February 16, 2001

Student Assembly Debates Minority Representation

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The latest chapter in the Student Assembly (S.A.) debate over minority student representation has been closed.

The S.A. discussed a resolution entitled “A Resolution to Improve Representation” before an audience of approximately 50 students yesterday evening. After an hour and a half of discussion, two amendments and ample community commentary, two different versions of the resolution failed.

Introduced in the Assembly last week, the resolution asserted that “students considered to be minority, international, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) are double represented” because they are represented by both a liaison and representatives from their colleges. The document advocated re-designating one seat each to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and the College of Human Ecology.

Derrick Zandpour ’02, international liaison at-large and co-sponsor of the resolution, described the reasoning behind it.

“My goal today is not to silence any group but to ensure that every group gets a fair [share],” Zandpour said. “Is this really the best way to include certain communities on this campus?” he asked, referring to the liaison seats.

He also questioned how someone is deemed a minority at Cornell.

“If we divide this campus by political affiliation, I am definitely in the minority,” Zandpour said. “Who is in the minority and who is in the majority depends on how the line is drawn,” he added.

After President Uzo Asonye ’02 called for those present to be “respectful of everyone’s ideas,” community members were given the opportunity to voice their opinions.

“I find it quite interesting that this resolution was made during Black History Month,” Tanisha Jones ’03 told the Assembly. “How dare you all come and propose this and make a mockery of diversity?”

Another student felt Cornellians should take representation into their own hands.

“If you want more minority representation on the Assembly, more minorities should run for the Assembly,” said Sam Merksamer ’02, editor of the Cornell Review.

Miranda Pugh ’04 stepped to the microphone and replied, “How many minority students do you think are on this campus? How many [students] do you think support them?”

Another student agreed, “You have a responsibility as the S.A. to make sure every group is heard.”

Assembly members then exchanged opinions about the resolution.

“I still don’t agree with seats being re-designated … It would be wrong of us to try to alter the status quo in any form,” said James Lamb ’03, re-designated representative at-large.

Engineering representative Karlos Johnson ’03 then proposed an amendment that altered the essential meaning of the resolution.

He called for the liaison seats to be changed to undesignated at-large seats. Under this plan, the S.A. would elect two minority liaisons, an LGBTQ liaison, and an international liaison from the Assembly. These liaisons would make monthly reports to the S.A. after interacting with the communities they would represent.

“It seemed to me that as [the resolution] was set up, it certainly wouldn’t help any members of those communities to be better represented,” Johnson said. “I saw [Zandpour’s] point that it possibly caused a situation of double representation, but at the same time I thought special action did need to be taken to hear those communities.”

“People use [minority] positions as a way to get onto the Assembly. But a person applying for a seat in the internal election has nothing to gain except the opportunity to help that community,” Johnson explained.

Lamb supported the amendment. “The bottom line is, your S.A. does nothing for you,” he said. “[With the internally elected liaisons], you’d have a person from the S.A. actively working for your communities.”

The audience was once again asked to speak, this time about the proposed amendment.

Merksamer, a former S.A. representative, expressed his support for the amendment, saying that candidates decide which S.A. seats to run for based on their perceived chances of winning.

“That’s why all of our international liaisons for the last three years have gone to students born in the U.S.,” Merksamer added.

An international student spoke on the topic of minority seats in general.

“You don’t actually have to have a seat reserved for you on the S.A. to have your voice heard,” he said, calling attention to the fact that he was speaking for himself at the open microphone. “The notion of minority is very amorphous,” he added.

Some community members questioned the manner in which the liaisons would be selected.

“There is one problem with internal elections in general — it’s not democratic,” said Jennifer Fang ’03, S.A. archivist.

“This isn’t what we want. We showed up today to let you know … we think our voice is in danger,” said Miranda Pugh ’04.

Zandpour replied to their concerns about the democratic process being bypassed if the S.A. chose the liaisons internally. “So the majority’s going to decide who should represent the minorities. You really think that’s a better [option]?” he questioned.

Leslie Barkemeyer ’03, LGBTQ liaison at-large, said, “This amendment is just a disguise. All it does is wrap it up and throw a bone to the community. There hasn’t been an out homosexual or bisexual student who has won a seat unless running for the LGBTQ seat.” This statement was met by shouts of “that’s not true,” from Merksamer and another member of the audience.

“We’ve got to vote now and we’ve got to do what the students of this school want us to do,” Barkemeyer said.

“I felt I had a place on this assembly … a seat that called out to me,” said Tom Mendez ’03, minority liaison at-large and vice president of internal operations. “I’d hate to see someone on this assembly next year who’s [assigned to] this seat and doesn’t want it,” he added.

After Zandpour agreed to allow two amendments to the resolution — both the amendment from Johnson and an additional amendment from Lamb saying that the Assembly’s work should promote the issues that are of concern to the minority communities — Asonye called for the audience to speak for a third time.

“Taking away these seats is making [the S.A.] a dictatorship, not what students want,” one Cornellian said.

The S.A. decided to vote on two slightly different versions of the resolution. The first one would take the minority, LGBTQ and international seats and give them to the colleges, then create internal liaisonships for those communities. It failed by a vote of 12 to three, and two abstentions.

The second version was similar, but would re-designate the four seats to undesignated at-large rather than to the arts, engineering, agriculture and human ecology schools. It failed by a vote of 12 to four, with one abstention.

“It went as I expected,” Mendez said. “I thought the resolution was garbage. I didn’t think it was even going get to that point,” he added.

“It’s not shocking, considering the intimidation factor of the crowd,” Zandpour said.

In addition to the high turnout, one female student in the crowd stood up and shouted out of order. She complained that Merksamer was speaking for the third time while others had yet to speak.

Asonye replied that speakers on both sides of the issue had to take turns at the microphone. The student also complained about Zandpour conferring with members of the Cornell Review throughout the meeting.

“Let [Zandpour] come up with ideas for himself,” she said. “How come he has to confer with somebody before every time he speaks?”

“I knew passions could run high,” Asonye said after the meeting.

Still, he praised th
e day’s discussion, saying that it is important to have “free and legitimate debate.”

“I think we had that today,” he said. “Everyone who wanted to speak on the issue got the opportunity. And then we made a logical and heartfelt decision.”

Zandpour felt the controversy was not settled yet.

“I think the issue should come up again. It shouldn’t just disappear,” he said.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder