Exclusive Interview with Current Undergraduate Student-Elected Trustee Yamini Bhandari '17 and Student-Elected Trustee-Elect Dustin Liu '19

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Could you tell us in your own words what the duties and responsibilities of a student trustee are?

Yamini: It’s an opportunity for the students to have a voice on the Board of Trustees. There’s sixty-four members on the board, and you’re one of them. You have the opportunity to speak on student issues, from a student perspective, at the highest level of decision making. I see the student trustee role a little differently from normal trustees because you have the opportunity to engage with administrators and student organizations on campus and really understand what’s happening on the ground.

Dustin: I agree; it’s a bridge between students and administrators, so often times Yamini and I would take the role more fluidly. It’s not just the work that you do in the room, but the work that you do on campus connecting students with administrators and having a good understanding of student issues. I like to call it an eloquent mouthpiece—we’re speaking on behalf of the students who we represent.

 

How do you carry out your roles on the ground? What are the different people you guys use?

Yamini: I’ve used the Student Assembly to understand different issues because it’s a platform for students to discuss issues and bring together students from all seven colleges, so that’s been one source. I’ve been trying to get in touch with a number of different student organizations and just have personal connections with people. Running this intense campaign to get elected allows you to see all the different pockets of campus and understand all the different issues. And when the time comes, you have somebody to talk to, you have somebody that you can really engage with on certain issues. As far as the ground issues, it varies by trustees. Dustin is forming his own version of what that’s going to look like.

Dustin: Like she said, it really comes down to targeted outreach to student organizations based on the climate. It’s about leveraging the network that you have on campus in order to understand what’s going on. A lot of it is knowledge-building as well, so that you can speak fluently in board meetings.

Yamini: We have four meetings a year and at those meetings, they can ask you anything. They assume that we know about a whole multitude of student issues so if we don’t know the answer to their questions, that’s a reflection of us not doing our homework. In that capacity, we have to be aware of all these issues.

 

Are you assigned to certain committees?

Yamini: We have a broader board with all the members and we have different committees. The committees are the action and discussion place. We serve on the student life committee, the academic affairs committee. I currently serve on the Buildings and Properties Committee, and University Relations, as well as a local trustee committee. Except for the local trustee committee, the committees meet when the trustees are here. For the student life committee the undergraduate and the graduate students have the opportunity to make student presentations.

Dustin: So they are fluid on which committees that we can attend and sit in on.

 

Dustin, what are some of Yamini’s initiatives that you plan to continue on and what will you prioritize?

Dustin: Yamini did a great job in creating a strong foundation to build on. Opportunities for diversity requirement and legal advising may need to be further investigated to see their feasibility Having legal advice is salient on issues such as housing, since we currently find ourselves in a housing monopoly. So thinking how we can leverage the resources at the law school to help our students will be important.

Yamini: So we’re trying to provide free legal advising to students. We don’t have a system where students can consult a lawyer when something happens so having legal advising for students off-campus is what we’re aiming for.

 

Could you elaborate a bit more on the diversity requirement?

Yamini: We’re talking about how do we get to a place where every student knows how to engage with difference. The intergroup dialogue project has found some success over its course in bridging that gap, but I think what we wanted to do is see how we can make that a part of every student’s Cornell experience. One of the conversations that’s come up especially because CALS already has a diversity requirement is can we leverage some type of diversity requirement or cross-cultural ability to engage across the difference in requirements for all the colleges. It’s definitely been a tough concept, and like Dustin has said, we have met with every dean and worked with a lot of different student groups, and there’s a lot of research that’s been done—but it’s how do you mobilize on that issue?

Dustin: I think what’s really interesting is thinking about the geography of Cornell’s campus. It’s so de-centralized, just thinking about the way it’s set up. It really creates interesting struggles that aren’t faced by other universities.

 

Yamini, approaching the end of your term, what do you hope people remember most about your work as student trustee?

Yamini: So even the role of student trustee is kind of interesting because it’s not something where you leave your name on a very specific thing. What I expected from my term was very different from when I came out. And also, the situation of our university changed with President Garrett’s passing so abruptly. I served on the presidential search committee to find Martha Pollack, and I think that personally was an incredible experience being the only undergraduate student on that committee and providing that kind of perspective of what do students need from their presidents or from the leadership of the university. In that way I think that’s definitely a physical manifestation of something I was able to work on. As far as other things, one of the things I had come into the role hoping for was more engagement with students when the trustees are on campus and off campus. We’ve instituted a number of different initiatives in that sense. Last year we had an open panel where trustees answered any questions that students had—pretty unprecedented as far as university boards go across the country. Engagement opportunities like that or breaking bread dinner. None of these initiatives were things I did alone—there was a lot of help from other people like Ryan Lombardi and so many of the really cool administrators we had on campus, but it’s been cool to be able to work on these different ways to bridge the gap between students, trustees, and administrators.

Dustin: I think Yamini set a foundation with the new Dean of Students and the new administration of that notion of student engagement which I don’t think was there maybe 10 years ago. Having that foundation allows me to build on top of that and have more opportunities for trustees to engage directly with students.

 

How would Cornell be different if we didn’t have a student trustee position?

Yamini: It’s funny, Cornell is the only Ivy that has it and I think Duke is the only other school as far as peer institutions to have it. But even Duke doesn’t have it the way that we do. The kind of exciting part of this role is you really feel like you are just like all the other trustees. You have the same rights and responsibilities which is pretty incredible. I think as a decision making tool to understand the constituencies that you’re serving and understand how they’re going to respond to things and what the impact of decisions are going to look like, it just makes us better at decision making.

 

But your one voice among 64 other voices, do you feel heard? What you said is it important?

Yamini: That was one of the things I was surprised by the most. When you talk, all 64 heads, or whoever is at the meeting, turn around and listen because a lot of the trustees are leaders and are very good at decision making and when you’re making decisions you need to understand how it’s going to impact your organization. So, when you talk you are the eyes and ears on the ground. You, as well as the faculty trustees, the graduate student trustees, and the employee trustee—you know what is going to happen and what these decisions are going to look like.

Dustin: I would say the access that we have and the ability we have to connect with student administrators is on another level; it is something that other universities don’t have. I was at Ivy Council this week talking about the role, and everyone was shaken by it. At other universities, there’s a higher level of bureaucracy. While other universities may have students that are representatives on their boards, they’re not full voting members like we are which sort of ups the stakes for us.

 

So you both have talked a lot about Cornell University’s strengths to an extent. What do you think are our weaknesses from what you’ve seen so far?

Yamini: It’s interesting because you love Cornell so much in this role, and you get to see Cornell’s best and brightest vibes, but you also get to understand the really baseline critical political issues. During the presidential search, they were saying that there are very few people that can run an organization like Cornell because when you’re sitting at a school like Yale or Harvard, you have these mass endowments that you can work with. Cornell is lesser but still competing with these schools. We have way more students, we have the public private aspect of the university, something that undergraduates don’t really think about. In that sense, there are a lot of layers to Cornell and it makes it a very complex institution. When you’re serving this public and private mission, but also competing with these schools that also have more resources, that makes it challenging. And then the layer of seven undergraduate colleges, at least for the undergraduate experience, it makes it very complicated to move things.

 

For Yamini, what do you wish you would have done differently while serving as student trustee?

Yamini: So, the nice thing with this role is that you serve for two years. But the challenge is that there is just so much to do and you only have four meetings a year. There is no hand book to understand what your job is. And I’ve been trying to transition Dustin into it, but until you see it yourself you don’t really understand it. And part of this is the nature of the job. I mean Cornell College of Business was a trustee decision and I graduated four different presidents, there was a lot of moving around and I was a part of that. A personal thing I wish I had done differently is engage with more students. I think for a lot of the projects I was working on I would’ve made more progress on them if I had engaged more students earlier on. I didn’t know if I was allowed to or if I was supposed to, and I should’ve just done it. So I wish I had allocated more tasks to people interested in diversity requirements and legal advising.

 

A major concern is the diversity on the board, or the lack thereof. For Yamini, did you ever see decisions being made that would’ve been done differently if the board was more diverse? And Dustin, how can you use your role to influence decisions to support minority groups on campus?

Yamini: A lot of these things get vetted by students before getting there. As far as the diverse perspectives on the board, you will be surprised to know that we do have a very diverse board. Boards are historically not diverse, but I think a lot of the groundwork as far as that perspective does come in. Certainly, as a student trustee part of the onus is on you to bring the modern diverse perspective. You can have diverse populations, but with the age gap and the gap in understanding, especially with social issues and those kinds of things, the onus is on you help trustees understand that. And I think a lot of the student engagement opportunities that we brought were a step in the right direction. For example, last year we did Breaking Bread. This is basically an opportunity for facilitators from the intergroup dialogue project to facilitate a dialogue between these trustees and students on issues of diversity and inclusion and helping bridge the gap. As far as perspective, that’s how we’ve been trying to bridge that gap.

 

How can you use your role to influence decisions that affect minority groups in our student body?

Dustin: Similar to what we’ve said before, it isn’t what happens in the room, it’s what happens in between the meetings and in the downtime. You are not only talking to people in the room, you are talking to people in between meetings and emailing people. And I think that’s how you make your voice heard by getting people individually on your side and make sure everyone understands where you’re coming from before you even step into the room. That’s how you raise people’s consciousness on issues that affect minority groups or marginalized communities on our campus that aren’t represented on the board. If you can sit down with them individually and have a conversation about how this decision is going to impact this marginalized community, they’ll have a better understanding of the context.

 

Now going back to tuition. Can you explain why Cornell’s tuition is so high and what the money is going toward exactly?

Yamini: One of the things I observed in the board meetings is that when you pay tuition you’re paying a fraction of the actual cost of attending Cornell. Think about the dorms that you live in, the libraries, buildings and resources. They are very expensive and your tuition is not covering all the costs associated with that, so a lot of the costs are subsidized by alumni donations, the state of New York, and other ways. A lot of students don’t actually recognize that. In addition, a significant amount of students are on financial aid and Cornell does a good job with that. For modern universities, especially in this space, it’s a high sticker high discount kind of model. You can access resources at the top and provide resources for those who can’t afford a Cornell education. That is the model we’ve been going with. Is it sustainable? Probably not. Is there something that needs to happen? Yes. It’s a challenge with how we actually decide to move on.

Dustin: The article also touches on the notion that as an institution, we want to stay competitive and we want to receive the top applicants. We want to stay at the cutting edge of research and the cutting edge of the student experience. With that you need capital to fund that. You need capital to make sure that we are having the up-and-coming software and technology in order to stay current. As a private research institution that is leading in many fields, that is where our money is going to. When I am asked where the money is going to, the way I think about it is that it is keeping us competitive and at the edge of the game.

Yamini: I agree. The competitive part is a part of it. Students care about rankings when they are applying and deciding. A Cornell experience is very expensive and lot of universities across the country have to start thinking about how we make this experience less of a burden. Some of the dorms, and obviously there is a disparity in the quality, but generally it is pricey to have dorms like Mews for example, which is like a hotel.


 

Although you did win the election, one of the criticisms the Daily Sun had during their interview with you was that you didn’t haveaplatform to present to them. Our question is what would you say are your major goals that you hope to achieve over your two year term?

Dustin: This was also a conversation I had with Yamini; the trustee position is so complex and multifaceted but no one really understands what it is.

Yamini: Because a lot of the stuff that happens is that you work on your own initiative and your own projects and a lot of it is just what's thrown at you. I think it's more valuable to have a statement of values: what you stand for more and less on what you will do.

Dustin: Going off of that, I don't believe in just saying that tuition is going down because there's certain pressures on the economy that I simply just can’t control.

 

What are the values you will uphold as student trustee?

Dustin: I'm interested in obviously continuing Yamini’s work engaging trustees with students directly. Having more platforms to hear student work, to hear what we are doing on campus directly from students. Because a lot of the trustees graduated like 30 or 40 years ago and they have seen Cornell through the lens of their student experience. Understanding that we have a multiplicity of identities on campus, understanding that we have students that come from intersectional backgrounds. That's something I want to push forward to them, and that's something that we think is the foundation of what we have done for the last 10 years.

Another aspect of that is really creating an equitable student experience. Something that I've been working on with Yamini is looking at the actual cost of going to Cornell. We are analyzing the implications of dining halls, Collegetown and the multitude of costs that come from it. We are allowing the trustees to see quantitatively and qualitatively what the student experience is.

So, what I hope to achieve is for the trustees to have the opportunity to have a better understanding of where Cornell is right now. What the student body looks like and what they need. Because often times it's very easy to become complacent and not rethink what works for the students and what resources that we have. I want to be aware of the implication of added cost on education.

And it is a lot about being transparent and open. I know Yamini gets a lot of Facebook messages, I get a lot of Facebook messages and texts from friends and people who know you and want to see a change. It is just important to be open and visible so we can bring forward to the board.

So, there's recently being a push for different programs like the Asian-American and LGBT programs. This is something that the Board of Trustees must approve. And there is sometimes a big divide between what they are seeing and what the students see. And the student trustee acts like the voice helping everyone involved better understand the issues at hand.