Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Resolution 72 and the Shrinking Political Opportunity Structure at Cornell

By Jon LevitanPublished April 26, 2014

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Here at Cornell, the Political Opportunity Structure is changing; recent measures have begun to place restrictions on groups' abilities to protest and, more importantly, have totally barred certain demands from being heard in the political sphere.
In 1965, after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Bayard Rustin wrote an article titled, “From Protest to Politics: the Future of the Civil Rights Movement”. Rustin argued that, as the civil rights movement matures, its focus must shift from massive public demonstrations toward lobbying Congress for specific, tangible gains for the black community. The ability of a social movement to transition from “protest to politics” is an easy way to measure the lasting effects it will have. For example, the feminist movement’s first wave successfully made the transition, achieving women’s suffrage that has persisted. On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street was able to stage a dramatic, huge protest, but it never achieved any tangible specific goals, and has since died out.


The three things these movements have had in common was the historically open Political Opportunity Structure of the United States. Political Opportunity Structure is a theory predicting that social and political movements will be more numerous and more successful if there are high levels of pluralism and low levels of repression.


Here at Cornell, the Political Opportunity Structure is changing; recent measures have begun to place restrictions on groups’ abilities to protest and, more importantly, have totally barred certain demands from being heard in the political sphere. At the center of these changes has been Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), whose tense competing protests with Cornell Israeli Public Affairs Commission on Ho Plaza in November, 2012, were the inspiration behind the University Assembly’s (U.A.) Resolution 9. This resolution included ambiguous language, especially the line that protests, “are allowed so long as they do not disrupt other functions.” The resolution has not tangibly restricted the rights of students to organize as of yet, but the wording used gives administrators the power to undemocratically take away that right. 

If the passage of Resolution 9 by the U.A. makes it possible for the University to takes away the right to protest, the recent actions taken by the Student Assembly (S.A.) have significantly repressed the ability of student groups to make political change. Yet again, SJP found itself at the center of the issue, as they backed Resolution 72, a motion calling for Cornell’s divestment from “companies profiting from Israeli occupation and Human rights violation”. The S.A. indefinitely tabled the resolution without discussing it further. Tellingly, the supporters of the resolution staged a mass walkout after this result, resorting back to protest after their attempts at political action were repressed.

The S.A. had no obligation to pass Resolution 72, but, as has been discussed by others on campus, it does have an obligation to listen to the supporters and opponents of the resolution make their case and to democratically vote on the issue. The tabling of this resolution significantly impeded the ability of SJP, and other groups supporting the resolution, to make an impact through politics on this campus.

So the actions of the U.A. and S.A. this semester have potentially restricted student groups’ ability to protest and have definitely impacted their ability to turn that protest into politics, but what does this mean for the future of social movements on this campus? First, we must understand why people become active on political issues when activism carries costs. Students have become protesters simply because they see genuine opportunities to make real change in their community and, at the very least, to have their voices heard. As it is now, those opportunities are dwindling, as the University and fellow students have taken away activists’ right to make an argument in a legislative setting. If current trends continue, Cornell’s campus government may come less to resemble that of the United States, where social movements form and regularly succeed, and more to resemble less pluralistic, more repressive societies where the costs of activism greatly outweigh the benefits.

Image source: http://d71vxl4sfh0st.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Pg-1-R72-by-Rula-Saeed-Staff.jpg