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Trustee Tales

Don Lifton snapshot by Don Lifton '67, Cornell

Editor's Note: Every year Cornellians vote for 2 fellow alumni to sit on the university's Board of Trustees. Don Lifton '67 was elected to the Board in 1990 for a four year term, not by the usual nomination from the Board's screening committee, but independently with a fistful of petition signatures in hand. This would be the last time an independent candidate would run for a seat among our school's high and mighty - in almost all previous alumni trustee "elections," 4 candidates were selected by the Board, of which 2 would win seats (there are a total of 8 alumni seats on Cornell's Board). Who ever said capitalism and communism are all that different? Anyway, Don ran on a progressive platform and won by a landslide - a testament to the intelligence of Cornellians, who doubtless grow tired of the endless "Go Big Red" platitudes of other trustee candidates. The Board rewarded Don's democratic participation and initiatives with isolation, and by changing the rules to make it much harder for independents to even make the ballot. Hummm, aren't these the same folks who extol the values of freedom, civic participation, and a social conscience at graduation, to us and our families who just forked over big money to pay their salaries?

What?! A Real Platform with Real Issues??

In 1990, the voting alumni elected me to become a trustee even though my candidacy was not endorsed by the Board's screening committee. I gained access to the ballot by submitting a petition of more than 100 alumni. Frankly, my platform statement - printed on the flyer distributed with the ballot - was the only substantive one among the group. While all the other (endorsed) candidates promised to bleed big red, my platform called for:

...and other progressive planks. My statement listed the names of 17 faculty members who endorsed my candidacy - an important legitimization that balanced the committee's endorsement of the other four.

Some voters heeded an informal call to "bullet" their ballot just for me rather than give a second vote to another as well and, perhaps, relegate my candidacy to third place. My victory was NOT a personal triumph - who knew me? - but one for a progressive approach to the guidance of our alma mater.

Serving as a trustee was both rewarding and frustrating. On the one hand, trustees get to learn about the many wonderful Cornell University achievements. Our alma mater's activities often make significant contributions to the human condition. Many times during my four years of service, this son of Cornell felt quite proud of our university.

On the other, my policy initiatives were often marginalized. For example, while the Board Chairman did place my concerns about town-gown relations on one meeting's agenda, he waited to have the discussion at our meeting held annually at the Med School in Manhattan, far away from the prying eyes of the Cornell Daily Sun and Ithaca Journal. Furthermore, not one of my parliamentary motions during four years of service was ever seconded.

Still, being a Cornell trustee did, occasionally, give me a "bully pulpit." In 1992, for example, I served as the quasi-narrator of a 22 minute videotape, "In the Shadow of the Tower," produced by the UAW local. It poignantly demonstrated the low-wage working conditions of its members on campus. The video enhanced the union's bargaining position during negotiations for a new contract. Having a trustee as a "talking-head" helped give the piece credibility.

After my term the balloting rules were changed: 400 signatures are now needed to gain access; no endorsements other than the committee's is permitted to be publicized on the flyer; the size of the flyer statement is shortened while the resume section is enlarged; and all bulleted ballots are disqualified without adding to the selected candidate's vote tally. Clearly, as UPA grows, some light can be shone on this less than fully democratic process.

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