What’s going on in Willard Straight Hall? Asking the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board of Directors, it’s hard to tell. Internal changes are being made without their consultation, and as such, the Board of Directors are today voicing their concerns with Cornell administration and the entire student body. The Board is issuing a call for transparency, and an open discussion of the changes which are taking place following the delegation of responsibilities formerly belonging to the Dean of Students to a newly created position, the Executive Director of Campus and Community Engagement (CCE). Both the Dean of Students and the Executive Director of Campus and Community Engagement fall under the direction of Vice President of the Division for Student and Campus Life, Ryan Lombardi.

we present the building to the University, to be guided and governed by the students, and made by them through their own adventures of spirit here, into an instrument for the illumination and enhancement of personal and social living. – Dorothy Straight Elmhirst

Willard Straight Hall is easily recognized as one of the most central buildings on Cornell’s campus, both geographically and figuratively speaking. The building was opened in 1925 after a donation by Dorothy Straight Elmhirst – the widow of Willard Straight – was made to create one of the first student union buildings in the country. Today, the building remains one of the oldest, and one of only a few remaining student unions left in the country today.

Kristen Crasto, Director of Administration for the WSH Student Union Board of Directors, stated that Dorothy Straight intended for the building to be a place where students could gather to meet new students, as “at the time there were no spaces for students on campus to do so – there was basically just their dorms and classrooms to gather in.”

Shikha Patel, Executive Director of the Board of Directors, elaborates on the role of the Board as existing to “foster the mission of Willard Straight Hall, which was created to be a non-academic building on campus to promote student life. It was created to be for the students, and by the students.” As such, the Board of Directors see their role as the executors of that vision, and Willard Straight Hall is managed through student leadership.

However, the Board of Directors believe that new leadership in the Cornell administration is failing to recognize the pivotal role that the Board holds in the governance of Cornell’s Student Union building.

 

According to meeting notes obtained by Slope Media Group, the new Executive Director of Campus and Community Engagement seems to disagree with the interpretation of the mission of the Board of Directors as interpreted by the current Board, and as outlined by their organization bylaws.

The statement released today states that rather than seek input from the WSH Student Union Board of Directors, Dr. Burke made the decision to replace the previous advisors for the board with Brandi Smith, the Assistant Director of Community Center Operations, and Assistant Dean of Students for Student Activities, Joe Scaffido.

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This decision was not made known to the Board of Directors until they returned to campus, and when notified, the Board questioned the actions taken and requested to meet with Dr. Burke. Only after great persistence was the Board able to meet with the Executive Director of CCE who, according to the meeting notes obtained by Slope Media Group and as detailed in the statement the Board has released today, seems to have implied that – despite the role and mission of the Board of Directors – he did not think that that their input was necessary in making the change.

“He said to give the new advisors a chance without actually explaining why any of this had occurred.”

– Shikha Patel

Regarding the meeting, Patel stated that they “went to meet with Dr. Burke to understand why this decision was made and what went into consideration when making the decision to try and understand where he was coming from.” Patel went on, expressing her concern and disappointment in the Executive Director’s response, in which he questioned the role and authority that the Board of Directors hold in the management of Willard Straight Hall.

Reflecting back upon previous actions taken by the University, Crasto and Patel expressed unease with an apparent trend in which the University has made controversial decisions affecting the student body without first offering students an adequate opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions in the decisions being made.

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If Cornell says we are practicing shared governance, then all voices need to be heard before the decision is made. – Shikha Patel

Patel explained, “Time and time again, administration has made a decision and then asked for student voices – or students would have to go to them and ask ‘what’s going on?’ They’ve had to to force themselves into the conversation, which shouldn’t be the case if Cornell is saying we’re going to try and embody shared governance.”

 

Considering the purpose and origin of Willard Straight Hall, the Board of Directors find the recent actions by the University to be especially concerning. As Crasto states, throughout history the Board of Directors have been the ones governing the building, constantly working to keep Cornell’s students at the center of their governing decisions. She went on to emphasize just how unique such a building governance is compared to other buildings on campus, and on campuses elsewhere.

Dorothy Straight didn’t want the building to be limited to what the administration believed that students wanted. She wanted the students to get what they wanted out of their experience by having their own student union, run as they saw fit.  – Kristen Crasto

The Board of Directors feel that without speaking up now, that more changes will be made before it’s too late for student voices to be considered. In both the meeting notes and the statement they have released, the Board notes that Executive Director of Campus and Community Engagement has promised more changes will be made in the near future.

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Given that what these changes will be have yet to be communicated to the Board of Directors or to the student body so that an open community discussion may take place, there is a concern amongst the Board that students are being removed from the discussion and the management of the Student Union. This, combined with the belief that attempts to effectively communicate with Dr. Burke have stalled, alongside the current lack of response from Vice President Lombardi despite repeated requests, the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board of Directors has requested that the student body contact the Division of Student and Campus life at vpscl@cornell.edu. Furthermore, Patel has stated that the Board has been informed that the Board’s former advisors, David Bell and Denice Cassaro have been instructed not to speak with them. 

The Board of Directors requests that the Cornell community speak out in support of the Board’s responsibilities and historic role in the governance of Willard Straight Hall. Their hope is that Vice President Lombardi will work to give clarity to the situation, and keep students at the forefront of the discussion in order to ensure that the power to manage the student union remains in the hands of Cornell’s students.

Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board of Directors, Letter to the Students
Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board of Directors, Letter to the Students