As a campus tourguide, I have grown accustomed to answering tough questions about the Cornell experience. Most of these questions come from over-zealous parents on a mission to embarrass their children. They can be harmless (do you have small classes?); they can be unexpected (do you have a girlfriend?); and they can be misinformed (do lots of Cornell students commit suicide?). I am a tourguide because I enjoy answering these questions and–for the most part–the answers are quite simple: Yes, My classes are small. Yes, I am not interested in your daughter. No, Cornell’s suicide rate is below the national average.
The most difficult question to answer is one of the most common: “In your opinion, what is the worst thing about Cornell?” I can be honest to a fault, so my fumbled response to this question is not an act of deception. The truth is that–like any institution–Cornell has many problems and it would be nearly impossible to qualitatively or quantitatively assess which is “the worst.” How the **** am I supposed to know the answer? Do you really want my opinion?
My complaint-du-jour is usually addressed toward my own department and is hardly relevant to most prospective students. The temptation, therefore, might be to say something generic about the weather, the Greek system, or campus parking. But such complaints tend to be trivial, vague, irrelevant or easily disputable.
After some deliberation, I have decided on the thing (in my opinion) that is worst about Cornell. Quite simply, it is the fact that all gyms on campus require a membership fee. I understand that the fee is small ($145/year) and that it helps to pay the bills, but it is the University’s most profound example of shortsightedness.
Think, for a moment, about the amount of money that Cornell invests in community health initiatives. Counseling, free condoms/lube, and health seminars each receive a portion of my tuition and student fee. In spite of all the programs on campus, some students, faculty and staff remain unhealthy.
One should not overlook the fact that even a minimal fee stops many members of the Cornell community from using gym facilities. The barrier is greatest for individuals of lesser financial means and those who might not use the gym regularly in the first place (but need it the most). For the benefit of these people, the gyms on campus ought to be completely free to community members (as is common at other Universities).
Obviously, during our current crisis, the financial burden of such a change might seem insurmountable. But higher productivity and lower health provision costs among employees would pay big returns on the investment. Cornell should make the change and we will all profit from the improved quality of life.