In the week before Charter Day--the high point of Cornell University’s lavish 150th birthday celebration--five student activists were contacted by the administration or the Cornell Police (CUPD) in regards to their organizing activities with #FightTheFee. Two of them were personally contacted by Vice Presidents Susan Murphy and Mary Opperman, who invited them to a meeting with the explicit purpose of informing them about “what forms of protest will be allowed to happen” and that disruptions to Charter Day would not be tolerated. On February 6, #FightTheFee had occupied Day Hall in response to a new $350 health fee, and on March 26, activists protested at the Cornell Trustees Meeting to demand: 1. the repeal of the new fee; 2. a tuition freeze; 3. an end to Trustee conflicts of interest; 4. and no diversion of funding from students, faculty, and workers at Cornell. When the organizers tried to discuss students’ urgent concerns and grievances at the meeting, Murphy and Opperman declined to engage in productive dialogue, refusing a number of compromises offered by the students.
Last week, CUPD criminal investigators called in a student organizer for questioning. This student had assumed a visible role both in #FightTheFee’s teach-ins on University Finance and by publishing a column in The Cornell Daily Sun criticizing the Trustees . After initially telling the organizer he would not face charges in the Cornell Campus Judicial System, the officer pressured him to reveal information about the group’s organizing activities. When the organizer said that he would rather not respond to the question, the officer claimed that the CUPD had subpoenaed the administrator list for the “Save the Pass” Facebook page. According to the investigator, “there are people who want to know” about the planning processes, motivations, and organizing structure of the group. When the organizer still declined to answer, the officer stated that the CUPD had DNA and fingerprint evidence linking the student organizer to an alleged crime the morning of the Trustees action. If the organizer didn’t cooperate, the investigator claimed, police would lead him out of class in handcuffs in the next few days and arrest him for a felony with a minimum sentence of three years in prison. Still declining to give information, the organizer was dismissed and told he would be arrested in the next couple of days.
In a matter of minutes after that organizer left the interrogation room in Barton Hall, two more organizers were called in for questioning. One of them declined, while the other complied and was interviewed a few days later. The same officer posed similar questions about the organizing methods of the group, the group’s structure, and the planning process of the Trustees action. In this interview, the investigator revealed that the alleged “crime” concerned a photo, posted to the Save the Pass Facebook page the morning before the March 26, 2015, Trustees meeting, that showed the “Welcome the Trustees” event image projected in the Statler amphitheater. Additionally, the officer alleged that several butcher paper posters affiliated with the protest were hung in the amphitheater. When asked by the organizer’s lawyer, the investigator admitted that no property was damaged, and never asserted that anything was stolen.
The investigator stated that the felony would be a charge of burglary, which relied on the claim that the doors to the Statler amphitheater and the AV room within it were locked, and that some protesters “broke the locks” when they entered. As any “Hotelie” at Cornell knows, however, these doors are left open all night. If they had been locked that particular night for some reason, there would have been no way of breaking in without breaking the entire door, as the locks are electronic. As photographs and video of the protest attest, the door was untouched the following day, and perfectly operational as undercover CUPD officers (including the eventual investigator) guarded it from protesters demanding lawful entry into the meeting. So if the CUPD knows that no locks were broken, and no property was damaged, why are they investigating such an innocuous prank so aggressively?
Intimidation is an obvious reason for the display of force, apparently to prevent any signs of student and faculty dissatisfaction from surfacing at Cornell’s Charter Day celebrations. However, the intimidation also serves more disturbing, long-term purposes. In both interrogations, which were recorded by the students, the CUPD revealed a deeper interest in the organizing community on campus in general. It became clear that their objective was not simply to threaten, though that would have been egregious enough, but also to gather intelligence about student activists, their causes, and their organizations. Student activists have long been aware of administrative surveillance of their activities, particularly through access to their CMail accounts (which the University has carefully secured as its legal right). But this is the first instance in which this project of surveillance has been so conspicuously put on display. To students’ faces, administrators call for dialogue, and admit that they do not find #FightTheFee’s demands unreasonable. But behind closed doors, they treat student activism like a rebellion that needs to be crushed.
If the administrators were genuinely committed to the ideals they so triumphantly invoke, they would apologize for their infringements on the expression of dissent on campus and be accountable to student needs and concerns. They would stop invoking Cornell’s proud history of student activism when it is convenient, and suppressing it when it is not.
If the CUPD is interested in investigating illicit activity, they might do well to turn around and investigate their superiors. The irony of this investigation of students is that it comes on the heels of repeated attempts by the Trustees, the administration, and their legal team to evade scrutiny of the Trustees. As has been extensively documented by #FightTheFee organizers, the closure of the Trustees meeting to the public, the withholding of open meeting minutes, and the minutes’ extensive redactions are all in violation of New York State Law and two New York State Supreme Court rulings . Both the law and these rulings mandate that Cornell open its meetings while discussing the statutory colleges or when deliberating expenditures of public funds, such as the $121 million appropriated to the statutory colleges. The Trustees’ own improper behavior--both in their positions at Cornell and at corporations elsewhere--has been documented in the Daily Sun and #FightTheFee’s research in the weeks leading up to the Trustees meeting.
It was #FightTheFee that originally revealed that the administration had explicitly misled the student body on the uses of Health Fee revenue, and that, in trying to stop that information from becoming public, administrators pressured Student Assembly representatives into withholding key information from the student body. If there is a suspicious, secretive organization bent on harming the public that requires our scrutiny, it is Cornell University, not #FightTheFee. If there are people who deserve to be called in for questioning, it is the executives of the Cornell administration. The University’s campaign of intimidation, intelligence-gathering, and repression, which could only have been coordinated by the top ranks of the administration, is worthy of investigation in and of itself. As the CUPD investigator put it, “there are people who want to know” what is going on: the students, the faculty, and the entire Cornell community. We refuse to be questioned until we receive some answers.
 “Who Can Trust The Trustees?” http://cornellsun.com/blog/2015/03/17/guest-room-who-can-trust-the-trustees/
 Holden v. The Board of Trustees of Cornell University (1981)
Alderson v. New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University (2005)