Perception is reality, and the perception of many is that we have work to do to improve the campus climate for diversity at our university.
Cornell University has a proud legacy of leadership in diversity from Ezra Cornell’s founding vision of “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Admission of women and people of all races was an early underpinning of the operating principles of our university; the first African-American Greek organization, Alpha Phi Alpha, was established at Cornell in 1906; and the campus has long been one of the top American destinations for international students and scholars. More recently, insurance and other benefits for same-gender domestic partners have underscored another tangible form of Cornell’s support for diversity.
Overall, it is easy to argue that the university pays attention to the diversity of its staff, faculty and student body as an aspiration and as a guide for investment in people.
Yet, despite this rich history, some individuals within our community doubt the seriousness of our intentions and question whether our actions and policies are conducive to fostering a more inclusive community. They wonder where we are in our quest for an ever more diverse student body. What areas need greater attention? What is being done to achieve more focus? What does the future hold for diversity on our campus? In this column, I will attempt to answer these questions.
The proportion of students who identify themselves as other than white has more than doubled from 20 percent in 1985 to 43 percent in 2005. This trend persists in 2006 with around 30 percent of the incoming Class of 2010 identifying themselves as “people of color.” These are encouraging statistics from the perspective of diversifying the student body.
Unfortunately, if we focus on underrepresented groups, particularly African-American and Hispanic students, the facts are less heartening. Over the same 20-year span, the percentage of Hispanic students has increased only from 3 to 5 percent of the student body. The percentage of African-American students has remained static at about 4 percent, even though from 2001 to 2005, the number of applications from African-American students rose by 35 percent, the number of applicants accepted by 20 percent, and the number of accepted students who mailed in deposits increased by 17 percent. We have a lot more to learn, at the very least, about how to maintain a strong overall enrollment of African-American students.
The data for women in the undergraduate student body are more encouraging, with their representation increasing from 43 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 2005. Yet, we must remain vigilant to assure that this good news also translates, over time, into a greater representation of women (as well as other underrepresented groups) among faculty and in staff positions of responsibility at Cornell and elsewhere.
The last several administrations at Cornell have increasingly emphasized access to education and student diversity, including economic background, as critical goals. This is reflected in some of the results mentioned above, and in the university’s expenditures on student financial aid and in the palpable increase in specific recruitment and retention strategies.
In response to a violent incident that occurred on campus last winter, both President Rawlings and Provost Martin made strong public statements condemning the act and pledging forward motion on the campus climate. I recommend that all on campus re-read Provost Martin’s piece in the Daily Sun, published on February 26, 2006 (http://www.cornelldailysun.com/node/ 16808). This piece sums up clearly and succinctly the philosophy and practical approach the administration is pursuing to foster a more welcoming and nurturing campus climate for all students, particularly those in a distinct minority status.
Among the actions being undertaken by Provost Martin is the establishment of a new Diversity Council whose goal will be to oversee the strategic framework we have developed for our many diversity initiatives. Importantly, students, faculty and staff will be part of a working group of the Council. And a revamped university website, offering greater detail on these initiatives and Cornell’s diversity agenda, will be launched this fall to replace our current site at www.cornell.edu/diversity. I enthusiastically support this undertaking and the actions that will be required to achieve our goals.
How to move forward toward an ever more diverse future at Cornell? In addition to supporting the Diversity Council, we must work to secure more financial aid to allow those of varying economic circumstances to be a part of Cornell. We must be prepared to do our part to convince Congress to increase the availability of federal student aid, especially in the critical Pell Grant program. We must bolster our state legislature’s support of the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and the opportunity programs that help make Cornell more accessible. Moreover, our upcoming comprehensive philanthropic campaign must include a strong thrust in need-based student aid, even as we consider reallocation of funds within our control in the current budget.
As I stressed in my previous Daily Sun column, political and intellectual diversity is another area of great importance to the wellbeing of our university. To be a true marketplace of ideas, we must welcome a healthy range of perspectives and opinions. The academic symposium held on the eve of my inauguration was a terrific example of debate, of intellectual point and counterpoint. I believe we all benefit from the mix of perspectives so ably deployed that afternoon, which ought to be a characteristic feature of public dialogue at Cornell.
Perhaps most important is the fostering of meaningful communication within the university. To be the caring community we ought to be, we must strive, collectively, to share with each other — including Cornell’s senior administration — any concerns about the campus environment that contribute to feelings of isolation, fear and of not belonging. In such circumstances, if it is helpful to you or a friend, please reach out by email at email@example.com or call [254-INFO] to reach someone who can respond to your concerns.
Yes, much has been accomplished by all those who have gone before us. Yet much remains to be done. As Provost Martin noted last February, responsibility for changing the culture belongs to all of us. Together, we must work to broaden the diversity of our student body, our staff and our faculty. Only in this way, will Cornell be a better place, ever more attractive to tomorrow’s more diverse and creative world. So let’s dedicate ourselves to making measurable progress on diversity and improving the campus climate this academic year, while we set the stage for continuing progress in years to come.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears every month.