April 23, 2014

Diversity Engagement at Cornell Lacking, Survey Shows

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By NOAH RANKIN

After the release of a new campus climate study concluding that the University lacks authentic engagement regarding diversity and bias incidents, a Cornell administrator says the University is working to determine the next steps for diversity-related campus initiatives.

The study — which includes both a thematic analysis of campus diversity issues and direct student quotations — begain in fall 2013 and was conducted by a team led by Prof. Sylvia Hurtado, education and information studies, University of California at Los Angeles. In October the team received face-to-face and online responses from 397 students for use in the study.

According to Associate Dean of Students Renee Alexander ’74, the report will serve as a “blueprint” for the future of Towards New Destinations — a University diversity planning initiative — and other diversity initiatives at Cornell.

Alexander said that while the report shows that Cornell successfully recruits students from a diverse set of backgrounds, the resources allotted on campus do not match the current level of diversity — which will be at a statistical high for the incoming class of 2018.

“What we have to work on now are issues of engagement and inclusion,” Alexander said. “If we recruit diverse classes and drop them on this campus without the tools to navigate difference then we’ve only done half the job.”

A quote in the report from a student identifying as a “LGBT white undergraduate” echoes this notion, using racial differences as an example.

“Just because you were sitting next to a person of color, that doesn’t mean that the world is a perfect place,” the student said. “You need to change how you’re interacting with that person. To do that, you need to educate yourself about what you don’t know and what assumptions you’ve been making your whole life.”

Some minority students quoted in the report attribute the lack of meaningful interactions to a general “unawareness” of students in majority groups regarding exclusivity or discrimination.

“It’s hard for people to have such a reflective discussion about their own identities that have allowed them to haveSome minority students quoted in the report attribute the lack of meaningful interactions to a general “unawareness” of students in majority groups regarding exclusivity or discrimination.

“It’s hard for people to have such a reflective discussion about their own identities that have allowed them to have more advantaged experiences in certain senses or certain contexts than other students,” said an African American female undergraduate in the report. “Every student knows that there’s a lot of diversity here, but not every student is really willing to recognize their privilege.”

According to Alexander, “the time is now” to work on challenging these interactions.

“I’m from the Willard Straight, baby boomer generation where we had these silos that were impervious. We have a golden opportunity now with millennials,” she said. “I think the good news is many students come here wanting to engage. But I don’t think we give them enough opportunities to learn more about difference.”

Alexander said she believes that the most effective way to increase understanding about the existing differences among students is to increase programming for new students.

“I think working with freshmen in their first-year communities is really the way to build long-term buy-in with this,” she said. “It is abundantly clear that we need to be working on programs that socialize and acculturate our first year students as soon as they step foot on campus beyond [programs such as] Tapestry.”

Alexander said that from looking at the results, campus safety was a theme that “jumped out” at her.

“As a Cornellian and as a woman who navigated this campus and the community without any fear, I was struck by themes of women not feeling safe on this campus,” she said.

Alexander said she believed the Greek community “has some work to do” concerning issues of sexual assault.

“I think the issues of sexual assault and fraternities surfaced with this report,” she said. “As we begin to break this down, I’m sure those issues will bubble up. We want everyone to feel safe on our campus.”

However, she said that nobody should be offended or upset” about the results of the report.

“It’s clear that we have work to do, but I think this report presents opportunities and calls to action for us,” she said.

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