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  • Writer's pictureLex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA

The Ithaca-Cornell Social Contract

Ithaca wears an oddly fitting town-gown with Cornell; we have graced the bottom of a certain middle-finger-lake for over 150 years and somehow we have found a way to get along. I can't say that it was a shotgun wedding, nor is it something closer to an arranged marriage. It feels like something in between. If, after a spike of Co-Vid cases after mere thousands of tourists over the 4th of July weekend sent shudders through the community, how will 20,000 students arriving on campus impact our community? Despite all statements otherwise, the impact could be devastating. We are at a time where it necessitates examining this relationship, as now tens of thousands of Ithacans are putting their well being at risk.

Our taxes are the highest in the state because of sheer expanse of Cornell across the county and with that, our cost of living astronomical for the region. Our housing market is geared towards short term rentals and even the term “affordable housing” takes a sort of sci-fi definition. Moreover we lack the stability of upwardly moving jobs and career-minded-hand and glove positions which move 20-somethings into long term investment of our community. We have something of a steroid induced focus on short term tenant/renter construction projects or service jobs which cater to this market. I fear, as an Ithacan, that we are building a bubble around Cornell and we must ask what good is this relationship and what do we get from it?

For the last 150 years every August we have waited with anticipation the next chapter of our arranged-shotgun marriage to further. We Ithacans set our sails on slinging everything from T-shirts to bacon and eggs. Whether directly profiting or not from this influx of our local economy has been pinned to the Big Red success on the hill and for good reason. Estimates this past April put the impact of Cornell closing to a 7 figure amount on the economic loss. Now, we question is any amount worth it due to CoVid? We now ask, to what extent does Cornell care about Ithacan's well-being in the process of opening campus?

I believe, now is good enough of a time as any, to begin negotiations to renew the social contract with Cornell. This contract due to CoVid predicates that Cornell ante-up more than they are doing and that we must tear up our previous social contracts that have existed. I am talking well past the million dollar gift they give to the city that our mayor valiantly fights for increase. I am saying that if Cornell wreaks havoc on our incomes and relationship with their student population, as they are asking our community to serve them food, drive them places, to build their and service their housing, to pick up their garbage and to teach their classes and eventually house them when sick— we must ask what Cornell is doing for us to be the economic engine that provides a sustainable future for our community?

This community deserves good paying jobs, living wages, and a labor force that has opportunities. I personally believe Cornell should and could play a part in that. Instead of directing funds and growth development towards New York City, where is the actual emphasis on Ithaca? Which academic programs generate students who want to thrive and start careers in this bustling college town? What economic engines have been developed by Cornell that provide community members jobs?

Gone are is the Education program that produced teachers for our community. The work of social workers and therapists is handled by nearby Syracuse and Binghamton universities as there is no program for Cornellians to work with the community. Cornell has no nursing program and their doctors famously train in the City. In addition to a Cornell Global Health Program, why not work with local health? If the product of a Cornell education sends students farther away from Cayuga's waters exclusively—then what is the justification of the land grant institution in these stark times?

In these days of CoVid- I believe there is a question that falls to our community: What relationship do we want to have and our children to have with Cornell for the next 150 years? And like the old Janet Jackson song goes an Ithacan can sing, "what have you done for me lately?" Because at what cost does it mean to truly live in this fine college town? I fear our precarious economic situation is symptomatic of something much larger, where we feel alienated and powerless from a very wealthy and insulated class.

A marriage does include vows and a binding contract for the future. However, if we are to go forward in the future together--in sickness and in health--we must renegotiate the long term health to find our way to true bliss.

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