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May 2011

Fall Creek Swimming Rules Redux

With the tragic death of newly minted graduate Kendrick Castro ’11 in Fall Creek last night, I think we definitely need to pause and reflect on all of the tragic losses that the Class of 2011 have incurred over the last four years. Every single loss is a tragedy not only for the victim and their family and friends, but the greater Cornell community as well. And from what I can gleam about Castro online, he is a consummate Cornellian.

That said, it might also be time to revisit some of my common sense rules for interacting with Fall Creek. I unfortunately had to pen these rules three years ago when rising sophomore, Douglas Lowe '11, perished while swimming in the creek.

At the time I wrote:

Do not enter the water if the discharge as measured by the USGS here is over 50 cubic feet of water per second. It appears that it was yesterday evening.

And so it appears that it was yesterday evening as well, registering around 240 cubic feet per second. That's five times as much mass moving through the gorge at any given time, and given that energy is a quadratic function of mass, that means that the creek was 25 times more powerful than a level I would consider relatively 'safe'.

Additionally, it looks like Castro and his friends were farther downstream from the Suspension Bridge falls, down around Ithaca Falls underneath the Stewart Avenue bridge and close to the brink of Ithaca Falls. And while I didn't write about it at the time, it definitely gets dicey down there, with quick rapids and steep rock shelves. Especially at last night's water levels. Pictures are available at the Ithaca Journal.

Now we'll just have to wait and hope that the University doesn't attempt to put up meaningless barriers trying to disallow people from enjoying the gorges.

Matthew Nagowski | May 31, 2011 (#)

Why Does Cornell Always Lose?

On May 28, 1977, Cornell defeated Johns Hopkins for the NCAA lacrosse national championship. As one alumnus wrote on eLynah, who would have thought that 1977 would have been the last time that Cornell won a national championship in any of those sports that we really care about?

At that time, Cornell had just won back-to-back championships in lacrosse, and the Big Red had won two NCAA hockey championships over the previous ten years.

Of course, I should mention Cornell's recent championships in women's polo (2011) and lightweight crew (2006-8). Congratulations to those teams. But even at Cornell, polo and crew are relatively minor sports.

As happens at the end of every season, some will claim that the day has passed when Cornell could realistically win a championship in lacrosse, hockey, or wrestling. They will blame recruiting and the Ivy League ban on scholarships. They will blame an increase in parity and changes in the way these sports are played.

But the truth is that Cornell has put itself in a position to win that elusive NCAA title. Cornell's wrestling team was favored all year to win the NCAA title, but figured out a way to finish second. Cornell's women's hockey team was a title favorite this year, but fell in the national semifinal; a year earlier, as the underdogs, they lost a triple overtime heartbreaker in the NCAA final.

And who else watched that 2010 women's final and was constantly reminded of that 2006 NCAA men's quarterfinal, when Cornell lost a heartbreaker in triple overtime? Or the year before, when the Cornell men lost in just one overtime in the quarterfinal? Both teams were legitimate NCAA contenders. And of course, the 2003 men's hockey team was the most talented team since the 1970s, but lost a controversial and heartbreaking game to New Hampshire in the NCAA semifinal.

Now, for men's lacrosse. Heading into the NCAA quarterfinal round, this year's squad was a popular pick among the experts to win it all. That dream ended in the first half when Cornell gave up nine unanswered goals to eventual champion Virginia. In 2010, Cornell reached the final four. In 2009, Cornell had the lead and the ball with seconds remaining in the NCAA title game against Syracuse, but found a way to lose. Much as I would like to, I will never be able to erase that game from my memory. And I should also mention 2007, when Cornell lost a frustrating game to Duke in the national semifinal in Baltimore.

My goal here is not to remind Cornell fans of our painful recent history in the NCAA tournament. Instead, I hope that I have demonstrated that Cornell has been within reach of a meaningful NCAA title so many times over these last few years. Since 2003, we have seen three Frozen Fours in hockey and three in lacrosse, plus a runner-up finish in lacrosse. Statistics says that we should have been able to come up with at least one title during that stretch.

I would rather be in our position than in the position of a school that hasn't even come close to winning anything. Still, what is it about Cornell that dooms us to these oh-so-close finishes? Why couldn't the 2003 men's hockey team fulfill their mission as the best team of our generation and take home the trophy in Buffalo? Why couldn't the men's lacrosse team hold on for just a few more seconds in 2009 in Foxboro? Why couldn't the women's hockey team get that elusive goal in overtime in 2010 in Minneapolis? Why couldn't the wrestling team play to expectations and take home the trophy in Philadelphia?

I have seen many of these games in person. I often look back and think, what if? But I still don't know what makes us lose these games. I just don't know.

Elie Bilmes | May 31, 2011 (#)

Congratulations to the Class of 2011

So I just returned from the woods this Memorial Day weekend, and wanted to make certain to congratulate the Class of 2011. But because Cornell can seemingly never find a good convocation speaker (although by some accounts, Giuliani was much better than my own class's experience with Wesley Clark), and because I love graduation addresses dearly, I will leave you with some parting wisdom from graduation speakers at a college that does know how to pick a speaker: Kenyon College in Ohio.

First, here's David Foster Wallace in 2005:

But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

And, secondly, here's his good friend Jonathan Franzen in 2011:

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

Make Ezra proud.

Matthew Nagowski | May 30, 2011 (#)

Good News Against the Spectre of Grade Inflation

If you're a crotchety alumnus like me and believe that too many Cornell students are getting by at Cornell without studying enough the following is very good news:

Cornell Chronicle: Faculty vote may help stop grade inflation :: Research by two Cornell professors provided the resolution's rationale. Assistant professor of economics Talia Bar, professor of marketing and economics Vrinda Kadiyali and an Israeli colleague of the two showed in a 2009 paper that the availability of "grade information online induced students to select leniently graded courses -- or in other words, to opt out of courses they would have selected absent considerations of grades."

The paper, "Grade Information and Grade Inflation: The Cornell Experiment," was published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. "It seemed like a very thorough evaluation, a very rational approach," said associate professor of nutritional sciences Charles McCormick, who presented the resolution on behalf of the senate's Educational Policy Committee.

The Office of the University Registrar will continue to record median grades offline but make them available only to deans, department chairs and those needing the data for research.

Posting median grades on transcripts is extremely helpful to employers and graduate schools, so keeping the grades on the transcript is a must. I recently reviewed a resume for a Cornellian, and let's just say that significantly-below median grades didn't help the job application at all.

Additionally, what I would love to see Cornell develop is some sort of 'normalized GPA' on student transcripts -- that takes into account the median grade of each of the student's courses -- which would help make comparisons across students (and their differing levels of course difficulty) easier. In this way, for instance, an engineer with an average grade of a B (with course medians of a B-) could better stand out against a Hotelie with an average grade of a B+ (with course medians of a B+). Granted, you could do this manually now, but one pre-calculated number on the transcript would be best.

I also wonder how much this move might disproportionately affect certain types of students over others. After all, for those students with strong social networks -- say the Greek system or an athletic team -- I'm certain gossip on which classes and professors are easier will easily substitute the median grades report.

Matthew Nagowski | May 27, 2011 (#)

Cornell Gets No Credit For Pell Grants

As a nice follow-up to the discussion that Elie had a couple weeks back on enrolling more lower-income students at a school like Cornell, David Leonhardt of the New York Times has an excellent article today on how colleges systematically overlook low-income students in their admissions practices:

For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme...

Does more economic diversity necessarily mean lower admissions standards?

No, it does not.

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

The extent of wasted human capital, wrote the report authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, is phenomenal.

The article spends a lot of time lauding Amherst College, which has increased its percentage of students on Pell Grants from 13 percent to 22 percent over the last five years. Which is great and all, but really isn't that big of a deal once you compare it to Cornell's numbers, which have increased from 13 percent to 16 percent in the same time frame (Page 42) and have traditionally stood above the rest of Cornell's Ivy and other top private research university peers.

But, you say, Cornell's 16 percent is surely lower than Amherst's 22 percent.

Sure, but Amherst only educates 1700 undergraduates a year. Cornell educates 14,000.

Put another way, Cornell educates 500 more students on Pell Grants than Amherst has students, or six times (!) as many Pell Grant recipients. Let that sink in for a moment. And Cornell's increase in Pell Grant coverage from 13 to 16 percent represents an increase of 400 students -- more than double Amherst's increase in absolute numbers, and surpassing Amherst's total Pell Grant population.

But do you want to know the kicker? Amherst has an endowment per-student that is three times larger than Cornell's, meaning that it can afford its "generosity" all that much more.

That's not to say that Cornell shouldn't be doing more to increase low-income student enrollment. But that's a story for another day.

Matthew Nagowski | May 25, 2011 (#)

Can We Retroactivey Rescind Her Professorship?

I usually don't agree with the folks over at Cornell Insider on most things. But I hope they'll stand with me in this call to retroactively revoke Cynthia McKinney's Cornell Rhodes professorship, when she 'taught' at the University from 2003 through 2006.

Here's why:

The regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya received a boost from a special guest over the weekend, in its television propaganda against the country's rebels and the NATO force opposing the government: Former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

Matthew Nagowski | May 23, 2011 (#)

This Is

Back in April I lamented that Cornell needed a 'This Is Cornell' video . Well, independent of my plea, as this video certainly took more than a month to put together, Alex Silver '11 and Jon Tai '11 have raised the bar quite high in their lovely senior farewell to Cornell. Quite high indeed:

This Is from Alex Silver on Vimeo.

Silver was a photographer for the Daily Sun. You can see more of his work here.

The video is so good that it's hard to say anything bad about it. But I don't think some snow, Bhrangra, and some 'Songs of Cornell' are all that hard to ask for, are they? And maybe robo-soccer-bots if I ask nicely?

Matthew Nagowski | May 18, 2011 (#)

Study Up

Cornell students are still studying more than the national average. But for some undergraduate colleges, not by a whole lot.

The New York Times is running an article on the poor quality of higher education, lamenting that the amount of time students spend studying has declined precipitously. (While grades, no doubt, have continued to increase.)

In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

We can actually compare these national statistics to Cornell's own experience using Cornell's survey on undergraduates, which asks students how many hours a week they spend on academic work outside the classroom:

What's striking in the above table is how much the number of hours worked varies by college. Engineers and architects work almost twice the amount that my own ILR brethren work, who clearly need to be assigned (or tested on) more reading. And it probably floats a lot of people's boat that Hotelies study at all.

I think it's also important to note that college should be more than just about studying; it should also be about conducting research, service-learning, leading extra-curricular activities, and physical fitness.

But as Elie mentioned in his recent post, there are a lot of upper-middle class kids not doing any of the above while drinking five nights a week. So at the very least the faculty could be making certain that they study more.

Matthew Nagowski | May 15, 2011 (#)

The Inner-City Valedictorian

Should Cornell admit students based on what they have accomplished, or what they have the potential to accomplish? I have been thinking about this question recently.

The high school at which I teach held its graduation on Friday night. Not one of the students who walked across the stage deserved admission to Cornell. None of them were prepared to succeed at Cornell, and that much would be clear to any admissions officer. One student earned a 4.0 GPA and took our most advanced classes, but couldn't reach 20 on the ACT. On the basis of what he achieved, he certainly did not deserve a spot in the entering class.

Cornell's motto, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study," is a good one. But in the context of urban education, what does this motto mean? Can any person really find instruction at Cornell?

I am not speaking of the student from an affluent background who wastes opportunities in high school and lacks the credentials for admission. Rather, I am speaking of the student who never had the opportunities to earn those credentials. One of my seniors - our class valedictorian - has the leadership skills, self-discipline, and attitude to succeed in most anything. But not in rigorous college-level academics.

If a child has the misfortune to be born in a particular neighborhood, and attend its chronically low-performing schools, only the most immense personal effort would give him the chance to earn acceptance at Cornell. The blame lies with the schools. As a teacher, there is no excuse for setting low expectations when you have students who can meet higher ones. But when the schools fail, who can take up the responsibility for ensuring that these students can succeed at the highest levels of high education?

At Cornell, where only 1 in 20 students is African-American, Black students report that the transition to college is difficult. Often, these students gravitate to institutions like Ujamaa and the Africana Center, where they will find support and camaraderie with students of similar backgrounds. But Cornell, with its huge campus, large introductory-level classes, and hefty population of entitled suburbanites, is not the most supportive of universities. Remedial classes and tutoring services are available, but students must seek these out on their own. And only recently has Cornell shown much of an interest in preventing students from slipping through the cracks.

Should it really surprise us that Cornell's six-year graduation rate for Black men is only 75 percent?

I know that admissions officers will rightly view an inner-city student with low board scores as a gamble. Most factors indicate that he will not succeed at Cornell. Still, with his non-academic skills and willingness to work hard, he will probably contribute more to the positive culture on campus than another wealthy student from the suburbs who is content to get drunk five nights a week while cruising along with a 3.5 GPA.

Perhaps someone with money can endow a special summer program for incoming freshmen who come from low-performing high schools. There, students could learn basic research and writing skills, understand the importance of good study habits, and form connections with each other before classes begin in August. With such a program in place, I am sure that students such as our valedictorian could succeed on campus. Without it, he would only be set up to fail.

Edit: As reader JS emailed me, and Joe Martin mentioned in a comment attached to this post, there is a program that sounds almost identical to what I described. It is the Prefreshman Summer Program, and it is mandatory for students who are accepted into Cornell's Higher Education Opportunity Program (EOP for contract colleges). This looks like a great program for low-income students, and JS reports that his friends have spoken highly of it. Unfortunately, Cornell has struggled to recruit enough students for the program.

Elie Bilmes | May 14, 2011 (#)

What About a Criminal Conspiracy Charge?

The Sun reported yesterday that four former SAE brothers are facing criminal charges for February's alcohol-related death of George Desdunes '13:

Three former Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges pleaded not guilty Thursday after a grand jury indicted them on misdemeanor charges of first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child. A fourth person under the age of 19 was also charged, but the records are sealed due to the person’s age.

The charges come in connection with the death of George Desdunes '13, who was found dead on a couch at the SAE fraternity house on Feb. 25.

Desdunes, 19, who was a brother in SAE, participated in a mock kidnapping before his death, according to the Associated Press, which cited court documents. He and another SAE brother had their hands and feet tied with zip ties and duct tape. The two were asked questions, and when they answered incorrectly, they did exercises or were given drinks, such as flavored syrup or vodka, the AP reported.

The three defendants whose names were released are Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14. None of the four co-defendants are currently enrolled at Cornell, according to a press release from Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson.

In addition to the two charges, Williams also pleaded not guilty to a third charge of second-degree criminal nuisance, a misdemeanor, according to the AP.

For those interested, there's an active discussion going on over at the Sun's website questioning why manslaughter charges were not raised. But what I find most striking is that all of those charged were freshmen. But surely the idea to 'kidnap' a brother of the house and drink him silly, nor the alcohol used that fateful night, did not originate with these freshmen.

Which begs the question, "how come criminal conspiracy charges have not been charged against SAE's student leadership?" Because I suspect the fraternity's leadership acted in concert together to plan the 'new member education' and provide alcohol to the pledges. And they were knowingly cooperating and planning on breaking the law (either through hazing or through providing alcohol to minors) through the auspices of an incorporated organization.

I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know all of the intricacies of criminal law, but it seems pretty clear to me that more than just a couple of freshmen are in part responsible for Desdunes's death. Perhaps a civil suit will explore that side of the case.

I'm not necessarily trying to point fingers, but as I wrote back in March, clearly institutions and culture matter, and clearly we are all in some ways responsible. And yes, while I don't think we're criminals, I think that holds true even for us alumni who don't lobby the University more pro-actively for constructive changes to the structure of undergraduate social life.

Matthew Nagowski | May 07, 2011 (#)

Barriers: Correcting the Record

In a March 9th post on Meta Ezra and an article published by the Cornell Daily Sun, I wrongly called out Tim Marchell, Cornell's Director of Mental Health Initiatives, for using an incident from before the barriers went up to argue that Cornell's barriers were already saving lives. It appears Marchell never used this incident to argue his point. Both pieces were written in response to a February 25, 2011 article in the Sun by Jeff Stein that contained a hyperlink to an Ithaca Journal article on the February 2010 incident within a quote by Marchell--implying that this incident was an example of a barrier saving a life.

Back in February, I emailed Stein to determine why these hyperlinks were included, and he explained that Marchell had provided the articles to back up his point that the barriers had saved lives. I emailed Marchell to get his side of the story, but received no reply.

Last week, Marchell finally returned that email, explaining that he never cited the February 2010 incident as an example of a barrier saving a life, which would indeed have been ludicrous. Both Marchell and Stein sent me copies of their communications on the subject this week, and it seems like Stein made an innocent mistake in interpreting Marchell's email, due to the way some text was clumped together.

Meta Ezra thanks Marchell for bringing the error to our attention. We are comitted to providing the best information available regarding the barrier issue and will happily correct any errors in our reporting.

Dan Jost | May 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)

-- 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)