Cornell Protesters Don’t Like Getting Investigated

Originally published in the Ithaca Times on May 6. This is my original draft.

In the week before Cornell’s big Charter Day celebration the weekend of April 24-27, several students active in “#FightTheFee” protests were called in to speak with administrators, or, in two cases, with Cornell police investigator Justin Baum. The student organizers, who had staged two protests during spring 2015 against the university’s proposed $350 health care fee for those not enrolled in Cornell insurance, say the irony of these conversations is that they had nothing scheduled for Charter Day events at all.

“We’re not nearly as cool as they think we are,” said Alex Brown, a Ph.D student in German studies, before Charter Day weekend.

“We anticipate that you will use (Charter Day) as an opportunity to continue your protests,” vice president Susan Murphy wrote students Wyatt Nelson and Michael Ferrer on April 19 in an email requesting a meeting, “and want to discuss with you what we expect to happen over the course of the weekend.”

What did end up happening over Charter Day weekend was an April 26 demonstration announcing the formation of the “Cornell Independent Students’ Union” – an entity organizers say is unrelated to #FightTheFee, though several people are involved in both. That gathering of about 60 students was held outdoors, where protests do not need approval under campus rules.

Where students and faculty say the administration and police crossed a line in the run-up to Charter Day was during Baum’s interview with Daniel Marshall, a class of 2015 undergraduate. It’s the recording of that interview that has students and faculty crying intimidation – some faculty have said it’s the most nervous they have seen the administration since the fight over chopping down Redbud Woods in 2005.

The Interview

In a recording of the approximately 15-minute interview provided to media, Baum first tells Marshall he’s “just in the information finding stage” and that he doesn’t “suspect there will be any charges forthcoming, at least from what I’ve been told.”

Baum was trying to gather information about an image posted on the “Save the Pass” Facebook page in the early morning hours of March 26 that shows an image that says “Welcome the Trustees” projected in the Statler Hall auditorium. (Later that day, protesters welcoming Cornell’s trustees followed them inside Statler Hall, where they made a ruckus outside the closed door meeting).

After Marshall declined to answer questions about what he knew of the picture and some butcher paper that was allegedly hung on the walls, Baum changed his tone. He told Marshall he had “subpoenaed” information from Facebook about page organizers, and had the “ability to charge you with a D-felony and two misdemeanors right now.”

“I don’t want to charge you with burglary, I don’t want to ruin your life,” Baum said. “Your cooperation is going to produce that. If you cooperate with me you will not be charged with a burglary. If you don’t cooperate with me I’m going to charge you with a burglary and probably come into one of your classes the next few days and walk you out in handcuffs.”

Once students posted an online “communique” about the incident, faculty got wind and over 100 had signed their names to a brief letter written by associate professor of history Ray Craib that reads in part: “Flat-footed, heavy-handed, offensive: that sums up the actions of the administration and its police force. Is the central administration that insecure?”

Organizing from the top down

“The administration is our best organizer, and now maybe the CUPD is there,” Marshall said. “Over last two years I’d say our numbers have quadrupled or quintupled.”

Many of those active in the #FightTheFee protests this spring got their start in efforts to save freshman bus passes in spring 2014. While the administration says that protests should not be disruptive, and some students critique actions like the sit-in at Day Hall on Feb. 10, Marshall says that was how the bus pass effort was won.

“They kept saying ‘We don’t have the money – and then suddenly one day the money appeared,” Marshall said. “We had about 50 people outside of Day Hall ready to do a sit-in when Skorton came out with Joe Malina and an entire media crew and said the passes were staying.”

Marshall doesn’t think his job as an activist, though, is “to get people riled up.”
“Our role is to connect the dots on how their policies are affecting people,” Marshall said. “There’s this kind of insistence that ‘You’re here to study, we’re here to administrate’ – this isn’t your role. That might be what a lot of students want to do, but policies they’ve been enacting like budget cuts in the arts college, tuition increases that equal about $4,000 over past 2 years … there’s a growing list of things that are threatening students’ abilities to be here.”

Brown also sees the role of campus organizers as connecting the dots.
“We’ve been careful from the beginning to not make (the health care fee) an issue in isolation from everything else,” Brown said. “It’s connected to low-income students who get promised no-loan financial aid, then are forced to take out loans, when their work-study and summer job won’t cut it as part of their expected student contribution.”

Faculty response

“Overkill is the first word that comes to mind,” Craib said of his feeling when he first learned of the investigation. “The students are asking good questions, the same ones faculty have been asking about the deficits. Maybe the jumpiness is coming from the willingness of the students to do their homework on the trustees.”

Eric Cheyfitz, a professor in English, thinks the investigation “violates both the spirit and the letter of what it means to be a part of the community at Cornell.”
“I think it’s a bad mistake, the administration isn’t getting good advice,” Cheyfitz said. “They’re upping the ante in a battle where they can only become more and more alienated from their constituencies.”

There has been speculation that recent budget cuts have something to do with overbuilding, Cheyfitz said, though no one knows for sure. Arts college faculty sent a letter to the administration on April 23 protesting cuts.

“This whole budget crisis has suddenly materialized out of nowhere,” Cheyfitz said. “That means belt tightening across the board. There’s supposed to be consultation with the faculty senate on these matters and that has not been the case.”

Whatever the motivations behind the investigation, there have been calls for a fuller explanation from the administration than the statement released by Cornell police head Kathy Zoner that stated CUPD “was asked to conduct a criminal investigation into alleged felonious behavior” that was not related to the protests on Feb. 10 or March 26.

“The whole community deserves a full explanation from the Cornell police and Cornell administration of what they did and why they did it,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations school. “If it turns out when we hear all the information that it was an overly aggressive action then there should be consequences.”