Despite its work on day-to-day student life resolutions, Cornell's Student Assembly (SA) garners the most attention for its involvement in contentious issues. Cornell's association with Israel, tuition rates, and fossil fuel divestment routinely polarize students on campus. Accordingly, the Review contacted SA Presidential candidates Jeffrey Breuer, Matthew Stefanko and Juliana Batista to determine their stances on these very issues.
Review: Will you vote for a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution, and why or why not?
Jeffrey Breuer, ’16: It is my personal belief that some issues are truly beyond the scope of the Student Assembly, and while of great importance in the current geopolitical conversation, might be cause for more friction between administrators and student leaders. Students should be able to voice these concerns and advocate for causes they believe in, but I believe an issue of this magnitude separates students rather than complete the SA’s goal of united opinions of student sentiment.
Matthew Stefanko, SA Vice President for Finance, ’16: The events surrounding Resolution 72 (Resolution Urging Cornell University to Divest from Companies Profiting from Israeli Occupation and Human Rights Violations) showed that the Student Assembly is a great forum for student discussion. However, resolutions are intended to represent the sentiment of the student body and, thus, passing a resolution on such a divided issue does not make sense. I would still encourage students to bring forward resolutions that talk about the big issues to utilize Student Assembly as an effective forum.
Juliana Batista, SA Executive Vice-President, ’16: As President you serve as a neutral party unless you step down from chairing the meeting and I would like to make note of that in this for question 1 and 2. If the Student Assembly is going to tackle geopolitical issues we must be armed with the appropriate knowledge from both sides and guided by academics who are facilitators of action oriented conversation. Seeing that BDS was not debated last year I would need a convincing argument to divest. Again, I would not want to jeopardize the financial aid given to students or funding for student-oriented departments to further the cause.
Will you vote for a fossil fuel divestment resolution, and why or why not?
Stefanko: I don’t think any students are anti-environment, but the question is if there are people who believe that divestment would diminish our endowment. With regards to the coal divestment resolution, even the administration saw coal investments as non-profitable, and I think similar analysis should apply to a fossil fuel divestment resolution.
Batista: It depends on the content of the resolution. I recently voted yes for advertising the divestment of coal that is already incorporated in the financials of the University. However, I would not want to jeopardize the financial aid given to students or funding for student-oriented departments to further the sustainability cause.
Breuer: I think fossil fuel divestment is an issue that is very important to moving towards a sustainable future, and would very much support divestment from these sources. However, I think if a thoughtful discussion was to take place, I would want to be sitting down with administrators and work towards actually making things happen rather than have the resolution passed over when put on the President’s desk.
If a controversial speaker was scheduled to give a speech at Cornell, would you support or oppose the cancellation of their speech if students were opposed to its content?
Batista: I believe in diversity, in every sense of the word. This statement includes diversity of thought. Students have the option to attend the speech or exercise their power to not attend the speech.
Breuer: Well, I think it would depend on the context of the speech. If the speaker is being brought to talk about an issue that some students disagree with, it’s important to allow different viewpoints to be expressed, with the caveat being when such speech causes harm to students.
Stefanko: I don’t believe that screening speakers is a concern of the SA – at the end of the day, that decision belongs to the event’s organizers and the administration. My personal take is that there is a difference between a controversial and an inherently hurtful speaker. I think that controversial speakers should absolutely be heard, but a speaker who will threaten or seriously offend Cornell students would only be harmful to our community.
What is the first thing you would accomplish as SA President?
Breuer: The first thing I would like to accomplish as SA President is to reach out to President Garrett and meet with her as soon as possible. Fostering a strong working relationship with her will be enormously important during this transition in administration and I believe that relationship can begin during the course of this semester.
Stefanko: I would refocus the Student Assembly on “big picture” issues. Currently, the SA effectively handles little things, but is not hitting the big issues, such as a fiscal responsibility, tuition management, and spending. Off the bat, I would create a student-led task force to focus on and discuss the big issues that affect students. Right now, I don’t think that we have enough information when we attempt to influence the administration on large, financial issues.
Batista: I will present a list of grievances and concerns from the student body to President Garret and the new Vice President for Student and Campus Life. From that meeting I will demand actions that we can take in order to accomplish the goals that reprioritize students.
Do you believe that the SA’s relationship to Cornell administration needs to be reformed, if so, how?
Stefanko: Something needs to change. I don’t think that all of the presidential candidates are speaking to the inequities between the influence and information possessed by the administration versus the SA. If we don’t have any idea of the inner workings of big issues, we cannot be involved in influencing high-importance decisions. We need to get to a point where we consider issues before they go through the Board of Trustees and move out of a “post-approval” role.
Batista: Yes the relationship needs to be reformed into a trusting yet critical relationship where the Student Assembly demands not only more information but more information earlier. The Student Assembly needs to have reputable arguments that sends the administration back to the drawing board on big issues. The administration needs to put students first.
Breuer: I really do believe the relationship that the Student Assembly has with administrators needs to be reformed because of how much we stand to gain from working closely with these individuals and developing a mutual respect that has been lacking on the student side.