A live-stream of student protestors occupying, arguing, and debating with Cornell administrators during the Day Hall takeover on Feb. 9 met a wide range of criticism, including that on online forums, such as “Overheard at Cornell.”
Student commenters on a post of the live-stream objected to what they perceived as protestors’ rude interactions with University President David Skorton. Facebook user Taha Ahmad ’15 commented, “It’s one thing to dislike having to pay an additional fee, but it’s another to ask questions you don’t even want answers for, cut off the answers at every turn, and make demands you don’t seem to fully understand.”
Several protestors in Skorton’s office did bring up concerns about the nature of the protests, citing their fear that the intensity would alienate potential supporters. Throughout the duration of the occupation of Day Hall, students justified the use of confrontational tactics and language, including swearing at or in the vicinity of administrators.
Immediately preceding President Skorton’s entrance, Daniel Marshall ‘15 stated, “He [Skorton] is going to be like, ‘we’re disrespecting him.’ He’s going to be like, ‘you’re in this space, you’re stopping people from doing their jobs.’”
Marshall and other students argued that Skorton’s aggrievement was simply a tactic to distract students from the issue at hand. Later, student protestors also discussed respectability politics, or the idea that the protesting group should water-down and police their attitudes to be palatable to the student population as a whole.
Many students, however, did focus on the protestors’ tone and tactics. Some worried that negative interactions with administrators would hurt the chances of a compromise on or repeal of the fee.
In a comment to The Cornell Review, Joey Vinegrad ’15 stated he thought that although the Day Hall occupation was “the right way to voice our concerns and get the administration's attention” he felt that some interactions “reflected poorly on the movement and drove away some student support.”
“I understand this is a serious issue that demands more transparency from the administration and more inclusion of the student voice, and I think moving forward we will have more productive conversations to this end,” Vinegrad went on to say.
Student Assembly Vice President for Internal Operations Matthew Henderson ’16 stated that although he thought the movement lost some momentum following the protest, he also believed that the organizers made a serious attempt to achieve concrete gains.
“I think it is good that the leaders have tried to make it tangible in terms of the group discussing what they want to see and next steps,” Henderson said. “But in general it didn’t seem very productive, and I’ve lost hope that this [the fee] is going to change.”
The occupation of Day Hall definitely represented the workings of a protest machine, drawing largely from the talents of the Save-the-Pass coalition. The organizers of the protest assigned police liaisons, asked administrators to address the group as a whole, and refused to name a concrete group of leaders or organizers. As stated above, even the usage of confrontation and profanity came in response to the idea of respectability politics.
Whereas the protest did not result in the repeal or reduction of the health fee, video footage of the occupation has garnered national attention and has been shown on Fox News and Fox Business networks. Additionally, despite its polarizing effect on the student body, footage of the protests has drawn out debate on administrative transparency, shared governance, and the health fee.
However, many students still speculate that a large portion of the student population and alumni base must speak out before the administration alters the fee. Thus, the nature and influence of protests, actions, and demonstrations could have a great effect on the success of #FightTheFee.
At time of writing, an organizer of Fight The Fee, Michael Ferrer ’17, did not respond for a request for comment.
As of right now, it seems that the movement has calmed a bit, now consisting primarily of teach-ins and student assembly meetings. With a reduction in intensity, it now remains to be seen whether more students and alumni will also raise opposition against the fee.
Shay Collins is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.