April 19, 2002

Freshmen Favor More

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The majority of Cornell freshmen believe that their college education should involve learning about diversity in the United States. Most freshmen also favor the implementation of a diversity distribution requirement, according to results from the Freshman Survey.

Administered by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) since 1966, the Freshman Survey seeks to gain longitudinal information about full-time, first-time college students. Eighty percent of Cornell’s 2,988 entering first-year students, as well as students from over 700 other colleges and universities, completed the survey at the beginning of the fall semester.

When asked their opinion of the statement, “The Cornell learning experience should include gaining a better understanding of the role of race and racism in American life,” 40.4 percent of the students strongly agreed and 47.1 percent agreed somewhat. 9.9 percent disagreed somewhat and 2.6 percent disagreed strongly to the statement.

“An overwhelming majority of entering freshmen, 87.5 percent, believe that they should learn about race and racism while at college,” said Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development.

When asked their opinion on the statement, “Before graduating, every Cornell student should complete a course about diversity in the U.S.,” 22.2 percent of the students agreed strongly and 39.1 percent agreed somewhat. 27.7 percent disagreed somewhat and 11.0 percent disagreed strongly.

“While a majority still believes in the question, there’s a drop-off,” Harris said. “Students think they should learn about diversity, but there is less strong support for a diversity requirement.”

“I think [a course on diversity] should be required,” said Cherise Pais ’05. “It would decrease ignorance and broaden people’s cultural horizons.”

The survey results are consistent with a national trend of college freshmen wanting to learn about issues relating to diversity, according to Harris.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, an increasing percentage of entering college freshmen in 2001 considered promoting racial understanding an important or essential goal of their college experience. Although the percentage of student who expressed this view peaked in 1992 at 46.4 percent and dropped to 30.8 percent in 2000, the percentage increased in 31.5 percent in 2001.

“Students realize they are not getting this kind of education in high school, and they see it as a gap in their education,” Harris said. “They know they need to develop knowledge in the area.”

The committee on diversity within the curriculum, which was formed by Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin last spring, requested that the two questions relating to diversity issues be added to Cornell’s 2001 survey.

Martin created the committee after students, in response to bias-related incident that occurred on campus, expressed interest in the issue of diversity in the curriculum.

“The students felt that more courses dealing with issues of diversity create more interracial and interethnic understanding on campus,” Harris said.

The committee has also planned to ask outgoing seniors the same questions about diversity in the Senior Survey.

“Cornell has too many requirements already,” said Joe LaMonte ’02. “The best part of college is being able to take the courses you want to take and not being tied down by requirements.”

Harris acknowledged that it will be difficult to compare results from the two surveys since they will come from different groups of people.

“When we repeat the questions four years from now, we will have a good basis for comparison,” Harris said. “We will have surveyed the same students as they entered and as they are leaving.”

The committee has shared the results of the survey questions with the associate deans of each college, according to Harris. Since officials in the individual colleges, not the administration, control the curricula, the University cannot implement a mandatory diversity requirement. Therefore, the committee is in the process of creating a “menu of courses” that would fulfill a diversity distribution requirement if individual colleges choose to implement one in the future, Harris said.

“We have defined diversity as involving issues of race, ethnicity, and sexuality,” Harris said.

However, the committee has not decided whether appropriate courses should focus on one issue or if they should give equal treatment to all three.

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin