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February 2011

What You Didn't Know About David Seidler '59

By now everybody presumably knows that Cornellian David Seidler '59 has won an Oscar for best original screenplay with The King's Speech:

David Seidler won the Oscar for original screenplay for “The King’s Speech” at the 83rd Academy Awards on Sunday night. It was the first Oscar win for Seidler, who was considered the favorite in this category. Though ineligible for a Writers Guild of America nomination, Seidler won the British Independent Film Award and the BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Academy Award, and was nominated for a Golden Globe.

But little do they know that the British-born Seidler was actually quite a trouble-maker in his days on East Hill. Here he is in one of the famous student protests of 1958 where students were railing against curfews, parietals, and strict party rules. And he was probably chumming around with famed Cornellian, author, and counter-cultural icon Richard Fariña:

Does anybody know if Seidler is written in as a character in Been Down So Long?

Admittedly, student protests against party rules and curfews aren't nearly as exciting as some of the things that would happen on campus in the 60s, but hey, that decade had to come from somewhere, right?

Current Cornell students should take note: For many, the path to glory and influence goes through questioning authority and living a little -- not through what adults may tell you to do while doing everything humanly possible to land that Wall Street gig.

And the Cornell administration should take note as well: Perhaps we shouldn't be gutting the theatre, film, and dance department just yet.

Matthew Nagowski | February 27, 2011 (#)

Hydrofracking Impacting Ithaca Even Without Drilling

It's been a while since I've covered the lure of Cornell's $330+ MM Marcellus Shale holdings. Cornell (and New York State) still has yet to make a firm decision on the future course of action to be taken with these mineral rights, as the environmental concerns are still largely unknown. But as the New York Times reports, Ithaca is already receiving some of the environmental impact of hydrofracking, with none of the associated monetary benefit:

In New York, the wastewater was sent to two plants that discharge into Southern Cayuga Lake, near Ithaca, and Owasco Outlet, near Auburn. In West Virginia, a plant in Wheeling discharged gas-drilling wastewater into the Ohio River.

"Hydrofracking impacts associated with health problems as well as widespread air and water contamination have been reported in at least a dozen statesm" said Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, a business in Ithaca, N.Y., that compiles data on gas drilling.


“We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, who left last month as secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Matthew Nagowski | February 27, 2011 (#)

Syllabus Recommendations for 'The First American University'

Last week I breathlessly praised the development of a new undergraduate course on 'The First American University' (e.g. Cornell), but added that I actually had some suggested additions to the syllabus, of which a copy of the finalized version can be found here. In truth, Tom and Corey have done a great job of presenting an overarching view of the University, and have included such gems as Women at Cornell, by Charlotte Conable '51 when discussing gender issues on campus and the quintessential fictional account of the University in the late 50s and early 60s, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña '59.

Any student of Cornell (in the subject matter sense, not the academic sense) will obviously bring their own biases and interests into their recommendations for what should be included in a supplemental syllabus, and MetaEzra's own writers would probably tact in different directions; Elie would likely want to see more coverage of Cornell's athletic history, including the glory years for Cornell football (1930s and 40s) and hockey (late 1960s). Andy, meanwhile, would probably prefer to see more on the implications of liberalism, faculty ideology, and identity politics on campus over the last 40 years.

Matthew Nagowski | February 25, 2011 (#)

Those Boorish, Obnoxious Ithacans

Despite Harvard's win over the Big Red at Lynah on Friday night, Cornell still holds a 21-10-1 advantage against the Crimson in ECAC regular season games since Mike Schafer took over as coach. But the Cornell-Harvard rivalry predates Schafer; just look at this gem of an article from The Crimson (h/t eLynah poster David Harding) after Harvard lost at Lynah on December 20, 1966.

There's the dig at the dedicated Lynah Faithful:

Third line center George Murphy stunned the obnoxious crowd at 2:27 of the opening period when he scored the game's first goal from a faceoff to the right of sleeping giant Ken Dryden.

And the observation that Cornell recruits heavily from Canada:

Play slowed down in the second period and for the first ten minutes the Canadians didn't get off a shot. Jack Garrity's passing and stick handling paced the Crimson attack, but no Harvard shots came close to passing Dryden.

One of the more unique descriptions of NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden:

Harvard was down, 4-1, but not out. After some nice passing by Garrity and Fredo, Otness spun 270 degrees with a rebound and flipped it over the sprawled lumberjack in the goal at 8:25.


Five minutes later, with Harvard, a man down, Fredo stole the puck deep in the Cornell zone. He warded off a defenseman behind him, deked the mastadon onto the ice and scored on a clean shot from the right corner of the crease.

The best for last:

Lynah Rink, which unofficially holds 4 1/2 thousand, closed it [sic] doors at 7 p.m. only 30 minutes after its general admission seats were made available to the student body. As boorish as the fans were, the game was kept well under control by referees William Stewart and Giles Threadgold, both from Boston.

Congratulations to the uniquely named forward Murray Death and the rest of the 1966-1967 team for beating Harvard. With this year's Big Red fighting for fourth place, and Harvard vying for last place, a rematch in the first round of the ECAC playoffs is quite possible.

Elie Bilmes | February 19, 2011 (#)

An Open Letter To The Facetimers At Lynah

To whom it may concern:

Giving the home team a bench minor because you threw fish onto the ice after play had begun really makes this alumnus question why you were ever admitted to Cornell in the first place. Think on that for a bit.



Matthew Nagowski | February 18, 2011 (#)

The Best Investment Cornell Can Make: In Its History

East Hill tends to cycle through semesters with a certain amount of ahistorical repetition due to the constant flow of memory-less undergraduates through their four years at Cornell. While students are perennially aglow with their discoveries of new knowledge, young love, and the glee of unchaperoned fun, faculty and staff can tritely tell you that they've seen it all before. And they will see it all again.

But something novel and truly remarkable is apace on campus this spring, as the University is offering undergraduates (and others!) an opportunity to formally learn more about Cornell's history, the shape of the Cornell experience over time, and their place within it. A one credit course, taught by faithful alumni Thomas Balcerski '05 and Corey Ryan Earle '07, is offering students a detailed foray into the story behind the founding of Cornell and all the myriad developments that have since affected the University's unique academic, physical, cultural, and political climate. Here's the course description for American Studies 2001: The First American University:

Was Cornell “the first American university”? Educational historian Frederick Rudolph called it that, referring to its unique role as a coeducational, nonsectarian, land-grant institution, with a broad curriculum and diverse student body. In this course, we will read some notable historians in order to explore the history of Cornell, taking as our focus the pledge of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White to found a university where “any person can find instruction in any study.” Throughout, we will ask to what extent has this motto succeeded at Cornell and in higher education more generally. Course topics will also include stories and vignettes related to the faculty, student body, evolution of the campus, traditions, and legends. Stories of Cornell’s founders, faculty, and alumni will provide background on names that adorn buildings and memorials throughout campus.

What's striking is that this course is being offered for the first time in 2011. It's a bit damning for an institution as unique, dynamic, and challenging as Cornell to not be actively trying to cultivate a sense of place and purpose by educating its community members about its compelling history and influential role in our enduring American experiment. And in trying to educate students to be engaged 21st century citizens while also trying to develop a loyal and supportive alumni base that will serve as ambassadors for Cornell and her mission, I can't think of anything that the administration and faculty can do that would be more effective to that end. And that's why in many ways the best investment Cornell can make in these trying times is to develop a sense of history and context among current students.

The move is already starting to pay off: Over 100 students are enrolled in the course this semester. And there will doubtless be thousands more educated if Earle, a staff member, is allowed to teach the course in perpetuity.

To be fair, there have been some other courses at Cornell that have dealt with the University. Ron Ehrenberg teaches a course on the Economic Analysis of the University that prominently features examples from Cornell's budget which has long been popular with aspiring muckrackers at The Sun. And I know Carol Kammen used to offer a freshmen writing seminar that encouraged students to read and write about the student experience at Cornell. But this is the first formal treatment of the University's history and role in American higher education I have seen offered.

Of course, I do have a couple of suggestions as to how to improve Corey and Tom's syllabus, but I'll leave that for another day. Until then, here's a fun video on Cornell history from one of the lecturers of the class:

Matthew Nagowski | February 18, 2011 (#)

Gladwell on Rankings: 'Flimsy'

For those of you who don't subscribe to the New Yorker (mock exasperation here, as if that was an even on option among us well educated Cornell alumni...) be sure to pick up the most recent issue, which features an excellent take-down on the college rankings racket by Malcolm Gladwell.

Because Gladwell is beloved by the intelligentsia and prestige whores the world over, there's the possibility that this might knock some sense into those who find themselves beholden to rankings -- especially those who find their value as a human being tied up in those numbers -- but in truth the article will probably do nothing else but help to cement Gladwell's reputation for being able to sell himself for very lucrative corporate speaking events.

Nevertheless, the basic thesis of Gladwell's article -- that the rankings are largely meaningless and tell you little to nothing about the value of the educational experience that any given school provides -- should be of no surprise to longtime readers of MetaEzra. While I haven't covered the topic of rankings in recent years, a trip back down memory lane shows that we find the rankings to be arbitrary and only worth as much as the value other people put in them.

The money quote from Gladwell:

There's no direct way to measure the quality of an institution - how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality - and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.

I'm an on-again, off-again Gladwell fan. I was thrilled when I first read his The Tipping Point and Blink, but soon came around to the view that the world does not work nearly as cleanly as his quaint little models suggested, no matter how good of a writer he is. At the same time, I felt Outliers was a fantastic expose on just how much randomness and events far beyond our control impact life outcomes that we like to pretend we control.

But in the end, people listen to Gladwell for the same reason that people follow the college rankings -- because other people are doing the same thing. Just look at myself -- I have happened to read every Gladwell book and nearly every article of his, while Moby Dick collects dust on my shelf.

At least we can breathe a sigh of relief that Gladwell got this topic right. Now we just need a few more mavens and connectors...

Matthew Nagowski | February 15, 2011 (#)

Dan Jost '05 Asks If We Can Send a Better Message Than 'Ineffective' Bridge Barriers

Editor's Note: This post is the second in two-part series questioning Cornell's decision to go forward with bridge barriers by Dan Jost '05, a journalist (and landscape architect) with Landscape Architecture Magazine.

In the first half of this series, I presented two cases where putting up a suicide barrier on an iconic bridge had no effect on the overall jumping suicide rate. These studies call into question how effective suicide barriers could be at a place like Cornell, where gorges, bridges, and overlooks are ubiquitous.

Only one study, of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, has shown a significant drop in jumping suicides in the surrounding region after a suicide barrier went up, and then only among men (jumping rates for women actually rose significantly during the period). Mark Sinyor and Anthony J. Levitt dismissed this study (and the study in Bern) in the British Medical Journal this July saying it “lacked statistical power because of the relatively small yearly decreases in numbers of suicides at [the] bridge as well as low rates of suicide in general.” The sample studied is less than half that of the Bloor Street Viaduct study.

But Cornell has looked at the study hopefully. They feel it may provide insight into the effectiveness of putting barriers on Cornell’s bridges, while not fencing off every last gorge. Almost all of the suicides at the Clifton Suspension Bridge prior to the construction of a barrier occurred from the center of the bridge, where it passed
over water. After the barriers went up there, some suicides did migrate to the edges of the bridge, but not nearly as many people jumped from that site overall as had jumped there before.

But we don’t know that the barriers actually stopped these men from killing themselves. It’s possible that many people who had heard media reports of the barrier but don’t pass over the bridge on a regular basis didn’t realize it was still possible to kill yourself there, so they didn’t ever go there to attempt suicide. One can’t rule out that these men chose another deadly method to kill themselves, as the number of jumpers was far too small to impact the overall suicide rate.

Matthew Nagowski | February 12, 2011 (#)

Dan Jost '05 Asks 'Is This What A Caring Community Looks Like?'


Frequent readers of MetaEzra know that I've long vacillated on the issue of the gorge fences and have welcomed differing viewpoints on the topic. The following is a guest post by Dan Jost '05 based on research completed for his recent article in Landscape Architecture Magazine. Dan argues forcefully that there is no compelling evidence to support the building of bridge barriers on Cornell's campus. (All opinions expressed are of course that of Dan's alone.) Dan can be reached at djost.1983(at)gmail.com.

For months, Cornell has been arguing that the science backs their decision to install suicide barriers. For example, this is how Cornell’s Susan Murphy framed the debate to the Ithaca Times last summer:

“Most importantly, there is the scientific research on means restriction, which suggests that bridge barriers are an effective tool in suicide prevention,” she said. "Five or 10 years ago, there weren't any articles on this. Suicide prevention as a discipline is maturing."

Cornell’s insistence that the science is on their side has changed many minds. In the same article, Svante Myrick, Collegetown’s representative on the Ithaca Common Council, explained that he was originally skeptical about the fences. A majority of his constituents opposed them, he told the Times. But he voted to keep up the fences after he was presented with evidence by Cornell. "If you look at the studies, they really do show that bridge barriers work," he said. "It's about saving lives."

As a writer and editor at Landscape Architecture Magazine, I had the opportunity to explore this claim that suicide barriers would save lives for an article published in January. I imagine some people will stop reading right there. “This guy is only concerned about preserving pretty views,” they might assume. I will admit that the views are very important to me. Not only because they are pretty, but because I always found comfort in them. As a student at Cornell, staring into the gorges was my favorite way to clear my mind. When I was stressed or upset, walking by Triphammer Falls always lifted my spirits.

But I also understand the pain associated with losing someone to suicide in a gorge. A friend and co-worker—someone who I often shared jokes with—jumped into the Cascadilla Gorge during my sophomore year at Cornell. This, as much as anything, encouraged me on in my research. And what I found may surprise you. The evidence that barriers save lives is inconclusive at best, and in fact the best studies we have on the subject suggest they won’t save lives—that people will find other locations to jump or other means of committing suicide.

Matthew Nagowski | February 08, 2011 (#)

Cornell Children's Tuition Redux

A couple of quick follow-ups on the dialogue we had last week on whether or not Cornell's policy of subsidizing tuition for children of staff is a good one. First, DLD writes in to remind us that the policy is for all staff children, not just faculty:

There is some thought over the years that these sorts of benefits is what keep lower paid staff in their jobs – to offset the low pay with benefits for their children. And it would be interesting to see how many other universities pay Cornell tuition.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, most children of low-paying staff would probably receive a full-ride based on financial need. So it's really more of a benefit to mid and high-level staff and faculty, not the janitors or the cooks.

Secondly, longtime MetaEzra reader and budding academic economist AB writes in to say that higher salaries would be a much better option from the perspective of efficiency and fairness.

The benefit is likely economically inefficient. It creates a perverse incentive of having more children or (more realistically) sending children to more expensive schools than students or faculty would otherwise be willing to pay for. And again, Cornell doesn't benefit from having a faculty member's kid go to BU instead of CUNY.

That being said, the only reason I can think of to continue this is if there is some psychological attachment to the benefit that causes faculty to overvalue it to the extent it makes up for the perverse incentives. Otherwise, show them the money!

Your article suggests we might consider dropping the policy of reimbursing faculty for their childrens' educational expenses, full stop. I wouldn't want to weigh in on the matter of faculty compensation (which is a separate discussion), but I think we would agree that whatever limited resources Cornell spends to recruit and retain faculty should be spent efficiently, and I see no reason that should include tuition reimbursements rather than higher pay.

To be fair, I did explicitly target Harvard in the earlier posts, because, well, it makes a better headline. But all college tuition is subsidized under the plan, from Princeton on down to TC3. And the publics and community colleges are known for not providing a lot of need-based financial aid.

Matthew Nagowski | February 02, 2011 (#)

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)

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