February 1, 2012

Program House Problems

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The New Year has arrived, and since it is 2012 and the world will soon be over, I have decided to make (and keep) a New Year’s resolution. I have resolved to write one entirely serious opinion piece before I leave Cornell. In order to make sure this actually happens, I should probably just get it over with now. To make sure this doesn’t become humorous at any point, I am wearing a tie, listening to Bach and not smiling once while I write this.Since arriving at Cornell, several things have confused me, not least among these being the University’s Program House system. The system seems to be divided into two distinct camps. One is comprised of program houses based on common interests, such as J.A.M., Risley and the Ecology House. While the other group seems to be based primarily on race and ethnicity, including  Ujamaa, The Latino Living Center, Holland International Living Center and Akwe:kon. As I thought about it, I kept coming back to the same conclusion. The program houses need to go.Now before people jump down my throat and call me racially insensitive and other slurs, allow me to explain. But first, let’s get one thing cleared up. I am not against program houses in which people who share a common interest can live together and gain a greater understanding of that interest. While this is not for me (I find I learn more from people who are different from me), I can certainly understand wanting to live with a group of people who share similar interests. It is the other set of program houses, the racially and ethnically themed ones, which bother me.The Cornell Commitment to Diversity states the following: “Cornell is committed to extending its legacy of recruiting a heterogeneous faculty, student body and staff; fostering a climate that doesn’t just tolerate differences but treasures them; and providing rich opportunities for learning from those differences.”It is the second half of this statement that seems to be in direct conflict with the very idea of racially and ethnically themed program houses. Program houses do not foster a climate where diversity is not just tolerated but also treasured. Rather, program houses promote the pigeonholing of minority groups on campus, decreasing interaction with the rest of the student body. Allowing for students to segregate themselves from the diverse community is unacceptable. The incredible diversity on campus is what makes Cornell so amazing.The segregation of students into separate houses would be one thing if the houses were proximally located to the rest of the dormitories at Cornell. However, many of them are not. The Latino Living Center and Akwe:kon (not to mention the Ecology House) are relatively isolated from most other dorms on campus. So these students have a very limited interaction with classmates which even extends to the walk to and from central campus. Putting these students far away from the rest of the Cornell community does not promote diversity. It almost looks like some hold over from the days of separate but equal.Furthermore, I could even argue that certain houses boarder on offensive. A prime example is Akwe:kon, a program house that celebrates Native American heritage, and half of the students living in the house identify as Native American. The name Akwe:kon means “all of us,” which is supposed to display the inclusiveness of the house. The building is designed after a longhouse. That’s right; at Cornell students of Native American heritage can choose to live in a longhouse …  How racially insensitive is that? The longhouse was only used by certain tribes, specifically the Iroquois Nation of the Finger Lakes and many tribes of the Northwest. Why wasn’t the house designed after the Apache teepees, the Algonquin wigwams or the adobe houses of the Pueblo people? These groups of people are as distinct from one another as the French are from the English, if not more so. They have completely different customs and beliefs. How is it acceptable to lump them all under the heading of Longhouse-Living-Native-Americans? Furthermore, “all of us?” Really? I have never been asked to be a part of any event in Akwe:kon, as I am sure is the case for most Cornellians. The name should probably be “few of us.”So what does this really all come down to? The last part of Cornell’s Commitment to Diversity talks about the opportunity to learn from the differences that come with the diversity available at Cornell. How is this possible when the diversity is divided into program houses that the majority of students can’t access? I have been lucky enough to meet many different and interesting people at Cornell, but I feel that my experience could have been more fulfilling if the diversity at Cornell wasn’t so “hidden.”  It is great that people are proud of their heritage and want to live in a place to celebrate it, but I wish these people would celebrate it around me so I could learn from them.The University motto: “Any person, any study” conveys the idea of becoming immersed in whatever you chose. I chose to be immersed in the people around me and the Program Houses hinder this opportunity.

Will Spencer is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at wspencer@cornellsun.com. Tripping Up Stairs appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Will Spencer

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