For better or for worse, Cornell does not have an exceptional track record when it comes to producing politicians. Indeed, as of yet, not a single Cornellian has made it to the Oval Office—and few to the corridors surrounding it. Perhaps it’s in consideration of this fact that our Student Assembly members decide to grasp the power they’re given and use it to its full potential. It’s now or never, apparently. This urge to command is back on display in the S.A. Appropriations Committee’s much discussed push to decrease Cornell Cinema’s student activity fee quota from its current $10.90 per student to $0.00. Such a move, proponents of the Cinema’s continued funding argue, could mean the death knell for the theater’s 46-year-old history.
The Appropriations Committee, it must be said, doesn’t make a terrible argument. A movie theater isn’t cheap to run. For those unaware, the films projected at the cinema aren’t typically done so off of $12 Blu-ray discs—which even then require the payment of a hefty fee—but costly Digital Content Packages that must be rented from the production studio. And that’s before you factor in the advertising, popcorn kernels, and Land O’Lakes. As such, the Cinema is one of the top recipients of activity fee funding, despite attracting a modest—albeit meaningful—portion of the student body.
So, is it really the case that the Appropriations Committee just wants to make sure the activity fund is distributed so that only groups drawing a majority of the student body get the money they need? The Appropriations Committee’s online data only includes the allocation data up until the 2014-2016 cycle (during which the cinema received $10.60). Still, what is included is enough to dispel that notion. Haven, Cornell’s LGBTQ Student Union, the International Students Board, and Alternative Breaks—all of which are fine and deserving organizations, mind you—received funding, despite by no means integrating the majority of the undergraduate student body. These organizations got nowhere near the Cinema’s allocation, but, regardless, managed to receive more than $0.00 despite their limited appeal.
It’s not greater diversity the S.A. is after, either. Between 2010 and 2016, the Slope Day Programming Board received the second-highest allocation, behind the Student Assembly Finance Commission, at $18. Let’s not kid ourselves: Slope Day—while certainly enjoyable and worthy of funding—leads to questionable cheesesteaks, vomit-infused sediment, and regrets, not a more diverse campus. Besides, the Cinema makes a point of featuring films from around the world, which serves the dual purpose of letting students see films produced by their own cultures, and introducing others to a whole host of filmmaking from across the globe.
What is the purpose of the student activity fee, then? It’s a question the Appropriations Committee in charge of distributing it doesn’t seem to have figured out, and one that forcing the Cinema to go cold-turkey won’t help answer. Perhaps it should go towards assuring diversity in the activities available for the student body. There are over 14,500 undergrads on campus, and few entertainment outlets are going to please the entirety, or anywhere near the entirety, of a community that large.
Nevertheless, we are in a scenario where a small group of adolescents thinks it can figure out the right amalgam of student groups. These individuals, whose experience consists of a few years in college and whom often run uncontested, are effectively preparing to decide the fate of an organization that has graced this campus for nearly 50 years. Alas, their behavior so far demonstrates they aren’t up to the task, a fact about which the student body must take note.
Importantly, as the Daily Sun reports, the Cinema is requesting a decreased amount—$8.50—from last cycle’s $10.90, with the stated goal of operating independently of S.A. funding by 2019. Apparently the Appropriations Committee just cannot wait that long—maybe some of its members will have graduated by that time and don’t want to miss the opportunity to tout the austerity measure on a resume. Anyhow, the Cinema has long been the S.A.’s favorite patsy.
The aforementioned Sun article likewise mentions that the S.A. rests a portion of its argument against the Cinema on the staff’s refusal to hand over financial data—which the S.A. requested after the Cinema used a portion of their S.A. funding to help pay staff wages. The article, however, explains that the Cinema was unable to do so owing to salary privacy laws. Regardless, in a document obtained by the Review from an undisclosed source, Gabriel Kaufman—Vice President for Finance of the Appropriations Committee—claims that the Cinema refused to hand over this data because it was withdrawing portions of their S.A. funding for the purpose of paying staff. That’s quite an assumption—and one the existence of salary privacy laws may, as a matter of fact, prove spurious. Yet again, that’s the sort of logic that could result in the collapse of one of America’s very few remaining college cinemas.
There is a debate to be had about the merit of a required student activity fee to begin with; however, as long as the university takes students’ money and gives it to the Appropriations Committee to dole out as it sees fit, its the onus of the Cornell student body to pay attention. This issue is not one that’s ideologically-dictated. People on the left should be concerned with the Appropriation Committee’s fervid, yet poorly-justified push to drop the floor on a group that offers subsidized entertainment—indeed, I know of many students that simply cannot afford to pay the ticket price at the Regal, but are able to go to Cornell Cinema. Those on the right should be concerned about a small group of individuals—particularly one whose members have yet to get their undergraduate degree—deciding the fate of an institution that’s been around for decades and employs numerous full-time employees. Finally, everyone should be concerned by the S.A.’s repeated decision to single out the Cinema, especially when those in charge of it have already begun making an effort to break away from reliance on the student activity fee within a couple of years.
Perhaps the S.A.’s problem is that its members aren’t themselves watching enough movies. Here’s a recommended starting place: Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 classic Sweet Smell of Success. In it, J.J. Hunsecker, a wealthy newspaper mogul played by Burt Lancaster, uses his media empire to take aim at an innocent jazz artist his little sister is dating to his great consternation. Hunsecker turns to Sidney Falco, a press agent played by Tony Curtis dependent on Hunsecker’s employment, to help bring down the young musician. Of course, Hunsecker’s scheme doesn’t go as planned. The melodious sweetheart is taken care of, but Hunsecker’s problems aren’t. Nonetheless, just about everyone else’s—particularly Falco’s—are inflated; in the end, everyone loses. Just because you have the power to do something, doesn’t mean you need to do it. In fact, doing so may just bring down the whole operation.
Regardless of the final vote’s outcome, the Cinema needs to proceed to it’s goal of getting off the S.A.’s payroll. But in the meantime, the Cornell student body should use the current hoopla as a reason to reevaluate the authority we give to the Student Assembly and, specifically, the Appropriations Committee. Have they really proven themselves worthy of handling it? The over-keen and under-assessed attack on Cornell Cinema suggests not.