In January 2007, Professor James L. Sherley went on a hunger strike. An African-American professor and stem-cell researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for years he had been denied tenure. He blames racism.
In California, approximately 358,531 students in the California State University identified themselves as being of Asian/Filipino/Pacific Island descent in 2008. This total represents 18 percent of all matriculates, yet not one of the California State University’s 23 schools has an Asian president. Or even an Asian academic vice president.
Since its 1865 founding, Cornell University has seen 12 presidents, all white and male. Every provost has been white (with the exception of former interim provost David Harris). And all seven of Cornell’s college deans are white, as are the deans of every Cornell University professional school: Cornell Law School, Johnson School of Management, Weill Medical College and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
In 1969, amidst a similar sea of administrative whiteness, over 100 black students took over Willard Straight Hall. Quarantined in The Straight for 33 hours, the students fought for a voice in a University they considered marred with “institutional racism.” It was the Civil Rights Era, and Cornell’s Afro-American Society members had had enough. They had enough of their muted voice in administrative decisions that impacted their lives on campus. They had enough of their absence on the University’s curricular agenda. They were fed up with fighting a battle against the white-boys club their Ivy League institution continued to be in a time when their country was on the brink of cultural and political revolution.
But 40 years later, the more things change the more they stay the same.
“The first thing to recognize [about the Willard Straight Hall Takeover] is that it was both a long time ago and very recent,” said David Harris, deputy provost for social sciences. “It is twice as long ago as most of the students here have been alive, but it has stayed with us because race continues to be a substantial factor in life.”
It was in the fall of 2005 that red arches filled the quadrangles and walkways of Cornell’s Ithaca campus. Sporting the motto “open doors, open hearts, open minds,” the arches proudly proclaimed that the University had renewed, re-articulated and re-presented its long-standing commitment to diversity. Students, faculty and staff had no choice but to pass under the bold, red arches daily. The arches’ ubiquity served as a constant reminder to embrace the “shared democratic values envisioned by [the University’s] founders.”
“We honor this legacy of diversity and inclusion and welcome all individuals, including those from groups that historically have been marginalized and previously excluded from equal access to opportunity.”
Sarah Ghermay ’10 came to Cornell because of the “diversity factor.” A native of Washington, D.C., Ghermay recounted the college fair she had attended during high school. She was attracted to Cornell because it “spoke the most about diversity, more so than any other institution.” When she visited during Cornell Days, her preconceived notion had been confirmed: “They set me up in Ujamma and I visited the Holland International Living Center,” she said. “I left being impressed with how diverse Cornell was.”
“Cornell has the talk of diversity,” said Zachary Murray ’10, who grew up in Baltimore and attended a high school that was 90 percent black. “The University is good at marketing diversity and alluding to diversity. Meanwhile, black admissions has declined 13 percent since 2001.”
Racial diversity is, and has been, an issue at the forefront of the University’s agenda. Of last fall’s reported 13,846 undergraduate students, 699 are black (5.04 percent), 768 are Hispanic (5.54 percent) and 66 American Indian or Alaskan Native (.04 percent).
Cornell consistently places last among its Ivy League peers regarding the total percentage of its undergraduate enrollment who are minorities, which is 27.5 percent. (Columbia’s 34.1 percent, Brown’s 30.9 percent and Princeton’s 30.8 percent lead the pack.) Cornell’s percentage of total undergraduate students who are black ranks lowest in the Ivy League. Nonetheless, the University has made substantial gains over the last decade. In 1988, for example, there were 535 black undergraduates, 507 Hispanic and 43 American Indian or Alaskan Native.
“The numbers have been increasing slowly and steadily,” said Renee Alexander ’74, director of minority programming for Cornell’s Alumni Affairs Division. “We are working hard to close the performance and achievement gap in higher education.”
While the University acknowledges there is much progress to be made in attracting and enrolling students of color, recent initiatives in financial aid and the admissions process leave the administration optimistic. “Doris Davis [associate provost of admissions and enrollment] did research that black students were least likely to complete the application. To counteract this trend, Davis and her team created a mentoring program for black applicants to the University, whereby applicants were paired with current students. Such efforts increased the number of black applications, and therefore the total number of black students admitted. It is a very important first step,” said Alexander, who recently completed her dissertation on the philosophy of education.
While the administration remains disappointed with the historically low black enrollment of the class of 2012 (4.3 percent of the class, about 137 students), the class of 2013 is anticipated to have the highest black enrollment since the 1969, when about 260 black students entered in the class of 1974. “We have the potential of enrolling a class that could break the class’ record,” she said.
“Cornell’s mission is to foster personal discovery and growth, nurture scholarship and creativity across a broad range of common knowledge, and affirm the value to individuals and society of the cultivation of the human mind and spirit.”
“Cornell is not racist, per se, but it is race-fearing,” said Ghermay. “People fear talking about race, and many don’t even think about race. But as a minority at Cornell, race becomes part of your character. You have no choice. You are forced to make it important.”
“At Cornell, we never really address the history of racism and confront our country’s — and our University’s — racist history,” Murray said. “Just putting minority students on campus doesn’t do that.”
“Diversity is a cliché used for institutions,” said Ola Williams ’10, vice president-elect of the Student Assembly. “Cornell is very diverse, but the integration of diversity is the problem.”
While Murray said that he has been called “nigger,” he does not feel subjected to overt racism on Cornell’s campus. “Racism is not in individuals here. We are affected by a broader institutional racism as the administration does not proactively address these issues, but rather addresses the diversity and race through programming, which attracts a self-selected crowd from the start,” Murray said.
According to Harris, the challenge of diversity programming is not getting students to attend the events. Rather, it is making sure that their experiences addressing diversity are not solely through the events themselves. “Diversity isn’t like swimming,” he said. “You can pass the swimming test and never go back to it. Your views are going to change. Can’t see tapestry as the swimming test.”
The University’s attention towards diversity incited it to build an infrastructure for addressing such issues on campus. In 2006, it announced its formation of the University Diversity Council, which is chaired by President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs. Its goal is to “deepen and reinvigorate the University’s commitment to creating and sustaining an inclusive campus community.” The UDC, comprised of students, faculty and staff, according to the University, will continue to build on initiatives that have been conducted in recent years including the disability task force, the Asian American task force, the National Science Foundation Advance grant and the Teagle report on racial disparities in higher education.
Amidst the administration’s efforts, some students maintain that programming — such as Breaking Bread, which encourages groups who normally do not interact to share a meal; the Feedback program whereby anonymous letters from faculty, staff and students share personal experiences about inclusion at Cornell through an advertisement in The Sun; and Diversity and Inclusion Indicators that track the progress of underrepresented minorities at Cornell — is full of “rhetoric” and is an “empty show that makes fun of diversity issues.”
They characterize the administration as being “neutral” towards diversity by making it into a “numbers-game of statistics and percentages” rather than fully integrating it into the campus culture. “It’s 40 years after The Straight takeover, and we haven’t heard the president reflect on how far we’ve come. This is a great opportunity to engage Cornell in a meaningful discussion, but again the administration is silent regarding some of the most important issues of our time,” Murray said.
However, Williams disagrees. “What the students were fighting for during the Willard Straight Takeover has come to fruition,” he said. “There has been a drastic change since 40 years ago, but you can’t make everyone happy,” he continued. “If something is brought to the administration’s attention, they will get to it. If it takes them a while, it’s not that they don’t care. It’s that there’s a lot going on.”
“Free expression is essential to this mission, and provocative ideas lawfully presented are an expected result. An enlightened academic community, however, connects freedom with responsibility. Cornell stands for civil discourse, reasoned thought, sustained discussion and constructive engagement without degrading, abusing, harassing or silencing others.”
Mary Opperman, vice provost for human resources, said, “the best workforces will be diverse. You need the best and most varied minds on anything, and you need to think in terms of broad diversity.”
Satya Mohanty, director of the future of minority studies research project, stated, “Colleges and universities see social diversity as a valuable goal for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is that learning environments function best — as some social psychologists have shown — when they include a diversity of viewpoints.”
But at Cornell, “we have far fewer minority faculty than we should,” Harris said. And judging by the numbers, “most would agree,” he added.
In a report published in May 2008, the University reported that 81.3 percent of full professors are men, leaving 18.7 percent women. 33.9 percent and 34.3 percent of associate and assistant professors, respectively, are women. The total number of women faculty has grown from 304 to 420 over the last decade, which is a 6.7-percent increase in as the faculty as a whole has grown as well. 26.9 percent of tenure-track faculty are women, putting Cornell behind all Ivy League schools beside Princeton where 25.8 percent of tenure-track faculty are women.
The number of minority faculty has grown over the last decade as well, from 160 to 243, an increase of 52 percent. As of May 2008, the number of black faculty increased from 39 to 53, Hispanic faculty from 25 to 41 and Native American faculty from five to nine. As of May 2008, 14.8 percent of the University’s total faculty members were minorities.
However, measuring diversity in numbers can be deceiving, according to Mohanty. “If we want to see whether Cornell is achieving its goals of diversity, it would be a mistake to focus primarily on numbers. Numbers can mislead us. There is the famous “revolving door” phenomenon, for instance, where the numbers remain more or less the same but people leave (because, say, they do not like an institution) and new people are hired to replace them,” he stated.
Regardless, the small percentage of minority faculty members and administrators pose numerous challenges to a University built on the notions of academic and racial diversity. Prof. Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, delineated a number of factors contributing to the lack of diversity among Cornell’s faculty: “There is a very small numbers of people of color of certain fields. While it’s very easy to diversify the faculty in the humanities because there are so many Ph.d’s, there is also the tremendous competition. Cornell is at a real disadvantage because there’s not a large community of professions of people of color outside of the University.”
But according to Murray, “diversity” and “race” cannot be taught by the “pedagogy of instruction.” And as Ghermay said, “race transcends academics.” The Willard Straight Hall Takeover took pressing issues out of the classroom and into the public limelight. When Renee Alexander saw the cover of Life Magazine with the Straight pictured, she was “moved by the activism on campus” and knew she wanted to come to Cornell.
“The actions of the AAS made it a lot easier for us today,” said Murray. “Yes, we have accomplished a lot. But 40 years later, we still have a long way to go.”