Students returned to campus after Spring Break to find 10-foot high chain-link fences installed on each of our campus bridges. Despite the administration’s repeated attempts to justify these barriers, students are unhappy. The fences not only destroy the natural beauty for which Ithaca is famous; they are an affront on the wellbeing of the entire student body at Cornell.
Suicidal or not, it is now impossible to walk across the gorge without thinking about death. The fences serve as a continual reminder of those who died and seem to imply that the rest of us need to be fenced in so as not to kill ourselves. If the university intends to move on from the tragedies this year and improve student morale, it ought to remove the fences so that our campus looks more like a college and less like a concentration camp.
The administration has, unfortunately, backed itself into a corner. As students continue to criticize the fences, the university continues to defend them by citing various studies and claiming bridge barriers as the “most effective means of suicide prevention.” We are expected to believe that suicide is a geographical problem, rather than a mental one—and that fences are the only solution.
The problem is that the experts advising Cornell don’t account for the enormous negative impact that fences can have on a community. To understand that phenomenon we’d have to ask other experts—perhaps historians—who would attest to the long association between fences and oppressive regimes. In the past week, I’ve heard the word “Auschwitz” in reference to the fences many more times than I’ve heard the word “safety.” This can’t be good for anyone’s mental health.
Despite my criticism, I recognize that our administrators are well intentioned. They know that the temporary chain-link fences are ugly and are moving quickly to develop a permanent solution to the “bridge problem”. In the next couple weeks, architecture firms around the country will be invited to participate in a competition to redesign the Cornell bridges with barriers that enhance safety “while preserving the natural beauty of our campus.”
I can imagine what architecture firms might propose for our bridges and it won’t be pretty. Tall, impenetrable barriers do not dissolve into thin air. And fences of any shape or size aren’t exactly the hallmark of a caring community.
We used to say “Ithaca is Gorges” but the university has moved aggressively to block the gorges and their associated beauty from our lives. Now, Ithaca is Fences. Is that what we want?