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August 2008

Lincoln: Clarity of Words and Thought

We continue our discussion of Lincoln at Gettysburg with the thoughts of Ben Furnas '06. Ben double-majored in Economics and Government in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is currently working at the Center for American Progress Action Fund (the 501c4 to CAP's 501c3 for all you election lawyers out there). He writes papers and blog posts dissecting John McCain's policies all day, helping to form the progressive policy critique of the man he refers to as the 'seven-housed-more-of-the-samey-faux-maverick.' You can check out more of his work here, if you're so inclined.

As I write this, another skinny "underqualified" Illinois politician is seeking to rouse the nation to a higher purpose with the power of his words (while getting himself elected President in the process). But I'd argue a clarity of words implies a clarity of thought, and to write properly is to think properly, act decisively and lead.

Walter asks whether analyzing words matters. I answer, of course, of course, of course it does.

Lincolns address was powerful not just because it re-cast American history as an ideal of an ever-perfectible nation dedicated to liberty that pre-dated any legal arrangement between the colonies. Rather, the dramatic decisions of his presidency were justified by these words, and they lay out a a framework for future action.

To the extent we understand history, we must understand the stories that people tell themselves that justify their own behavior, and the stories they receive from their leaders that define the collective (nation, race, civilization) that they are a part of. There is no division between "action" and "words" -- words are actions, and actions are understood in words.

This is something known well by professional political operatives when they talk about framing the debate, creating the mental structure in which all actions are understood. Lincoln, in the address, rejected the frame of North vs. South, a war between two political entities, instead, he recast the entire war as a rocky patch in the journey towards a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to...well, you know. This re-framing has tangible power: through the pains of Reconstruction, inspiring civil rights leaders almost a century later, and to justifying Bush's war on Iraq as an extension of America's timeless devotion to liberty. All are actions that derived their legitimacy (and thus the ability of political leaders to do things) from the words used to describe them.

One of the most fascinating pieces of the book was the discussion of Lincoln and the telegraph, a medium that privileges pithy language, rich with meaning but short on verbiage. It's a testament to Lincoln's clarity and carefulness of thought that he found communicating like this so appealing. I wonder whether the new communication media we've got today privilege any one type of thinking, and what types of leaders our 24-7 news cycle, blog-centric world will attract and spawn. (My prediction: editors and filterers, those who make sense of large amounts of information and recognize what's important and what's extraneous...those who get to the nub, not unlike Lincoln).

For further discussion::

--Has the ability of any leader to shape a coherent national political narrative gotten far more difficult with the explosion of media outlets and communication outlets? How is America's sense of itself shaped today? Is our American vision getting more coherent, or more incoherent, or has it always been a diverse mess?

--A clarity of words implies a clarity of thought, and to write properly is to think properly, act decisively and lead. Do you agree?

We have more thoughts from other alums in the queue, but for the time being, we'll point you to the Cornell Librarian's take on how the Gettysburg Address is similar to our favorite television show.

We also found the following blog post at CornellSun.com by Ross Brann, Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and Dean of the Alice Cook House interesting:

But when I tuned in to observe the Book Project panel discussion, I saw students asleep, milling about, talking on their cell phones, texting, talking and laughing with others, and what seemed to be a precious few engaged by the presentations. I gather it was uncomfortably hot in Barton. Admittedly the speakers were not rock stars or celebrities, merely highly gifted and marvelously articulate thinkers. I grant that Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg might not have gripped everyone equally (no work could). But…this was the first intellectual experience Cornell offered its new students. Unless the camerapersons were dispatched from rival institutions to capture images of disinterested Cornell students we have a problem: what are you doing here at Cornell?

All students should take note of our humble little project -- for many young alumni, such activities as the summer reading project can have direct applications to their line of work. So it's obvious that they benefited from their time on the Hill. Will you?

Matthew Nagowski | August 30, 2008 (#)

CUPD: Trail 'Served No Purpose' ?!?!

Eighteen days after we first broke the gorge fence story, it's nice to see that Sun has finally followed up on the news with some on-campus investigative journalism, interviewing a bunch of administrators from all over campus about the issue.

We were particularly struck by the following quote:

Kathy Zoner, the deputy chief of Cornell University Police Department, stated in an e-mail: “There are various types of fences near the gorges on campus. There are two fences built to restrict access to former pathways, the newest one is about 15 feet long and 8 feet tall at the trailhead near [the West Campus fraternity] Fiji. Its intention was to warn of dangers below and decommission the trail, as the trail served no purpose except to allow access to a dangerous natural area where we responded to multiple deaths in the past few years.”

Served no purpose? Dangerous natural area? Decommission the trail?


The natural area was not inherently dangerous and served numerous recreational and educational purposes. As any Cornell geologist will tell you, a descent into the gorges serves as a wonderful instructional tool to introduce students to the natural history of the gorges. The trail was no more dangerous than any of the other gorge trails in Ithaca -- Treman, Buttermilk, Six Mile Creek, Watkins Glen -- all of which remain open. And as any alum will tell you, the gorges served as a welcome respite to the hustle and bustle of campus life, allowing students to get in touch with themselves and the natural world.

That Cornell students are being denied access to the very natural beauty that attracted them to the University in the first place is a tragedy.

Matthew Nagowski | August 28, 2008 (#)

Lincoln: Words, Words, Words?

Back in June, MetaEzra announced a project in conjunction with Cornell's New Student Reading Project, Gary Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg. While the incoming class may have groaned at the thought of summer reading, some recent alumni -- all engaged in the nation's political arena in one form or another -- took up the book in stride and agreed to be part of an alumni panel here on this website.

So over the next two weeks we will get to see how Lincoln's words, or Wills's dissection of those words, bring meaning to the livelihoods of recent alums. Of course, these thoughts will come as the incoming Cornell class finds themselves discussing the book in their freshmen writing seminars, sandwiched between the excitement of two national political conventions. We've asked each participant to prepare some brief opening remarks, as well as some questions for future consideration.

And before we begin I would be amiss if I didn't thank Michael Busch at the Office of the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education for his support of this project -- he was able to find some spare copies of the book laying around Day Hall.

We will kick the discussion off with the thoughts of Walter Chen B.S. '04 M.Eng. '05, and 2008 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, presently living in inner-city Detroit. At Cornell, Walter was involved in such student activities as the National Hydrogen Competition and the infamous RoboCub competition. So he definitely brings a varied background to the table. Without any further ado:

I went to see Barack Obama when he came through Detroit two months ago. I think someone told me that the first serious black presidential candidate's sojourn through perhaps the most racially segregated major city in America would mark some kind of historic moment. I waited in line for two hours, cheered for Chauncey Billups when he came on stage, was bored by Obama, and then walked home. I can't think of any politician's words that have moved me, but the media and various 20-somethings involved in national politics continue to insist that Obama is a fantastic orator. Maybe I'm just out of touch with the pulse of America, but I looked around Joe Louis Arena too and saw some bored looks and people moving towards the exits while Obama blathered on.

I guess I have some skepticism generally about the ability for words to remake America -- the very premise for the book. From where I sit reading the book, it seemed like Wills just took it for granted that Lincoln's words remade America--not simply some rhetorical re-conceptualization of America but actually changed the behavior of others and the course of history--and didn't attempt to support that argument. On the other hand, I could just be missing the point.

My claim to being a 20-something involved in national politics is that I'm a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. I work for a federal appellate judge, helping her out by doing legal research and writing. Basically, I help the judge decide cases. Of course, in law, words count for a lot. Willis mentions Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as part of a severe putting down of the insurrection. The case Ex parte Milligan came out of that time (1866) and about 140 years later the Supreme Court analyzed the words written in that case to determine in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld how to treat illegal combatants. Still, my guess is that law exists to do things; it doesn't exist for its own sake. But even in the realm of law where words count for a lot, they can't seem to determine what happens next.

With that in mind, I prompt the following two questions.

-- Is talking about language something that we just do, or is it actually meaningful? Wilis's side-by-side comparisons of Lincoln's use of language, say, with William Seward's suggestions did not persuade me that Lincoln had a better grasp of the nuances of the spoken word.

-- Taking for granted for a second that words are important: how did Lincoln's invocation of texts such as the Bible open the door later for politicians to use the same language for different (perhaps opposing) political ends?

Matthew Nagowski | August 25, 2008 (#)

State Trims $10 MM From Budget

Back in the spring, we ruminated on the ongoing credit crisis and the threat of state budget cuts. Well, it seems that things are coming home to roost:

The final tally of budget reductions was not yet collected as of Thursday afternoon, said Vice Provost for Land Grant Affairs Ronald Seeber.

A general cut to State University of New York schools will amount to about $100 million, he said. He estimated that Cornell's share of that will be in the range of $9 million to $10 million.

“We expect there will be some significant program changes and maybe eliminations,” he said. “It would be up to the deans.”

The college deans will be scrambling to reorganize under their reduced budgets, especially since it is the middle of the fiscal year, Seeber said.

This might only set the stage for future cuts. But every cloud has its silver lining, and the budget crisis could lead Cornell could streamline its operations, eliminating redundancies and streamlining programs.

Matthew Nagowski | August 23, 2008 (#)

An Open Letter to the Class of 2012

So you moved in to North Campus today. And before we begin, a heartfelt congratulations on all of your myriad accomplishments to date. It is no small feat to enroll at a school like Cornell, and you and all of the people who have supported you in your life thus far should be commended.

But I’ll lay it to you bluntly: The coming years will come with a fair amount of work. Between reams of reading and weekly problem sets, long hours in the lab to overnighters in the studio, there is no doubt in my mind – or in your professors mind – that you will receive an education at Ezra’s University. And, yes even the Hotelies will have to work a bit harder than you might expect.

With all of your hard work, and occasional procrastination, you will also learn a lot outside of the classroom -- both from your peers and from the situations you will inevitably find yourself in. There will be excitement and doubt, laughter and tears, success and failure. Through it all, you will need to continue to follow your own interests and apply yourself, knowing that your lows are never too low and that your highs can always be higher.

There’s both good news and bad news in all of this.

The bad news is that you will probably leave a little bit more confused than when you arrived. Because while you will have mastered all the ins and outs of campus life by the time you graduate, you will only have just begun to appreciate the complex challenges and nuanced obstacles that will face you in our modern world.

But the good news is that I couldn’t begin to imagine a better setting to explore yourself and the world around you. You should only consider yourself privileged to be a student here. Tucked away from the whims of commerce and the noise of industry, East Hill offers a soulful respite to reflect and to learn. Ithaca offers wonder, beauty, and intrigue at every turn, and Cornell and its faculty offers unending resources, support, and freedom to achieve all that you seek.

And through it all, take time out to regain perspective. I recommend frequent trips to the top of McGraw Tower, which allows for breaktaking views of the campus, the city below, and the horizons beyond. Remember that through it all in life there will always be that horizon beyond.

The greatest thing you can develop during your time at Cornell is the ethic of hard work and spirit of insurmountability that built this University in the first place. It was Ezra’s effort – a man who would often walk for more than 30 miles in one day selling his telegraph equipment – and the passion of his first students – who had no way to pay for their education save for helping to build this institution’s first buildings – that continue to make this university today.

Ezra’s spirit cannot be taught. It can only be learned. Corrnell is a diverse, vast, and at times daunting place. But it offers something for everyone. Seek what you want out and soon you will offer something of your own to Cornell.

From one Cornellian to another, welcome to Cornell.

Matthew Nagowski | August 22, 2008 (#)

MetaEzra Wins a Fulbright!

Well, not quite. But our better half did.

I've known for some time, but thanks to this press release, I can now bestow public accolades. Congratulations to MetaEzra Associate Editor Andy Guess '05 for being one of 20 Cornellians to receive a prestigious Fulbright Award this year. Andy will be traveling to Romania in a few short months to study his topic of interest "Solving the 'Hungarian Problem' in Romania's Mainstream Media". Sounds... esoteric. Needless to say, we are certain that Andy will be enjoying the Romanian cafe scene on the American taxpayer's dime.

Three graduate students were also awarded a Fulbright-Hayes dissertation award. Last year Cornell tied Harvard with 21 Fulbright winners; the University of Michigan led the country with a whopping 37.

Matthew Nagowski | August 20, 2008 (#)

Have Gorge, Will Swim

Now, did anybody expect any other possible outcome from such a ridiculous and wasteful idea as a fence to keep students out of Fall Creek Gorge? I didn't think so:

Officer dispatched to take a report regarding an unknown individual(s) cutting a 4’ x 4’ hole in a gate of a chain link fence. The unknown individual(s) also stole the lock and locking mechanism to the gate and a 4’ x 4’ entrance sign.

We're publishing our content many hundred miles away from Ithaca, so if anybody could furnish pictures, it would be appreciated. At the same time, however, it should be noted that MetaEzra in no way condones criminal mischief, trespass, or property damage in any way shape or form.

I will say it again: This website would absolutely love to know which department of the administration thought up the idea of the fence. Anonymity guaranteed.

If there is anybody out there who doesn't feel comfortable about stepping through a broken chain-linked fence to get down into the Fall Creek Gorge, rest assured that there are other places to appreciate the gorges on campus. Of course, they too are illegal to swim in, but it doesn't stop these scofflaws:

Matthew Nagowski | August 19, 2008 (#)

The Swimming Pool in Fall Creek

Just below the bridge, on the south side, is a path by which one may descend to the bottom of the gorge and, if the water is not too high, follow its course, dry shod, to another large falls just above the suspension bridge. Below this falls is a great pool that in recent years has been favorite swimming place for the Summer Session students. This pool presents a quite animated appearance on a hot July afternoon, when a hundred or more bathers and divers may be disporting themselves at the same hour.

-- From page 444 of Concerning Cornell, by O.D. Von Engeln '08. Published in 1924.

Update: Reader JW writes in to call attention to a passage on the very next page of Von Engeln's book, pointing out a safety concern that Cornell has yet to fence off:

From the brink of the rock wall, above the Ithaca Falls, Cayuga Lake is one more visible and invites a voyage on its waters. If one yields to its lure, bear this warning in mind: Do not venture on Cayuga Lake in any craft that is liable to upset from its own crankiness, from waves or wind, unless you are willing to wear a life-preserver that will support your inert body indefinitely. It will not avail that you are a strong swimmer, the open waters of Cayuga are almost icy cold the year round and soon numb the efforts of the most hardy. Hence almost every year is marred by one or more tragic drownings.

Gee, doesn't the Cornell Crew team often practice on the open waters of Cayuga?

Matthew Nagowski | August 18, 2008 (#)

University Responds: Gorges a 'Safety Challenge'

Simeon Moss '73 has been kind enough to offer a proper explanation for the Stalin-esque chain link fencing that has appeared along the southern edge of Fall Creek, eliminating access to the popular sun-bathing and wading area under the Suspension Bridge:

The university's decision to close the trail to that portion of the Fall Creek Gorge is part of our ongoing concern for the health and safety of members of the Cornell community and the general public. That part of the gorge has proven to be particularly dangerous. It will be opened again when Cornell's senior administrators have assured themselves that our community understands the dangers associated with swimming in the gorge, and the university has worked with the City of Ithaca and the state to identify long- and short-term solutions to the issue of gorge safety.

We've been working diligently to communicate to our community on this issue -- such as developing and distributing a gorge-safety brochure that also is posted online posted online and participating in a task force led by the city to develop strategies to improve communications and programs related to safety in the gorges -- but we haven't been as successful as we'd like to have been. Our objective is not to keep students, or others, out of the gorge for any extended period of time, but to address concerns raised by members of the Cornell community who believe that more should be done to communicate the dangers that the gorges may pose to students, faculty, staff and visitors who may not have an appreciation of those dangers.

While we can’t guarantee that there will be no accidents in the gorges in the future, we are committed to working with the appropriate authorities to make sure that our community understands that, while the gorges are one of Cornell's defining features, they also represent a safety challenge that must be respected by us all.

The policy may seem reasonable when taken at face value, but you have to realize the University is reneging on a tradition of openness and responsibility that has lasted for close to one hundred and fifty years. If I am getting up in arms about the development, it is because I see the fencing as a symbol for what is being lost on Cornell's campus -- Cornell's very soul.

Cornell has never been an institution of in loco parentis and as a former Cornell professor of mine (now at Michigan State) once so aptly put it, if I wanted my hand held for four years I would have attended Williams or Notre Dame. Learning about oneself and the world in an unbridled Ithaca locale -- complete with boundless and largely unguided academic, extra-curricular, and social options is tantamount to the Cornell experience. It is a large part of what you are paying for when you decide to enroll at Cornell. And that's why the fencing is such a slap in the face to students and alums alike.

It would be interesting to hear where the policy originated -- whether it came from a more proactive and prescriptive side of campus (e.g. Susan Murphy, Vice President for Student and Academic Services) or the more reactionary side of campus (Environmental Health and Safety, always worried about a lawsuit). Either way, it is a dirty rotten shame, and shortsighted to boot. Are fences going to surround Beebe Lake and Lover's Leap next? (To say nothing of the Six Mile Creek swimming holes?)

So what can Cornell do to bring about an immediate deconstruction of the fence? Moss claims it will not occur until "senior administrators have assured themselves that our community understands the dangers associated with swimming in the gorge and the university has worked with the City of Ithaca and the state to identify long- and short-term solutions to the issue of gorge safety."

For starters, they could update the gorge brochure to more explicitly mention the accidental deaths that have occurred in the gorges. They could also build a memorial to all individuals who have drowned in the gorges somewhere on campus. (Hint to fraternities: What a lasting and meaningful pledge project!) And then they could offer free bus rides to Buttermilk Falls and Treman State Park so that students can swim and relax every day between May 1st and September 30th.

But I'm most interested by Moss mentioning that they are working with the State of New York in these matters. Might it mean helping to build a bona fide public park on Cornell's campus, complete with a monitored swimming area? I could easily see a part of Beebe Lake or Upper Cascadilla Creek converted into a legal swimming hole, with swimming facilities, regulations, and life guards.

But bigger questions remain: What will happen first? Will Milstein Hall be built? Or will the fences be taken down?

Matthew Nagowski | August 12, 2008 (#)

Cornell: No Freedom, No Responsibility

I'm at a loss for words. Carl Becker and Ezra Cornell are rolling over in their graves:


Someone, somebody, some administration has decided in their infinite wisdom to fence off the Fall Creek Gorge leading down to the trails below the Suspension Bridge. Presumably in the wake of Doug Lowe's tragic death earlier this summer.

This really sends an absolutely fantastic message to today's students, the generation of the organization kid: "Don't worry. You are excellent. You are perfect. You can do no wrong. And if there is any danger, we are hear to protect you. There's no reason to use your own sound mind and judgment and learn how to be responsible for your own actions, because we have converted the world into your own danger free play pen."

Yep. That's how you encourage the sound moral and character development of college students today. You wall off perceived danger while allowing them to indulge in all other sorts of reckless and dangerous human behavior, just as every other university in the nation allows.

Is Columbia University going to fence off the streets of New York City whenever something tragic happens?

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Ezra Cornell's university just received an ugly, chain-linked scar. The gorges are an intimate part of Cornell beauty: their scarred presence marking the landscape with the unyielding presence of time and change, their nature and history a reminder to all of our own mortal selves. Descending into Fall Creek is like taking a voyage through the human psyche.

Mr. Skorton: Tear down this wall. I beg you.

Matthew Nagowski | August 11, 2008 (#)

The Sun, New Media ... and Big Media

I did a story for Inside Higher Ed recently about a new network of Web sites created by College Publisher, the Viacom-owned online hosting service, that many editors see as a potential direct threat to their own readership. It was a familiar story to me, since in my Sun days our Web site ran on the Digital Partners (later renamed New Digital Group) platform, a somewhat cumbersome but usually reliable (and free) site host that was later purchased by College Publisher.

Now The Sun runs its own site, and it's the better for it. But surely the specter of your ostensible partner swooping in with corporate backing to steal your readers -- and therefore your advertisers -- is one that keeps editors up at night. In general, I think the threat has been overblown (the bulk of ad revenue still comes from the print edition) and that papers should do even more to stay ahead of the curve by offering their online readers what they want (local bar guides, message boards, opportunities to send in cell phone pics) without creating services no one will use (yet another social network, etc.).

Papers, The Sun included, haven't always been at the cutting edge of the media industry; we only stopped cutting and pasting our flats in 2004! They've weathered the storm better than other outlets, but the holiday won't last forever and now's the time to take control. I think The Sun and quite a few other papers are now getting it.

The Sun's Ben Eisen addresses these issues in a blog post, pointing out:

Conglomerating a lot of local coverage from different places together under the direction of one company -- which the [Campus Daily] Guides are trying to do -- is a business model that has also begun to take over local community news. Gate House Media, for example, owns over 500 local town newspapers. Who’s to say that couldn’t happen in college journalism? Why couldn’t The Sun be owned by a large company that also owns The Harvard Crimson, The Daily Pennsylvanian and 100 other newspapers?

In 2005, there was a Gannett-funded (I think?) attempt to do just that, by publishing a weekly print-based alternative paper geared toward upstate New York college students. What I learned from that experience is that usually, attempts by corporations to appeal to young readers backfire because of a perceived lack of authenticity. For the foreseeable future, authenticity remains in college newsrooms as well as a handful of well-read blogs, which themselves rely on college journalism. It will be interesting to see where things are headed over the next few years.

Andy Guess | August 08, 2008 (#)

Cornell Overenrolls by 4%, Yield at 47% for Class of 2012

Cornell's admissions office has released some data points on the entering class of 2012. Readers, no doubt, will remember when we speculated on the yield for the Class of 2012 and whether or not Cornell would have to go to the waitlist.

Well, it appears that Cornell bested its expected yield of 45 percent, posting a 47 percent yield. 3,183 students are slated to begin their academic careers in Ithaca in less than two weeks time. Keep in mind that the university targets an entering class size of 3,050, and that 6,730 students were originally accepted to Cornell, 1,139 of which were accepted early decision. Coincidentally, the final yields are the same as last year, 47 and 37 percent, respectively, for total and regular admits, but Cornell actually underenrolled last year, with 3,010 entering students. If any of Cornell's colleges went to the wait list this year, they probably didn't use them all that heavily.

So Cornell is presently over-enrolled by 4 percent. I suppose it means that some doubles will find themselves converted triples this year. We would also have liked to have known what the number was back in May before all the Harvards and Princetons of the world aggressively started using their waitlists. Of course, this is probably why Cornell has waited so long to release its numbers -- waitlist activity occurred far into the summer this year.

Most interesting to us is how the composition of the entering class differs. Last year, 5.6 percent of entering students were African-American and 9 percent were international. This year? 4 and 10 percent, respectively. It's hard not to wonder how much Cornell's relatively meager financial aid policies have affected these trends. International students, of course, are typically wealthy and do not receive financial aid, while African-American students often come from among the neediest families.

N.B. Special thanks to Mr. Guess for holding down the fort while I was off in California for a Cornellian wedding. Yes. We sang the Alma Mater.

Matthew Nagowski | August 06, 2008 (#)

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-- Barrier Update: Legal precedent suggests City of Ithaca will not be held liable for gorge suicide (DJost)

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