Winter in Day Hall

Posted in: Civil Rights

Like many other colleges and universities, there is a pro-Palestinian encampment at Cornell University. It was established by the Coalition for Mutual Liberation (CML), a broad-based coalition of more than 40 organizations at Cornell and in the surrounding community. The encampment occupies a small swath of grass on the Arts Quad in front of White Hall, where my office is located. Students have set up about 20 tents, along with a first-aid station, a lending library, a lean-to where students can get something to eat, and tables where they can hold meetings. (All decision-making in the encampment is by democratic consensus.) Students also use these tables to continue their school work and prepare for final exams. One or two squad cars from the Cornell Police Department idle nearby.

Now and again, the students in the encampment, joined by faculty, staff, and other students who support them, hold peaceful rallies in support of Palestine and a ceasefire in Gaza. Neither the encampment nor the rallies are disruptive, and life on campus has continued more or less as usual. CML has a list of demands, which you can find here.

A few days ago, the editors of the student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, asked if I would write a column about the encampment. The following appeared in The Sun Monday, May 6. Cornell’s senior administrators have their offices in Day Hall, about 200 yards from the encampment.

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Winter is tenacious in upstate New York. It endures far longer than it should, and brings with it a darkness that makes you bury your head and pray for spring. I thought of our long, dark winter when the editors of The Sun asked if I would jot a few lines about the encampment on the Arts Quad. And I thought about Emerson, who spoke at Boston’s Masonic Temple in 1841, and whose remarks I have edited for space:

The two parties which divide the state are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. Conservatism is always apologizing, pleading a necessity; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success. We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old.

Some of our students have seized the spring. Most of their demands insist only that Cornell make good on its promise: Divest, as years ago it vowed it would. In another spring, Cornell pledged it would divest from morally loathsome practices to protect “the goals and principles of the University.” In this, our winter, it apparently cannot recall what those goals and principles are. Acknowledge and atone, as history demands you must. It is passing ironic to condemn students as trespassers on stolen land. Disclose, as ethical governance requires. A university that claims it cannot know or control its money deserves to have none. Teach, so that “any person can find instruction in any study.” Absolve, because we ought not punish people who alert us to the suffering of others, simply because they have also roused us from slumber.

In spring, Cornell is a reformer. It cheers the limitless potential of the human spirit and begs its students to dream. But it is not yet spring in Day Hall. The University pillories harmless students who sleep on the lawn, suspending some and threatening the rest. All are resolutely, insistently peaceful, and none blocks any passage. The University pleads necessity. ‘Ah, but you did not tell us you would have tents. There are rules governing this sort of thing, and you have broken the rules.’ In spring, we ask what is right; in winter, we ask whether the rules were followed.

The most that can be said of the administration’s response is that it has not made matters much worse by needlessly summoning the police to clear the quad. But while this might distinguish it from its heavy-handed peers, a university should not get too much credit for doing what is universally recommended by policing experts and practitioners, which is to exercise restraint.

Rather than embracing “the possibility of good” in the students’ demands by enlarging the circle of human compassion, the University stands mute. In its conspicuous and shameful silence, in its derision of its own students, in its capitulation to extremism from without, Cornell allies itself “with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society.” As it attacks the students who dare to make good on the education we provided, it diminishes itself.

One day, spring will return to Day Hall. One day, Cornell will publish glossy brochures and hold expensive symposia that honor what these students have done. A future administration will invite them back to campus. They will gather where the tents once stood, speak with microphones that today are disallowed, and praise the courage and moral clarity of those they now scorn. One day, when it is easy and safe, the University will again claim the mantle of reform.

But today is not that day.

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