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Unmasking the Big Red Tape

Elliot Back has posted an interesting and somewhat misleading article on his blog about what Cornellians affectionately refer to as the "Big Red Tape" -- what he defines as Cornell's "hasslesome adherence to bloated policy and procedure."

Before addressing the overall premise of the article, I wanted to point out one blatant error in Elliott's post -- his claim that "other colleges’ endowments (are) skyrocketing and Cornell University’s (is) slowly rising. Quite simply, this is not true. In 2005, of the top 20 endowments in the nation, Cornell ranked fifth in terms of endowment growth. Moreover, over the past ten years, Cornell's endowment rank among private institutions has only slid from 13th from 15th -- a dip nonetheless, but hardly suggesting that other universities' endowments have "skyrocketed" past Cornell's.

As for Cornell's alleged "red tape", it should be taken as granted that Cornell is a large and complex organization serving many diverse needs and aims, and it comes with its share of bureaucratic hang-ups and processes to improve upon. But, quite frankly, with so many different colleges and administrative units, I am amazed that Cornell is able to work as effectively as it does. Student service offices on the Hill go to great aims to cater to students needs, and are often responsive to unique requests; nearly all professors are efficient in their grading and dealing with academic matters; cross-registering for classes across different colleges is ridiculously easy; and every year, without hitch, the campus magically transforms itself into feeling like a lush country club for Commencement and Reunion.

What are Elliott's gripes then?

We get bombarded by bills for our Cornell Cards, charged a $200+ fee for student activities as freshman, charged to work out at the gyms, charged to eat at dining halls, charged to take out “hot new library books” for more than a brief period of time, automatically enrolled into their health care plan for $1000+ a year unless we opt out, and subjected to numerous other billings.
Well, let's see... students don't necessarily have to have Cornell Cards if they don't want to sign up for them. And textbook costs can easily be contained by using the books that are freely available on reserve at the library. (I did this for more than one course.) Meanwhile, the Student Activity Fee is one of the best things about Cornell -- levied by students it is a democratic way to ensure that each student's interests can be pursued at an institution that seeks to accommodate "instruction in any study" -- everything from croquet clubs to Solar Decathlon Teams, narcissistic anonymous journals to anime-interest associations are financed by this fee. I would maintain that one hasn't spent their time on East Hill properly if they don't feel that they got their money's worth out of their Student Activity Fee.

And then Elliott complains about things that I am quite happy that Cornell charged for its use -- simply because I didn't necessarily want to use these services, and I saw no reason why my tuition dollars should subsidize the costs of additional services that had nothing to do with my education and that I would never use. Why should the cost of parking on a crowded campus be subsidized by people who had no use or desire for a car? Or why should I help to finance the fitness gym if I preferred to get my exercise in the great outdoors (in Cornell's amazing setting, nonetheless) or use one of the pools or tracks that for free? Or why should my tuition automatically include the costs of using the dining halls, especially if I lived off-campus for three years and preferred to eat much more cheaply with the food that I purchased at Wegman's? And the idea that library fines should not be imposed on in-demand books that are overdue is asinine – how else can the University guarantee that its limited number of resources can be used by as many members of its community as possible within a reasonable time frame?

Then, of course, there are a lot of things that Cornell does subsidize out of student’s tuition money, but these are mostly justified by the fact that the services that Cornell is provisioning helps to alleviate other problems that might occur if not for Cornell’s policies – Cornell’s subsidy of the bus system, which helps to mitigate congestion on an already crowded Central Campus is a great example of such a policy.

So Cornell may "nickel and dime" on some of its policies, but they do it for good reason: it doesn't want to make its already cash-starved student body pay more for services that they would never want to use.
Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 23, 2006 (#)

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