April 16, 2007

CNN Story Sparks Debate

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Cornell was recently featured in a CNN news clip titled “Divided We Stand: Self-Segregation” on a program hosted by Paula Zahn, sandwiched between clips on high school students in cafeterias and an affluent neighborhood in a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. The video prompted Lindsay Bober ’09, a resident advisor in Clara Dickson Hall, to hold a discussion on the topic of program houses and CNN’s portrayal of the University in its video clip. A dozen students and staff attended the forum last night.
The clip on Cornell lasted no more than three minutes, but the existence of cultural program houses has been and continues to be a touchy subject for Cornellians. Many students felt the clip was an inaccurate portrayal of Cornell’s program houses because CNN misrepresented their true purpose; other students felt the issue of self-segregation at Cornell needed to be confronted and that CNN did a good job of portraying the topic.
Zahn’s show devoted the majority of an hour to the subject of open segregation in the U.S. Before mentioning Cornell, Zahn interviewed several people of differing opinions on the matter, including Molly Secours, a columnist on blackcommentator.com.
“You cannot grow up in America and not be racist if you are white,” Secours said during the interview.
Zahn also found a high school cafeteria where students sat along racial lines, but one student said the seating “[isn’t] a racial issue. We just sit with who we feel comfortable with.”
The segment began with a voice-over by CNN’s Boston Bureau Chief Dan Lothian saying, “At Cornell University, Jennifer St. Preux lives in a dorm where race matters.”
St. Preux, though, explained her decision to live in Ujamaa by commenting that “the purpose of living here is just to learn more and be proud of being black.”
Many agreed that the purpose of the program houses is to promote diversity and increase interest in a variety of cultures on campus. But Megan Sweeney, president of Cornell’s College Republicans, told CNN that these program houses were evidence of self-segregation and that this issue was taboo on campus. She disagreed that the program houses were serving their purpose and instead believed that the best way to promote diversity was to have students live under the same roof.
“That’s really where you learn to deal with people that maybe you didn’t interact with … growing up,” Sweeney, who is a Sun columnist, said in the segment. “[These program houses] … create this unspoken … barrier.”
Susan Murphy ‘73, vice president of student and academic affairs, was also interviewed for the CNN clip. She rejected the idea that the program houses were self-segregating.
“For those students for whom that is their comfort zone, they use it as a jumping off point to embrace the campus at large, and not as a place to isolate themselves,” she told CNN.
Despite these mixed opinions, Zahn concluded the clip by observing that “When students finally leave school and start moving up in the world, self-segregation moves right along with them.”
When it came to whether CNN gave an accurate portrayal of Cornell, Cornell students’ reactions also varied. Darin Jones ‘10 felt the clip did not display the broader scope and purpose of the community at Ujamaa and the Latino Living Center.
“The video was anti-diversity,” he said. “It didn’t show the impact [the program houses] have on lives at Cornell, and how they help and support strong diversity … how they foster a desire to learn about other cultures.”
After watching the video, Sweeney disagreed.
“I thought the video was fair to both sides of the debate, and that the producers went out of their way to portray both sides evenly,” Sweeney told The Sun.
Some students said that the video overlooked the fact that there are a total of nine program houses at Cornell, and many of them are not culture-based, such as Risley Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts or Just About Music. Justin Davis ‘07, president of Black Students United, said the video made an unfair example out of the cultural program houses. Davis was extensively interviewed by CNN but did not appear in the clip. According to Sweeney, CNN asked her “about program houses, then asked specifically about those dealing with race.”
“[They] are not segregationist … institutions,” St. Preux said. “The video twisted [them] to being racially segregated.”
According to Natalie Cook, residence hall director of Dickson, the journalist from CNN told members of the dorm that the story it would be about program houses.
“There was no mention of self-segregation or anything like that,” Cook said at last night’s forum.
Within the clip, CNN interviewed Michael Meyers, the president and executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. He is quoted saying, “[The idea of cultural program houses] is just morally wrong. And has to be objected to as racial idiocy. That’s exactly what it is.”
St. Preux said to The Sun that the questions were very generic. According to her, the interviewer was a black male, which she felt gave her a “false sense of security.”
“I felt he was one of us, a minority, a black person,” she said, not expecting that the video might portray the program houses negatively.
Last night’s forum tackled the purpose of program houses at Cornell, focusing less on the CNN video itself and more on the implications it made about culture-based dormitories. Some said that it was not the minority’s obligation to “culturalize” the majority, while another attendee felt that the program houses as an entity did have such an obligation.
One attendee said, “Just because I live next to you, doesn’t mean I need to talk to you,” responding to the segment that considered completely integrated housing as a means of promoting diversity.

  • ZW

    The CNN piece illustrates an important issue on the Cornell campus that I grappled with during my 4 years as an undergrad. Program houses claim to promote diversity, but in effect they are acting contrary to the term. Diversity is defined as “heterogeneity”, which is inherently not present when one race or ethnic group soley inhabit a university sponsored house. The university rightly admits students from many cultures and backgrounds to increase diversity on campus. Having one ethnic group isolate themselves by only living among their own kind defeats this goal.

    In order for these program houses to live up to their mission statement, they should be producing many more well publicized events in the Cornell community that encourage participation from everyone.