:34+00:00]. Available from: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/
CHICAGO
" » Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community." Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free - Accessed 2023-03-29T20:40:34+00:00. https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/
IEEE
" » Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community." Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free [Online]. Available: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/. [Accessed: 2023-03-29T20:40:34+00:00]
rf:citation
» Cornell University to Reopen this Fall Despite Opposition from Community | Lexi McMenamin | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/09/01/cornell-university-to-reopen-this-fall-despite-opposition-from-community/ | 2023-03-29T20:40:34+00:00
To access this feature you must login or create an account.