After a string of racial bias incidents and sexual assaults at Cornell in the past six months, student leaders met Saturday to try to strengthen communication between groups on campus.
The leadership roundtable –– which will meet every month over dinner –– is the brainchild of Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, who hopes the group will serve as a way for students to respond to the divisive incidents that have occurred on campus.
“Sitting in my position and working with student organizations, especially student leaders, I have been on the ground, in the trenches, when major events have happened on this campus,” Alexander said.
In March, posters advertising a stand-up comedy routine by Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho were defaced for using a font, “Chop Suey,” that Alexander called “extremely offensive” to some members of Cornell’s Asian community. On May 6, a visitor to the Sigma Pi fraternity house threw beer cans and yelled racial epithets at black students passing by the house. Most recently, a string of alleged forcible touching incidents and a reported rape prompted the administration to issue multiple statements condemning sexual violence on campus.
These events and others, Alexander said, were made worse by a “terrible lack of communication” between different demographic groups and community leaders at Cornell.
“I saw students reverting back to their communities and not communicating with each other,” she said. “Because I know so many of these leaders and I see them working in their communities, it would make sense to establish a body where leaders across this campus come together to work on problem solving around major issues that affect our campus.”
Student representatives and leaders from over a dozen campus organizations attended the event –– including members of the Student Assembly, several multicultural organizations, Sigma Pi and Quill and Dagger.
The meeting divided into groups that were assigned to analyze various case studies, including a fictional case of bias intimidation involving a transgendered student and a case that dealt with unequal funding of student groups.
A recurring topic at the meeting was miscommunication among members of the Cornell community.
“Especially when you’re doing identity-based work, I think the danger is [that] as a leader of an organization ... people turn to you to be the voice and the representation of that community,” said Patricia Chau Nguyen, assistant dean of the Asian and Asian American Center. “But let’s be honest, can you really represent? I don’t know if I can really serve as a representation of all Asian folks.”
Zach Smith ’13, president of Sigma Pi, said that dealing with the repercussions of the bias attack at the fraternity has helped move the organization forward.
“It was a real learning opportunity for me as a leader [and] the rest of my fraternity, seeing how impactful we could be on campus in trying to make light out of a negative situation,” Smith said. “It was obviously nothing we would have wished upon anyone … but we saw it as an opportunity to move forward and make a positive impact on the Cornell community.”
While Alexander said that guests from outside the Cornell community could play a role in helping to facilitate discussions about these issues, the majority of the meetings will be led by Cornell students and alumni.
“These are smart, bright, sharp, dynamic young people who are very much leaders … and they all bring a lot to the table in their own right,” Alexander said. “But I don’t think that we are leveraging our student leaders to the degree that we could.”
But Alexander acknowledged the limitation of what students could realistically be expected to do when confronted with crimes such as rape or bias attacks. Nobody, Alexander said, expects the leadership roundtable to “go out and stop sexual violence.”
“You can’t change things on your own, but you can influence how people think,” Alexander said to the students present. “This is serious business ... are you with me?”
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 had been scheduled to keynote the roundtable, but transportation complications delayed him in Charlotte, N.C., where he attended the Democratic National Convention.