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November 2010

MetaEzra Holiday Contest: 161 Things Every Alumna/us Must Do

Last weekend I partook in something that every Cornell alumna/us must do at least once in their lifetime: I marched down New York City's famed Fifth Avenue with close friends from undergrad, from Rockefeller Center to the Cornell Club, as part of the bi-annual Sy Katz '31 Memorial Parade -- apparently the shortest parade in New York City.

On top of being able to reconnect with many old Cornell friends who I haven't seen in years (who were too lazy to make it to Ithaca for Reunions or Homecomings or the stray hockey game), the parade reminded me of a project I had been working on but had since placed on the back-burner -- creating a list of 161 Things That Every Cornell Alumna/us Must Do before they die. This would be a 'Far Beyond Cayuga's Waters Bucket List', so to speak, to complement the widely publicized 161 Things Every Cornellian (Student) Must Do first published by the alumni magazine in 1995 and is now refreshed annually by the Daily Sun. That list has inspired interactive websites and many YouTube video and has permanently become an enduring Cornell tradition.

Now, loyal MetaEzra readers will no doubt recall that I've bemoaned many of the changes that have happened to the list over the years as it's progressively become less educational, diverse, and uniquely Cornellian in its aspirations, instead devolving into a list of alcohol and libido-fueled tomfoolery that can be found on any college campus. Because, really, Richard Farina is so much better than Four Loko or whatever the kids are raving about these days. So part of the goal of this new alumni-centric list is revert to that earlier, more genteel mindset, but at the same time, we don't want to sound too much like the organ of the University. This is an independent publication, after all.

Of course, 161 action items is a long list to make, and we will not be able to complete this project without a little help from all of our Cornellian friends: meaning you. So this year's MetaEzra holiday contest encourages our alumni readership to submit their top five choices for things that every Cornell alumnus/a must do. Be creative and funny, wistful, earnest, or sarcastic. Or some combination thereof. I have a hand-picked group of judges who will help to sift through the submissions to both a) compile a finalized list and b) select the submission with the best five entries.

Please email your five submissions by Wednesday, December 22nd to editor(at)metaezra.com with the subject line '161 Things Submission'. Winners and the finalized list will be announced in early 2011. An as yet to be determined prize will be awarded at that time.

And to whet your appetite a bit, I've proposed 25 possibilities below. Enjoy!

1. After graduation, stick around in Ithaca for a few days, weeks, or even years. Become a townie, even if just for a little while.

2. Try to get your senior thesis published. Pass yourself off as a graduate student, or better yet, a professor, to the journal’s editors.

3. Date a current student while you’re out in the real world. Tell everybody you meet who is still a student that they have no idea how good they have it.

4. Enroll in a graduate program. Realize just how well your Cornell education prepared you.

5. Attend your 5th year reunion. Hit up the Palms, party like you did when you were 21, and realize that you’re not so young anymore.

Matthew Nagowski | November 23, 2010 (#)

Fencing in the Argument Against Fences

Love them or hate them, and I'm thoroughly conflicted, the University released a pile of useful information meant to inform the gorge fence debate yesterday.

Sifting through the consultant reports and schematic diagrams, there are a lot of very useful data presented, including bridge spans and heights. Did you know that the Thurston Avenue Bridge is 235 feet long, spanning a drop of 112 feet into the Fall Creek Gorge? There are also neat mock-ups of what certain bridges would look like. Here, for instance, is the Fall Creek Suspension Bridge:


Taken in total, the reports reflect an exhaustive look at the University's approach to dealing with the gorge suicide issue. It provides a thorough review of the literature and an argument against the 'substitution suggestion', or that suicidal individuals restricted from bridge jumping will just take their life in a different fashion:

Method restriction at a particular site may still be justifiable even as substitution may evolve over the course of time. When assessing the safety standards of any structure, it is important to ascertain the level of risk to public safety that a structure poses and to impose appropriate safeguards if the risk is substantial. If it becomes apparent that some specific feature of the social or physical environment facilitates or encourages suicidal behavior, we would argue the ethical imperative of removing access to that feature even when it is not possible to guarantee that substitution will not occur.

It also makes the lurking legal liability argument, which while cynical, is an altogether reasonable rational for the University to follow the fences route::

There are an increasing number of studies which show that barriers, safety nets and muted media reporting are effective in reducing and preventing suicides by jumping from specific sites, and further, that there is no evidence of transfer to other sites and some evidence of a decrease in suicides by jumping in the surrounding area. These findings suggest that these approaches are now moving towards becoming best practice in suicide prevention. In turn, the development of best practice guidelines for preventing suicide by jumping raises important issues about the accountability and liability of authorities with responsibility for bridges, structures and sites from which people jump. Recent years have seen an increased awareness of patient rights and increasing litigation over failure to protect the public from risk. Growing awareness of the fact that suicide mortality and morbidity may be reduced by appropriate barriers could well, in the future, become further grounds for consumer-led litigation.

But I think the strongest argument comes not from the University's consultants but from a senior, Deirdre Mulligan, who lost one her friends, Matt Zika '11, in the string of tragedies last spring. As she wrote in the Sun yesterday:

But I love the fences, and I haven’t talked to a single person who was as close with Matt as I was who isn’t also thankful for them. For me, and for anyone else who lost a friend to suicide, it does not take the sight of a fence to bring to mind last year’s suicides. There is not a day — not an hour — that goes by that the sadness, guilt, loneliness, regret and every other unavoidable emotion that comes with the loss of a close friend doesn’t overwhelm me.

So yes, I love the fences. If a sticker I saw today on the Collegetown Bridge is to be believed, “The fences saved someone’s life over the summer.” The sight of a fence could never, ever be as painful as reading ignorant and hate-filled words on a bridge telling suicidal people that they deserve to die.

She ends fittingly:

The sight of a fence could never be as painful as the sight of your best friend’s tombstone.

Matthew Nagowski | November 23, 2010 (#)

Cornell, T. Colin Campbell, and the China Study

In my student days, when my procrastination-prone roommates and I would have heated discussions lasting by the hours, if not days, we once had a debate about the relative health benefits of drinking cow's milk. I wasn't convinced that a liquid designed for calves was the healthiest for human consumption. My liquid-lactose loving roommates claimed otherwise. Dear Uncle Ezra was actually called to the rescue:

What do you know about the affect cow's milk has on humans? Our apartment woke up this morning only to get into an argument regarding whether or not milk has ill affects to one's body. Does milk really 'do a body good?' Your curious nephews on West…

Aside from the glaring fact that our sophomore selves didn't know the difference between affect and effect, Dear Uncle Ezra's response was entirely too predictable for a land-grant university in a large dairy state: milk is an essential source for your necessary nutritional intake!

Unfortunately, both MetaEzra and our Dear Old Uncle Ezra should have asked Cornell doctorate and Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell the question instead. Campbell's research shows that diets with low or no animal products are associated with much lower incidences of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Campbell's best-selling book, The China Study traced chronic diseases to their diet-based sources by studying the incidence of disease across the different diets of China:

As some of you may recall, Campbell was also the professor who's 'vegetarian nutrition' course was canceled without explanation a couple of years ago by a dean with connections to the dairy industry. But since then, Campbell has drawn accolades from the likes of Bill Clinton and others.

Given my own struggle with an autoimmune arthritis, I've been interested in the work of Campbell and others, and was privileged to be able to hear Campbell speak today as part of an educational speaker-series hosted by a local cooperative market. Now, I've heard others speculate that Campbell is a bit 'out there', and I was fully expecting Campbell to come out and aggressively denounce the dairy and livestock lobby, the federal government's food policies, and our national obsession with meat and animal fat. But instead, Campbell came across almost as apologetic -- the son of a dairy farmer who was more chagrined by his findings than anybody else. (It was amusing, however, to see him present some pretty sophisticated regression statistics to a lay audience.)

Interestingly, there was a specific question from the audience about Campbell's relationship with his colleagues in the animal science department and the Ag School's position relative to the industry as a whole. (And, no, it didn't come from me!) Here too, I was surprised. Campbell spoke very highly of Cornell as an institution, asserting that he had 'brilliant colleagues', and maintained that he only had misgivings about a select few of his fellow faculty members with ties to the dairy industry. But he did publicly regret the fact that his department canceled his popular class 'for unknown reasons' and maintained that it was an issue of academic integrity, both at Cornell and elsewhere in academe.

Coincidentally, Cornell is still not offering any courses on vegetarian nutrition in its courses of study, but the profit-driven eCornell thinks that it is worth it to offer classes on Campbell's research. Maybe it is all about the money.

N.B. To read some criticisms of The China Study (from a vegetarian's perspective) you can click here. And in the interest of full disclosure, I do consume meat on occasion and French cheese is my heroin.

Matthew Nagowski | November 21, 2010 (#)

Is Cornell In A Bubble?

That's a question that President Skorton was asked at an address to faculty staff last week. And we're not talking about the East Hill News bubble:

Is higher education in a "bubble," that is, overvalued and headed for a crash? While the cost of higher education is unsustainable, Cornell is not at risk for a financial crisis because it gets its income from a wider range of sources than most universities, he said.

Skorton is right that Cornell has a diversified revenue stream -- tuition comprises 25 percent of the University's funding and investments comprising another 11 percent. Compare this to a place like Williams College where investments make-up over a third of revenues, with tuition making up the bulk of the remainder. That's why Cornell has been able to strengthen it's financial aid policies in the last year, while Williams has had to go back to requiring financial aid packages to include loans.

He's also right that the cost increases in college education are unsustainable.

Skorton must have a different definition of 'bubble' to me, because when prices become unsustainable, they generally come down. That's what a bubble is, right? And that's why the University had to cut $71MM this year and future cuts are certain.

So Skorton knows that higher education is in a bubble, but is also trying to console his staff and keep morale high.

But as MetaEzra readers know, there are really two different bubble in higher education: the institutional debt bubble (which institutions have been using to hide their pain) and the student loan bubble (which families have been using to hide their pain).

Matthew Nagowski | November 18, 2010 (#)

The Joys of Not Being a Hotelie

We're not certain which is worse: taking a course with a bunch of snot-nosed brats who audibly yawn at the lecturer, having a teacher who takes his job so seriously that he feels the need to waste lecture time to figure out where the yawn came from, or being required to take a course on business computing, which includes such stimulative content as learning the definition of a kilobyte.

Matthew Nagowski | November 16, 2010 (#)

Recent Donation Spurs Sub-Millimeter Science

The great recession has drastically altered the financial landscape of higher education. On the one hand, shrunken endowments, lower donation rates and cuts in state funding have led to shrunken and eliminated programs and spending cuts. But despite this, strategic investments by Cornell’s wealthiest alumni and record stimulus spending on basic research have let some departments continue to push ahead as leaders in their fields.

Certainly near the top of that small list of fortunate programs is Cornell’s astronomy department, placed in highest priority category by the College of Arts and Science’s strategic plan, and no-doubt benefiting from the Obama administration’s record spending levels on science research.

The department is known for playing key roles in high-profile projects like the Mars Rover, the Arecibo Observatory and the Spitzer Space telescope. Add to that list the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (formerly the Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope) --a 25-meter wide dish to be used for sub-millimeter astronomy, still in the design phase.

The project was already in a strong position, being led by two Astro powerhouses: Cornell and Caltech. Other Universities, including Colorado at Boulder, have since joined in the effort. Then, another shot in the arm came when astronomers met recently to decide which projects to put on the front burner in this coming decade. In the 2010 Decadal Survey by Nasa, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy (the three big sugar daddies of astronomy), CCAT was placed on a short list of high priority projects.

And now the latest development: an $11 Million donation from Fred Young '64, M.Eng. '66, MBA '66, CEO of Young Radiator Co.

The Science: Light is often best described as a wave moving through space. Like sound waves, it comes at many different frequencies (and thus many different wavelengths). We see waves with a wavelength of roughly half a micrometer, but physicists and astronomers work at many more very extreme wavelengths. Over the at the Cornell synchrotron, they’re using much smaller wavelengths (X-Rays) to look at indiviual atoms. While down in Peurto Rico at the Cornell-run Arecibo observatory they’re “seeing” radio waves (with wavelengths from a few centimeters to a full meter).

Munier Salem | November 15, 2010 (#)

The Ethos of a Land Grant Institution

Timothy Shaffer is a Ph.D. student in Adult and Extension Education. He's featured in a Sun guest column this morning that channels Liberty Hyde Bailey, arguing that 'land-grant' should be more than just the publicity of research, but must meaningfully engage the citizenry:

Liberty Hyde Bailey, a name that may only sound familiar because a hall bears his name, was one of these educators in our land-grant history who offered another approach to Cornell’s public mission. He wrote books such as What is Democracy? and The Holy Earth. In the latter he writes, “The college may be the guiding force, but it should not remove responsibility from the people of the localities, or offer them a kind of co-operation that is only the privilege of partaking in the college enterprises. I fear that some of our so-called co-operation in public work of many kinds is little more than to allow the co-operator to approve what the official administration has done.” What Bailey wrote about is more than translating research into usable information.

Education takes seriously that the most pressing issues our state, nation and world face are not simply technical. They are technical in some respect, but they are also political, cultural, ethical and even religious. Bailey wrote about this in 1915. Who will write about this in 2015?

This counter-narrative of the land-grant mission, albeit marginal throughout history, has been about engaging citizens and communities not as receptacles for information but as co-creators of knowledge. We have rich historical and contemporary examples of such work, but it was and will presumably continue to be on the periphery. The closure of the department signals a loss of space for complex questions to be thought about and engaged with. What I'm concerned about is the further narrowing of the land-grant mission as faculty and students are told by the institution that thinking about sustainability, for example, as something other than a purely technical and scientific issue isn't valued. I'm glad that the only decision that has been made thus far is the closure of the department. I have great hope that we, the Cornell community, might engage one another constructively to ensure that we do indeed embody our mission as a land-grant university.

Matthew Nagowski | November 08, 2010 (#)

SUNY-Ithaca Mispells SUNY-Cortland

Life has been busy recently, and I've unfortunately been unable to follow all the ins and outs around the news of the Ag School disbanding its education department. It's an important issue, one that I hope to address more in the future, but I couldn't help to point out this gem:

Talia Biker ’12 told Pfeffer that cutting the department hurts the University’s land grant mission of “giving back as our New York civil service.”

Pfeffer responded that the college “in terms of Agriculture education, [is] committed to providing students with a sound knowledge base in science…[and is] committed to providing teacher certification in [agriculture] science.”

Pfeffer also said the college is looking at providing accreditation through SUNY Courtland and Ithaca College, though adding “things like logistics will be a problem if we go down that route.”

When one student asked if Cornell-enrolled students would receive Cornell degrees if taking classes through SUNY Courtland, Pfeffer said this was “a valid concern.”

Cortland is of course spelled without a 'u'. And while I previously praised the Sun reporter who wrote this article, Jeff Stein, this is a pretty glaring error. Perhaps it was the Sun's copy editor's fault. I don't know.

Opposing team's hockey fans love to taunt with chants of 'SUNY-Ithaca' at the Lynah Faithful. But I would hope that all SUNY students, from Stony Brook to Buffalo State, would at least know how to spell the name of a town twenty minutes away.

Matthew Nagowski | November 05, 2010 (#)

Other Recent Posts

-- WSJ: Cornell Wins NYC Tech Campus Bid (EBilmes)

-- Barrier Update: City Approves Nets (DJost)

-- Big Red Cymbal Guy (Nagowski)

-- New York Times Survey on Campus Recruiting is Flawed (KScott)

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

-- Despite MSG Loss, Big Potential for Big Red Hockey (EBilmes)

-- City Council Will Vote on Suicide Nets (DJost)

-- An Encounter on the Upper East Side (Nagowski)

-- Showing Off Your School Spirit (Nagowski)

-- Chipotle Ithaca? (KScott)

-- Cornell at the ING NYC Marathon (KScott)

-- Crossing Over a Fine Line: Commercial Activity on Campus (KScott)

-- Milstein's Downfall (Nagowski)

-- Can any Cornell-associated organization really be independent of the University? (Nagowski)

-- Slope Media Revisited (EBilmes)

-- Slope Media Group Approved for Byline Funding (KScott)

-- Occupy AEM? (KScott)

-- New campus pub to be good for both Greeks and non-Greeks (Nagowski)

-- Gagging the Election (Nagowski)

-- The Changing Structure of Rush Week (Nagowski)

-- Ivy League Humility in the Midwest (EBilmes)

-- Of Median Grades and Economics Minors (Nagowski)

-- Homecoming Recap (Nagowski)

-- My Cornell Bookshelf (Nagowski)

-- The Sun's Opinion Section Has Suddenly Gotten Good (Nagowski)

-- Remembering the 11th (Nagowski)

-- Cornellian Tapped as Top Economic Advisor (Nagowski)

-- Cutting Pledging, and the Good Which Comes With It (EBilmes)

-- Why Cornell Should Not Close Fall Creek Gorge (Nagowski)

-- Welcome to the Class of 2015 (Nagowski)