Cornell Students Occupy Building Protesting Health Fee

(Haewon Hwang / Sun Staff Photographer)

Over 100 students occupied Day Hall for at least four hours Monday, clashing with administrators as they packed offices and opposed the new $350 annual health fee.

Throughout the hours-long Day Hall occupation, students and administrators found themselves in numerous heated confrontations over University policy.

The protest — named “#FightTheFee” and organized by the Save the Pass coalition, which previously held protests in support of free first-year Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit bus passes — started slowly in Willard Straight Hall at noon.

Before the protest began, several administrators were already at the site. Denise Cassaro, associate director for student leadership, engagement and campus activities, was the event manager for the protest and said she wanted to ensure the “safety” of all students at the protest.

Dozens of students streamed into the Willard Straight lobby as classes ended at 12:05 p.m. Protesters distributed pamphlets titled “Student Healthcare Fee: What Administration Won’t Tell You” and launched into brief introductory speeches.

Eventually, chanting “Day Hall,” “Fight the fee,” and “Shut it down,” students marched from the Straight to Day Hall.

Protesters at the door to the administrative buildingdistributed quartercards stating that “Day Hall Has Been Liberated.”

“Chill in administrators’ offices; do their job for them,” the quartercards read. “Use your creativity and collective brilliance to try and solve the problems of Cornell and American higher education in general.”

The flier also suggested that protesters should be respectful to employees and mindful of the space.

Approximately 40 people filed into the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost on the third floor of Day Hall before a man stopped more students from entering the room by standing in front of the door.

President David Skorton stood silently inside the office, where there was no communication between Skorton and the protesters as they filtered into the office.

Daniel Marshall ’15 gave a brief speech, calling on students to “wake up.”

“Everyone knows this system can’t work sustainably and has never worked in our interests. It was only a matter of time until we met each other in the streets,” Marshall said. “The movement we’ve been waiting for is already here.”

Following the end of Marshall’s speech, Skorton returned to his office and did not leave until approximately two hours later, when he addressed students.

Students outside of the office, on the other side of the man blocking the door, dispersed throughout Day Hall, eventually occupying parts of the hallway and other offices on the third floor of the building.

The protesters camped out in the offices and hallway, pulling out laptops and blasting music from speakers.

Throughout the occupation, two students who were designated as police liaisons negotiated with administrators and Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner to remain in the office.

Administrators, stating that the loud music disrupted the office, warned students that they were violating campus codes and could face consequences.

“Nobody can work with that music,” said Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, to Michael Ferrer ’16, one of the police liaisons. “It’s very loud and very frightening to employees.”

Protesters said they believed they were participating in “constructive and engaging” action and refused to leave the offices.

At approximately 1:10 p.m., the music was turned off and students began sharing their thoughts on an array of topics, including the student health fee, shared governance structure, University finances and transparency.

“We want to use this time to discuss what we want as students,” said Rocio Meza ’17.

Many students complained about the lack of transparency and said there was a need for more student involvement.

“I totally support the idea of cheaper co-pays — that cost me a lot of money — but this is something that as students, if we want cheaper co-pays, we need to be involved in making that happen,” said Allison Considine ’17. “We need to make healthcare accessible in a way that helps students.”

Students also expressed their frustrations on the shared governance structure.

“[The S.A.] only had periphery oversight over this. The administration told us, ‘This is what is going to happen. How do we present this to students?’” said Juliana Batista ’16, executive vice president for the S.A. “We want to be here for you guys. I don’t like this fee, but I don’t have power in this situation to change it. We’re taking it personally that people are saying that we’re not doing our jobs when it’s actually that we don’t have the ability to make the impact that we’d like.”

Throughout the conversation, protesters inside 300 Day Hall switched with those outside, as administrators refused to allow more students to enter, citing safety and fire hazard concerns.

Discussion between the protesters continued until Ferrer announced to students that Zoner was considering “accountability options.”

“Ms. Zoner informed me that at this point in time, if we continue being disruptive, and disruptive meaning that having a lot of speeches or having music, she’s going to have to consider accountability options. What that means is J.A.s [Judicial Administration],” Ferrer said.

Following requests from students to hear from Zoner directly, Zoner entered the office and personally addressed the students in a conversation that eventually became heated.

Zoner, stating that the students were disrupting the office and work of University employees, repeatedly asked students to stop interrupting her and to leave the office. Protesters again refused, arguing that Cornell is “also our” university and that the protest was meant to be “disruptive.”

When Zoner and protesters were unable to come to an agreement, students remained in the office. At approximately 2:15 p.m., Skorton entered the room, facing the students in a confrontation that was livestreamed by the protesters.

During the heated exchange, which lasted for approximately 40 minutes, Skorton responded to a string of questions from frustrated students on the fee and University finances.

Skorton repeatedly said that he agreed with the protesters on many issues and that he would be hosting several meetings and presentations to make clear the University finances.

“In previous conversations, when students were upset about something, when it was humanly possible for me to fix something, I did it,” Skorton said.

His responses, however, left protesters unsatisfied, as they continued to stay in Day Hall following their conversation.

Discussion amongst the protesters continued into the afternoon until they agreed on a process to meet in the future and vacated the building together. Many students not in the Office of the President or in Day Hall followed the confrontation between Skorton and protesters and the student discussions afterward through the livestream, which garnered over 1,700 hits.

According to Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, the administration “look[s] forward” to discussing the health fee with students following the protest.

“President Skorton and the entire administration support public discourse and have consistently demonstrated their willingness to listen and respond to student concerns,” Malina said in a statement. “We look forward to engaging in a conversation with the student community about the rationale for, and the importance of the student health fee, as well as other student concerns, over the coming days and weeks.”