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Big Red bucks owed to City of Ithaca

Cornell University and the City of Ithaca’s Common Council have been going back and forth over a Memorandum of Understanding. The Ithaca community has been rallying against Cornell, insisting that Cornell University must pay its fair share in its voluntary monetary contribution to the city.

Protesters exit Ho Plaza as they march down College Ave. toward College Town. Emma Kersting/Ithaca Week
The rally

The Ithaca chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America organized a protest on Cornell’s campus at Ho Plaza on Sept. 18. The rally featured speakers who are locals, former students-turned-Ithaca-residents and Cornell University staff, including Cornell professors Russell Rickford and Risa Lieberwitz.

Lieberwitz is a professor of Labor and Employment Law at Cornell University who has lived in Ithaca for more than 40 years. Lieberwitz worked on a study regarding the relationship between Cornell and the city of Ithaca.

“This has been a really important issue for many, many years,” Lieberwitz said. “It’s only fair for Cornell, with its enormous budget, to pay its fair share so that it can help support the city that serves it in many ways.”

After the rally paraded out of Ho Plaza to the intersection of College and Oak avenues, Aurora Rojer, labor chair of Ithaca DSA, led a series of chants for the participants to cheer out to College Town.

“Make Cornell Pay is our priority campaign, so this is a campaign that we started and we decided we wanted to make it a coalition,” Rojer said. “We’ve been trying to bring other organizations into it, so right now Make Cornell Pay is bigger than just Ithaca DSA but it did start with us.”

Fourth Ward Alderpersons of Ithaca’s Common Council (left to right) Jorge DeFendini and Tiffany Kumar telling the crowd to participate in public comment at Common Council meetings. Emma Kersting/Ithaca Week

Jorge DeFendini and Tiffany Kumar, who represent the city’s Fourth Ward on Common Council, attended the rally in support of Ithaca’s DSA. DeFendini said these instances of public outcry are valuable to Cornell, the community and Common Council.

“Ever since I’ve been an undergrad, Cornell hasn’t been doing right by the communities I’ve been involved in,” DeFendini said. “Now that I’m on the Common Council and a local resident, they don’t give us adequate services whether that be giving us the money that we need for infrastructure, to pay our workers competitively, and our transit systems.”

Local reaction

John Graves, who followed the rally through online live-streams and video coverage, was born in Ithaca and he and his wife have lived in the town for more than 70 years. Graves said that growing up, Cornell had significantly less impact on the town compared to now.

Local man John Graves was born and raised in Ithaca, being a resident of over 70 years. Emma Kersting/Ithaca Week

“It was a small town with Cornell which wasn’t a major corporate entity,” Graves said. “It was kind of a sleepy, out-of-the-way college that people came to because they wanted to not be in a big city, but that’s quickly changing.”

Graves said he believes the MOU should be shorter than 20 years, and he started a petition to show that the people of Ithaca did not agree with Cornell’s administration.

“The management of Cornell when they were at the Common Council [meeting] said we need predictability… that’s why they’re doing the 20-year deal again,” Graves said. “Well Ithaca residents don’t have that option.”

DeFendini, a Cornell University alumni and member of Ithaca’s DSA, was elected to the Common Council in 2022. DeFendini said that the issue with the MOU goes beyond Ithaca.

“Cornell is a multi-billion dollar institution with investments across the country and a board of trustees predominantly located in New York City,” DeFendini said. “We need to make some noise if we want them to hear us, and we have to make some noise at Common Council so that folks know that we can’t accept this deal.”

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