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Cornell’s Judicial Problem

Last Thursday, the Cornell University Hearing Board dismissed the administration’s charges that Mitch McBride ‘17 violated the Campus Code of Conduct by sharing internal documents from the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group. These documents revealed that senior administrators are colluding to discriminate against transfer applicants who require financial aid, an attempt to further compromise the university’s already empty motto of “Any person, any study.” Although McBride’s actions were heroic and promoted the shared governance ideals which the university ostensibly espouses, they undermined the administration’s furtive and disingenuous agenda. It was this, and not any actual or perceived wrongdoing, for which these charges were brought against McBride.

McBride’s case exemplifies the corruption and dishonesty at the very core of Cornell’s judicial system, which exists not to dispense justice but rather to quell dissent. The administration’s effort to intimidate and silence McBride is their routine procedure for anyone who tries to hold them accountable for their blatant greed and dishonesty. The plea deal they offered to him prior to the trial (which would have resulted in a six-year disciplinary record) sent a clear message: “Comply, or we will make your life a living hell.” And they were able to do this with complete impunity– even though McBride was ultimately exonerated, the administrators who pressed charges will face no repercussions for their sickening abuse of authority.

Cornell has a longstanding record of cracking down on those who facilitate or demand transparency. This was perhaps most salient during the aftermath of the spring 2015 health fee protests, in which police threatened leading activists with felony burglary and trespassing charges. Although none of them were ever convicted of criminal activity, several of these students were ultimately placed on indefinite administrative leave and effectively expelled for unrelated and trumped-up charges (such as unpaid tuition fees) which were clearly used as an excuse to punish them for having exercised their right to free speech. Such gratuitous and flagrant abuses of power foster a hostile, frightening campus environment– one which is clearly antagonistic to the ideals of both shared governance and higher education.

The ridiculous nature of McBride’s case is hardly an anomaly, but his public vindication certainly is: countless others have been convicted of equally ludicrous charges and faced punishments up to and including dismissal from the university. As an affluent white male with a prominent position on campus, McBride was able to benefit from both public engagement and outside legal assistance. These same luxuries are often not afforded to less economically privileged students or to people of color. It is unclear how many individuals the Judicial Administrator has intimidated into accepting plea bargains for crimes they were not guilty of.

Yet with respect to actual criminal activity, Cornell’s record is quite the opposite: it fails to take action and even harasses victims. Cornell currently has the highest number of active Title IX investigations in the entire country. It fails to investigate reports of sexual assault and, if it does, subjects victims to humiliating public scrutiny. It actively condones institutionalized rape culture, hazing, and drug abuse through its sanctioning and promotion of the Greek system. The reason for this discrepancy is that sexual assault does not pose a threat to the university’s goals of maximizing profits. In fact, given that its perpetrators are often wealthy, well-connected white males, the opposite is true: the university does not wish to alienate these potential donors by holding them accountable.

In the event that sexual assault *is* prosecuted, the Judicial Administrator denies due process to the accused and makes a spectacle out of punishing the individual in as draconian a manner as possible. The goal is not to address systemic sexual assault and the factors which cause and enable it, but rather to deflect negative attention through a PR stunt which individualizes a rampant and pervasive issue which will affect roughly 20% of females at Cornell. 

I had my own Kafkesque experience with Cornell’s judicial system in 2014. On the day of a Student Assembly Finance Committee deadline, the club president was out of town and authorized me to sign on his behalf, which I then did. Because I did not even make an attempt to replicate his actual signature, SAFC noticed the discrepancy and sent him an inquiry. Even after he told them that I had been authorized to sign, the SAFC and its respective bureaucrat opened a case with the Cornell police. Despite the police then being similarly apprised of the fact that I had permission to sign and despite the fact that it was finals week, the police demanded that I come in anyway.

Given the SAFC’s byzantine and bureaucratic funding process and the insane amount of paperwork and signatures which they require, it is almost inevitable that what I did occurs on a regular basis. The form did not explicitly state that signing with permission was not allowed, and, even if it had, doing so is obviously a very minor offense. Yet to the Cornell police and the judicial administrator, it was evidently deemed more serious than the sexual assault, hazing, and drug abuse which they habitually ignore.

When I came in with the person whose signature I was accused of having forged, the officer informed me that he had opened a criminal forgery case against me and showed me the six felony charges he had drawn up against me. The officer threatened to have me criminally charged, expelled from Cornell, and jailed if I did not cooperate with his interrogation, which lasted for over an hour. He told me that a conviction was not necessary to ruin my career prospects– that merely having had criminal charges pressed against me would show up in a background check.

This, despite the fact that you cannot “forge a signature with permission” because having permission is inherently inimical to what constitutes forgery. This, despite the fact that the criminal element of signature forgery is derived from the misappropriation of someone else’s authorization, not from the act of writing on a piece of paper. This, despite the fact that the club president was in the interrogation room with me, vouching that I had his permission and pleading with them to not press any charges against me.

During the interrogation, the officer fingerprinted me, took a mugshot, and collected private personal information which I would not have been willing to disclose had it not been for the officer’s threat. I was ultimately coerced into signing a form stating that I had willfully committed “forgery with permission” in exchange for him not pressing criminal charges against me and instead referring me to the office of the Judicial Administrator, with a maximum penalty of expulsion instead of jail time.

The Associate Judicial Administrator whom I met with was unprofessional and condescending. The person whose signature I had been accused of forging met with him before me and informed him that I had had permission, but the JA insisted that this was not enough for an exoneration and would merely “be taken into consideration” during his investigation, which he said could last up to a year. At one point, I had the audacity to suggest that the charges were frivolous. He then launched into a tirade in which he excoriated me for my lack of respect for the police and the Cornell Code of Conduct. Before leaving, I was warned to not publicly discuss my case– this is evidently their standard procedure and very troubling with respect to transparency and fairness.

Around a month later, I called his office to see if he had made any progress. He accused me of being selfish for expecting a quick resolution of my case, told me he had higher priorities, swore at me, and then hung up before I had a chance to respond. A few days later, I received his verdict in the following letter:

Felonies

Perhaps the worst part of this unapologetically idiotic drivel is the line: “Had the circumstances been different, you may well have been in violation of the Code.” This quite literally means: “Had you done something which you did not actually do, then you would have been in violation of the code.” The letter was clearly not proofread, even going so far as to misspell the word “the” as “thr” and failing to use appropriate indefinite articles and tenses.

Despite all the time and energy that was put into investigating my case and despite all of the stress that they caused me, they could not be bothered to do something so simple as proofread a letter. I was dehumanized and treated like a criminal over an innocuous action, all so that the Cornell judicial system could take over a month to reach a common sense decision and then further insult me by not only failing to apologize and telling me to “grow in maturity” but also by failing to even use correct grammar and spelling.

I firmly believe that I was treated the way I was because I happen to be Asian-American and therefore, in the eyes of the administration, not a real person. Had I not fully cooperated with the police and profusely apologized for my actions, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have gone forward with their attempt to have me jailed and expelled. This, despite the fact that my actions harmed nobody. This, despite the fact that they do not even investigate actual cases of forgery, so long as the person is white and well-connected instead of Asian.

They thought they could successfully intimidate into not speaking publicly about this. And for almost three years, they were correct. But the McBride incident has finally convinced me that enough was enough– that the administration is out of control and will continue to terrorize students who do anything averse to their agenda. McBride may have been exculpated, but this is largely because he is white and affluent. If they will go so far as to do what they did to me for “forgery with permission”, imagine what they would do to a non-affluent minority who has the courage to do something similar to what McBride did. Imagine what they have already done. I fully understand that my publication of this post will likely result in a smear campaign against me, but this conversation is too important to not have.

Everybody involved in the McBride case on the prosecuting side should maintain whatever scraps of decency they have remaining and immediately resign. The Cornell administration should apologize to McBride, its other victims, and the community as a whole for its judicial system’s record of racism, classism, sexism, and general stupidity. And then they should implement serious reforms to ensure that this type of thing never happens again.

And until they do it, we, as students, alumni, faculty, and workers, need to condemn both their arrogance and the blatant disrespect which they have shown towards us. We need to demand accountability and give them the negative publicity which they are so desperate to avoid yet have so unequivocally earned. And we need to stop donating because, as the administration has repeatedly and categorically demonstrated, money is all that matters to them.

You can sign the petition here:

https://www.change.org/p/cornell-alumni-refuse-to-donate-to-cornell-until-they-fix-their-judicial-system

 
I encourage you to share your stories and documentation with me at CornellCorruption@gmail.com so that they can be posted on this blog, with both anonymity and any necessary redactions.