Cornell Plan Deeply Flawed
To the editors:
Re your editorial about Cornell's latest housing scheme ("Advice for Cornell," Oct. 29): You were right about the benefits, in principle, of a residential college system, but were off the off the mark about Cornell's impetus for embarking on such a seemingly noble endeavor.
Cornell has two conflicting visions with respect to first-year housing, and really no vision with respect to upperclass housing. It wants to create "community" in the ranks of first-year students. Currently, there are two distinct areas of campus housing, called North Campus, which is more spread out and is composed of about half first-years, and West Campus, which is newer, more densely populated, and composed almost entirely of first-years. Each has its own facilities and its own culture, North as studious and West as social. Most students know what they're getting into when they choose one of the areas, and the variety seems to suit the campus nicely.
The problem is that Cornell has a series of ethnically exclusive dormitories, called "program houses"--one for blacks, one for Latinos and one for Native Americans, among others. Most students, and Cornell's previous president, Frank Rhodes, acknowledge that these houses, mostly on North Campus, Balkanize the campus by segregating students from the moment that they arrive.
In the first year of his term a few years ago, new president Hunter Rawlings announced that first-years would no longer be allowed to live in program houses. After a series of near-riots, the president relented and retreated to his office with his proverbial tail between his legs to come up with a new idea. Last spring, he announced a plan to move all first-years to North Campus. Virtually everyone on campus--except, notably, those in the program houses--thought that this was a bad idea, for a number of reasons.
First, new dormitories and dining facilities will need to be built on North Campus. Second, first-years will lose the choice of where to live. Third, North Campus is less accessible to many attractions--including shops, bars, restaurants and most fraternities--that West Campus residents liked being near. The principal reasons behind opposition to the plan, though, is that it will have a devastating effect on housing for upperclass students. Displaced from North Campus, upperclass students will be forced to move off campus (imagine the effect on apartment prices) or to West Campus. But West Campus, with its paucity of study and kitchen facilities and predominantly double-occupancy rooms, does not appeal to upperclass students. West was constructed, in fact, to be a first-year community.
This is where the new "residential college" plan come into play. As a subterfuge for his plan, Rawlings promised to come up with money to renovate West Campus dorms and repackage them as a sort of "residential colleges."
No specific idea of how to do this exists, nor does a conception of where the $200 million will come from. The president insists that none of this money will be taken from other areas, but he neglects the other areas of dire need on campus. So, largely in an effort not to upset the 5 percent of first-years who live in program houses, Cornell's new housing plan eliminates first-years' choice, entails a $200 million expenditure, risks turning West Campus into a ghost town while overcrowding North and forces both first-years and those upperclass students who want or need to reside on campus to live in less-than-ideal conditions.
I don't think telling these disgruntled upperclass students that they are living in "residential colleges--like they have at Harvard!" is much consolation. MICHAEL E. CAPEL Washington, Oct. 29,1998
The writer received a B.S. from Cornell in 1997 and an M.P.A. from the university in 1998.