One of my highest priorities as president is to ensure that Cornell admits and enrolls students of all backgrounds — and helps them succeed. We are making progress, especially at the undergraduate level. Through more effective recruitment and greatly enhanced need-based financial aid, the class of 2013 is the most racially diverse group in our university’s history. We are also proud of the economic diversity of our student body, which ranks seventh among the nation’s top schools in Pell Grant recipients, according to the 2010 US News & World Report.
It appears we are succeeding in increasing contact among students of different backgrounds on campus. According to the Cornell PULSE (Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences) survey, administered in March 2009, well over half of all undergraduate students, including underrepresented minority students, felt that their experience at Cornell contributed significantly to their skill in working effectively with others and had a positive influence on their ability to relate well to people of different races, nations and religions. The vast majority of students also reported having frequent conversations with students who differed from them in race, ethnicity and political beliefs.
It is critically important that students develop skills to interact with people who are different from themselves, but realizing our aspirations regarding diversity requires more. A group of students concerned about racial diversity on our campus recently shared their concerns with me, some of my senior colleagues and, at my invitation, with our Board of Trustees. The issue that has surfaced in conversations with them — and other students — is whether my administrative colleagues and I are hearing and heeding student voices.
I believe that student voices are important, not only concerning issues related to racial and other equally important kinds of diversity, but also on critical matters such as tuition, housing options, campus health and safety and other aspects of campus life. Student opinions must be considered as seriously as those of faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and Trustees. That said, hearing student voices is not the same thing as doing what students want; for example, with personnel decisions or changes in our investment portfolio, where not all of the information involved can — or should — be made public. In all these instances, we need to weigh the knowledge of those expressing opinions, the extent to which they are impacted by the issue and the responsibility they have for us achieving our goals in the area. I also believe that it is important for us to hear all student voices: the voices of those who express their opinions publicly and those who are less visible and vocal but not necessarily less passionate.
How are we doing in listening to student voices? Again, we have data from student surveys that capture opinion from undergraduates as a whole as well as from specific subsets of the student population. The 2009 PULSE survey, for example, indicates that while some students feel they are not being heard, a large and growing percentage of undergraduates feel we are responsive to their concerns. The trends are consistent across racial/ethnic groups. About three-quarters of undergraduates are satisfied with the administration’s responsiveness. And this satisfaction has increased consistently over the past decade. Similarly, more than three-quarters of undergrads say they are satisfied with the sense of community on campus, and the percentage of satisfied students has also increased over time.
However successful we may be overall, though, there are significant differences by group, with black students, for example, somewhat less satisfied with the sense of community, the quality of instruction and the fairness of their treatment by the faculty. So we clearly have a distance to go toward our goal of success and satisfaction for all Cornell students. How do we get there?
First, please continue to take advantage of the many opportunities that already exist to express your opinion. Last spring the University Diversity Council, which Provost Kent Fuchs and I co-chair, hosted a week-long series of “Day Hall Talks Diversity” events around campus. The series stimulated a lot of interest and many good conversations. Another initiative, “Feedback,” invites faculty, staff and students to share personal experiences that either make them feel welcome or unwelcome at Cornell. Selected submissions from the most recent round of “Feedback” appear today as a quarter-page ad in The Sun and also will be posted on the University’s diversity website. Next spring, all seniors will be asked to complete a Senior Survey; participation in that survey is a wonderful vehicle for providing feedback.
Communicating your viewpoint on the opinion pages of The Sun and through your elected representatives on the Student Assembly and the Board of Trustees are also effective ways of giving voice to your concerns. So are open forums that are held from time to time on issues of importance to the Cornell community, and I invite you to attend some of the upcoming public discussions of the “Reimagining Cornell” task force reports that Provost Fuchs is leading over the next two weeks. Any student is welcome to send suggestions about our strategic planning effort to Provost Fuchs and me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You are also welcome to send me an e-mail about any concerns or ideas you have at email@example.com. I promise that I — or someone on Cornell’s senior leadership team — will get back to you.
Second, suggest other approaches for our dialogue. Vice President Susan Murphy and I meet with the top elected student leaders on our Ithaca campus and from the Weill Cornell Medical College. We visited the S.A. on Nov. 12, and I offered to attend their meetings more frequently if Assembly members would find that helpful. V.P. Murphy and I also have periodic “office hours,” where we meet with students on a first-come, first-served basis in my office. And I will continue to be responsive to special requests by student groups to meet with me on pressing issues, as I did with students who are concerned about Cornell’s commitment to diversity.
Finally, please remember that all communication begins with listening. The best thing we can do, I believe, is to maintain opportunities for substantive, serious and civil conversations, where all of us can express our views and also to listen carefully to what others are saying. As we enter the final weeks of the semester, I invite you to take part in such conversations. We all have a lot to learn from each other.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears monthly.