This is an editorial written by Managing Editor Jolene Almendarez. Full disclosure, Almendarez reported on the public hearing Wednesday. To submit an opinion piece — dissenting or otherwise — to The Ithaca Voice, contact us at email@example.com.
ITHACA, N.Y. — At a so-called public hearing Wednesday deciding the fate of Cornell University student that leaked internal documents to the Cornell Daily Sun, only two members of the public were actually permitted to directly witness the proceeding. All other members of the public had to cope with a poor-quality video stream in another room, and dozens were turned away from that.
This is apparently Cornell University’s definition of the word “public.”
Student Mitch McBride was ultimately vindicated Wednesday night after the University Hearing Board determined that he did not violate the Campus Code of Conduct when he shared documents with The Cornell Daily Sun in February. McBride has been called a whistleblower for bringing attention to the fact that the university was considering adding more priority toward admitting students with the ability to pay for tuition as opposed to a more merit-based admission policy.
The hearing Wednesday was a rare and important opportunity for the public to witness a campus judicial process because they are usually kept private. Members of the Cornell community could not recall a public hearing taking place in recent memory.
For non-Cornell affiliated people, it’s important to note that the hearings are essentially the law of the land at Cornell. As a student, you can be found responsible — a finding similar to being guilty — of breaking campus rules.
Now, sometimes the impact of a responsible “verdict” can be as minor as having a student write a reflection paper. But a student can be kicked out of school for severe violations. And this entire process operates almost completely in secret to adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which maintains student confidentiality.
This made McBride’s hearing a very big deal — and the university blew the chance to be transparent.
First, anyone arriving at Day Hall to witness the hearing was informed via notices on the doors that the public hearing would be live streamed in Uris Hall in a 60-person capacity space.
Then, upon finding Room 202 in Uris Hall, dozens of people were waiting for admittance into the room. To get in, a man at the door — who refused to identify himself or who he was affiliated with — required that people give their first and last names to him to be written down on a list. In addition, a Cornell University Investigator was also stationed at the door.
Investigator Scott Grantz, a sergeant at the Cornell University Police Department, said he was there “in case there were any issues.”
The experience was genuinely as ominous as it sounds.
People who arrived at Uris Hall early enough to land a seat in the room were also faced with a lack of transparency. The video streaming into the room from Day Hall was not working properly and many people who were inside eventually left because they said the hearing was inaudible.
It seems unlikely that university officials were unaware that so many people were interested in attending the hearing. The Cornell Daily Sun reported for days that hundreds of people expressed interest in seeing the hearing.
After some off-the-record conversation by the University Hearing Board Wednesday evening, The Cornell Daily Sun City Editor Nick Bogel-Burroughs was allowed into the room for the hearing, a good move to ensure that at least somebody from the public could hear the proceeding.
Ithaca Voice Managing Editor Jolene Almendarez was also permitted into the room, but only after barging into the room tailed by a police officer and requesting access. That’s not a move most members of the public would make and, frankly, it’s not a move a member of the press should have had to make to cover a public hearing.
But the hampering of public access to the hearing didn’t stop there.
In one final blow to transparency, Bogel-Burroughs was nearly prohibited from tweeting from the hearing. Fortunately, he read the hearing rules beforehand, which did not directly indicate that tweeting or other social media were banned. (As a side note, his live tweets and reporting on the issue are excellent and can be found at @cornellsun on Twitter.)
It does not matter whether Cornell officials deliberately tried to block the public from viewing the disciplinary proceeding, or if it was a lack of planning that hampered the public process, Cornell can do better. University officials have proven this time and again as they have live broadcasted events and speeches to a global audience.
But the university’s opportunity to make amends has not expired.
University officials can still opt to release the video of the hearing — with audible sound quality — to the public. If the sound quality is too poor to fix, then the university should make an effort to provide a transcript of the hearing to the public.
Cornell is not obligated to do either of those things but saying, “We’ll get it right next time,” just is not good enough.
University officials have a clear and distinct opportunity to make things right for the Cornell community and the public. It’s an opportunity that should be seized.
Featured Image: Dozens of people were not permitted into the public hearing room at Uris Hall Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Jolene Almendarez/The Ithaca Voice