Too Few Seats at Cornell For Dave Archambault of Standing Rock

Categories Columns, Education, Ithaca

By Josh Brokaw

“Cornell has many large auditoriums and is dedicated to serving the community,” thought the reporter as he hurried across campus on a windy, below-freezing day in February. “Surely Cornell knows that hundreds of people in this extremely liberal town will want to see a man who has been living in front of Democracy Now! microphones for months on end …

“Cornell let a man who sells cleaning supplies talk at that nice big Statler Auditorium,” the reporter continued inner-monologuing to himself earnestly and hopefully as he hurried across campus. “Standing Rock sure seems a lot more important than Windex. I sure hope being on time isn’t late today!”

Our perpetually late reporter made it to Stocking Hall on time, but before he walked through the doors that gives entrance to the Dairy Bar, he was already late.

There was no room to sit or stand in the Pepsico Auditorium, also known as room 146 – all 130 seats were full where the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux would speak soon behind a lectern. And when a Distinguished Visitor gets to  town, the fire marshal’s rules are more duly followed than in say, a faculty meeting.

There was no room in the next-door conference room that can hold about 90 people – with tables set up –  awaiting the livestream broadcast. There was no room in a next-building-over classroom with internet and a screen, 50 people in there. Staffers at the doors told people who had come to see Dave Archambault II’s talk to the Cornell community live and in person to go to room G24 in Fernow Hall to watch the chairman speak on a screen.

People watch Dave Archambault II speak outside the Pepsico Auditorium doors on Feb. 16, 2017. Photo: Josh Brokaw/Truthsayers


This seemed stupid to the reporter, who, if he gave enough advance notice, could have probably gone through the Proper Channel of the relevant Media & Communications Specialist and got himself reserved an inside chair.

But there were all these people outside the doors, gathered around their smartphone or MacBook Air, listening to this very reasonable man talk informatively about indigenous people’s history from Sitting Bull to Standing Rock. The digital devices’ tinny speakers put Archambault’s voice back into the air maybe 50 feet from where he stood, all the varying rates of streaming speed making for a faint echo.

All these people made the trip to see and hear the owner of a gas station who happened to be the elected leader of his 16,000 people when a crisis hit and national attention was paid his people. Here was your 9th grade social sciences teacher’s dream – a citizen talking about history, democracy, his own experience, and hundreds of people wanted to be in the room to hear him. The People were allotted an hour and a half of Archambault’s Cornell day – between meetings with Hunter Rawlings, lunch and dinner with professors, an hour off after his talk. Yet New York’s land-grant university could not accommodate the demand.

This, said the reporter, is dumb. He had a similar feeling back in August 2016, when the poet Gary Snyder visited and a 600-seat hall could not accommodate the demand. Then, no livestream was even set up.

Dave Archambault II, standing, speaks to a roomful of people in Cornell’s Stocking Hall on Feb. 16, 2017. Photo: Josh Brokaw/Truthsayers


There are reasons given for this sort of failure, of course.

There was talk among people working the doors that Archambault had changed his dates in the last couple weeks. In any case, Archambault was originally scheduled to come to Cornell, he himself said, through a conversation with Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam “before the access pipeline became a big issue,” to speak on food sovereignty at Standing Rock.

And rooms are reserved far in advance; many people and departments must be notified, staff paid for overtime. It’s not so easy to move things around, you know! Cornell must “pay itself,” as one staffer put it to me at the Snyder event: a room held by one department needs to get funds from another.

The Statler’s 715 seats, for example, costs $750 for a half day and $1,500 for a full day so the hotel school can get paid.

The real reason for these sorts of failures is simply that Cornell, and whatever little subset of Cornell makes these sorts of decisions, was unprepared. No individual at Cornell either has the power, or is paying enough attention, to figure out when people from “the community” might want to get their education on and the occasional special accommodation can be made.

That was the opinion of a Building Professional working that night in Stocking Hall, who said that “they should never have had the event here.” One overflow room, the classroom for 50, was planned on; the others were not. That next-door conference room could be set up with almost 200 chairs, if the planning had been right.

A Long Haired Grad Student Type agreed with the Building Professional: “There are bigger spaces.”

To say the least.

Cornell has a a 4,400-plus seat arena in Newman Hall, a 4,200-plus seat hockey rink, a 1,200 seat concert hall, and at least a couple of auditoriums with capacity for 600-plus. Just under the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, there is the 600-seat Call Auditorium in Kennedy, a 253-seat room in Morrison, a 279-seat room in Life Sciences, a 199-seat room in Riley Robb, and a 261-seat room in Warren. Along with a lot of big buildings that cost millions of dollars.

Surely Cornell can find some space for the People when they want to get educated once in a while.

You can watch Archambault’s whole Feb. 16 presentation here.

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Twitter: @jdbrokaw