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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 canít 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 | Posted on August 12, 2008 (#)

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