October 20, 2000

Forum of Cornell Community Members Discusses Diversity, Safety Issues

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A diverse group of students, staff and faculty comprised a panel for yesterday’s roundtable discussion entitled “Not on Our Campus/Not in Our Community: A Forum on Campus Safety and Bias Prevention.”

An equally diverse audience from the Cornell community also attended the forum, sponsored by the Campus Climate Committee, held in the Biotechnology building.

The Campus Climate Committee was appointed by Dean of Faculty Robert E. Cooke in February 1999 after some incidents that occurred on campus in Fall 1998.

The forum was organized in response to students’ concerns that the administration has not responded to recent biased-related incidents on campus, according to Robert L. Harris Jr., vice provost of diversity and faculty development and co-moderator of the event.

Three separate incidents against Asian-American women occurred last month. In the early morning of Sept. 16, a female Asian student was verbally harassed with a racial epithet and then sexually assaulted on East Avenue, near Goldwin Smith Hall.

On Sept. 22, four Asian female alumnae were verbally harassed by white males from a car at the intersection of Central Avenue and Campus Road.

At 11 a.m. on a day between Sept. 18 and Sept. 22, two unknown males exited their vehicle and approached an Asian-American female student on Jessup Road, using racial epithets to intimidate the student.

The eleven panelists, representing such groups as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center, Cornell Police Department and University administration each gave a brief introduction and stated their opinion about safety and harassment problems on campus. The floor was then opened to questions from the audience.

“All this year, all this semester I’ve seen nothing but bias-related incidents,” said James Lamb Jr. ’03, undesignated representative at-large for the Student Assembly.

Lamb asked the panel what specific actions they are taking to address the problem.

The CUPD has added supplemental patrols on the weekends and “walk-arounds” for Balch Hall, Ujamaa, Akwe:kon and the Latino Living Center, said William G. Boice, director of the CUPD, in his response.

Boice also explained that police actions are limited when officers have incomplete descriptions of the suspects.

For example, the suspects involved in the East Avenue incident were described as three white males in a small white car. Two weeks ago, the new supplemental patrols saw a car matching the description with three white males inside and found they were not affiliated with Cornell or Ithaca.

However, neither the East Avenue victim nor the Jessup Road victim could identify the men as those involved in the bias-related incidents.

“I certainly don’t blame the victim,” Boice said, noting the emotional trauma that leads to memory distortion.

In his introduction, Boice discussed how recent incidents are similar to incidents that occurred 30 years ago.

“People say, ‘How could a hate crime happen here at Cornell?’ We have it. We’re not immune to [hate crimes],” Boice said.

Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, noted the increased diversity at Cornell, which has caused both internal conflict and targeting of Cornell by outside groups.

In response to the recent incidents, Murphy received a multi-page document from Cornell’s Black Women’s Support Network outlining concerns about lighting on campus. She expressed a desire to understand safety issues from the students’ perspective.

Murphy also discussed a proposed extension of the blue light bus service, making the last run at 3 a.m. rather than 2 a.m. The administration wants to hold a discussion with students about extended bus service.

Harold D. Craft Jr. ’61, vice president for administration, pointed to an obstacle for the bus proposal.

“It’s a student community, but it’s not entirely students,” he said, taking into account local residents’ opposition to the late-night buses in the adjacent neighborhoods. Craft is one of three Cornell representatives to the Board of Directors of the TCAT bus service.

Many students called for increased communication from the University.

“There are ways to reach so many students on this campus, and if the administration wants to know how, we’ll tell you,” said Rebecca Abon-Chedid ’01, co-chair of the Arab Club.

One student asked the panel to differentiate between the terms “bias-related crime” and “bias-related incident.”

Boice explained that the term “crime” is very ambiguous. There are eleven elements that must be met before harassment is classified as a biased crime, he said. No incidents have fallen under this definition for 1997, 1998 or 1999.

However, there have been four bias-related incidents since Oct. 8, when New York State passed new hate crime legislation, and there have been 22 incidents this fall alone, Murphy said.

“It all comes down to a point in definition,” Boice said. He added that the CUPD does not issue statistics on bias-related incidents.

“The point is that we’re not getting the information. That’s the problem,” said Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez, a Ph.D. candidate in English.

Another student, Herbert Cortez, expressed his frustration at the apparent inaction of the administration.

“A forum like this is just a forum unless you do something about it,” he said.

Murphy expressed a “tad of frustration” after the incident because many of the issues raised didn’t have a quick or direct response, so some people felt that nothing was being done.

“We’re a big, complex, decentralized city. No one person can snap their fingers and fix it,” Murphy said.

Mary Angeline Llorente, president of the Cornell Filipino Association, asked, “Why is it that students are taking the lead role in bringing these incidents to light?”

Murphy agreed that the University should have responded more quickly to the East Avenue incident. She later concluded that the University has the leading responsibility in bringing attention to the problem of hate crimes, but it is not the administration’s singular responsibility.

“If you rely on only the administration, it is a naive and incomplete solution,” she said. Murphy noted that the dialogue is an ongoing activity and added that “it’s an incorrect assumption that nothing is being done.”

Lamb challenged the community to see where the student government lies in this issue, saying that he believed in student action.

Melissa Hu ’02, co-president of Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA), called attention to the larger issue of bias-related incidents against Asians nationwide.

“This isn’t just an issue on campus. It’s a national issue,” she said.

Hu and Lisa Wang ’02, co-president of APAA and a panelist in the discussion, have been approached by reporters from the New York Times and Newsweek about the Cornell incidents.

Wang, who sat on the panel, concluded by asking CUPD to issue a press release on an update of their investigation within five days, or by Tuesday. She presented a proposal to the other panelists, drafted and supported by numerous campus organizations, asking for increases in lighting, full implementation of hate crimes policies and prompt dissemination of information on bias related incidents through mass media.

The proposal stated the groups’ mission and asked for programming in student life, as well as a required course in ethnic and wom
en’s studies. Wang asked Murphy for a response to the groups’ demands, “even if it’s just suggestions for change,” by Oct. 31.

One sophomore discussed the lack of diversity programming on campus.

“I see no diversity education programs by the University,” she said. “What are you going to do proactively to educate . . . students?”

Murphy responded that the Orientation Steering Committee this year expanded its diversity program, but the members were disappointed when few people showed up to the presentation.

“When we do diversity programming and there isn’t a crisis, we don’t get a response,” Murphy said.

“But there, it really has to come from the faculty and students within the colleges … that have the [ability] and responsibility to set the curriculum,” she said.

A faculty member in the audience addressed the issue of who is responsible for the campus climate.

“It’s all of us,” said Prof. Clare Fewtrell, molecular medicine, and a member of the Campus Climate Committee. “We may be the choir, but the choir can preach to their friends and colleagues.”

“Hopefully some really effective changes can come out of this,” Hu said.

“I think that the students were given the chance to vent,” Abou-Chedid said. “Right now it’s just up to the administration to react. We want a reaction that can be felt by all students on [campus].”

Archived article by Heather Schroeder