September 19, 2003

RAs Respond to Bias Accusations

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In a Sept. 7 online article entitled “Bias and Slander in the Dorms” written by Sun columnist Joe Sabia grad and published on his website, he accused the Department of Campus Life of having a liberal bias in its hiring and training processes and its policies.

As his main example, Sabia accused residence hall director Scott Helfrich of telling his resident advisors to show support for program houses. In response, Sabia claimed he received a reply from Helfrich stating that he did advocate that RAs who agreed with program houses should reach out to other colleagues in those halls.

Sabia, who has been an RA himself, said that he has known about this supposed bias issue for years — ever since he’s “been a freshman in a dorm.”

“Outside of the academic fields, the Department of Campus Life is where you can find the most bigoted, intolerant, one-sided perspective on this campus. It’s totally insane,” Sabia said.

In response to Sabia’s accusations, Helfrich said that he does believe in the support of program houses, but he said his statement “was not a mandate or requirement by any means.”

“I’m definitely putting it out there and feel that our residential life staff will take that and form their own opinions with what their current beliefs are,” Helfrich said.

Furthermore, Campus Life does not have any sort of ideological bias, according to Don King, Campus Life director of Community Development. King said that Sabia has no evidence of partiality in either Community Development’s hiring processes or policies.

“He uses a blanket statement without any substantiation,” King said. “Our intentions are not to establish any particular ideology but to expose students to many different viewpoints.”

RA Katie McLean ’05 was the individual who brought the story to Sabia’s attention. She claimed that because fellow staff members suspected her of telling her story to Sabia, she has been ostracized and criticized by many of her colleagues.

Helfrich said he did not ask his staff about who had a conversation with Sabia.

“I don’t think anyone knows my views on program houses,” McLean said. “For all these people know, they think I want to burn down Ujamaa.”

According to McLean, this problem extends further than this incident. One example she noted was the play put on by the Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble to promote diversity. McLean said that the conservative character is “always portrayed as the narrow-minded person” and that if an individual has a right-wing ideology, “you feel like you can’t say anything.”

Sabia also suspects that there is a slant in Campus Life hiring and training processes. He said that Campus Life is looking for candidates with a liberal ideology and not “RAs of a particularly higher character.”

“I was told my views are incompatible with the mission statement of Campus Life,” Sabia said.

This is not the first time Cornell has been accused of liberal bias in Campus Life. In 1992, RA applicant Michael Pulizotto ’94 filed a complaint with New York’s human rights commission and the Federal Equal Employment Commission because of the University’s hiring practices. Pulizotto said that back then, “questions were based essentially on ideology.”

“The process as a whole focused on leftist-center beliefs,” Pulizotto said. “If you don’t ascribe to their viewpoints, you are made to feel left out of the process.”

Pulizotto was eventually hired and said he was treated fairly after he started. However, he was not shocked that the bias issue still lingers, according to some, through Campus Life’s programs and policies, saying he “tended to believe” Sabia and McLean’s story.

“It’s unfortunate that this stuff is still going on, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Pulizotto said.

In response to past complaints, King said that during his tenure, since 1995, he has not seen any blatant issues of bias. According to Helfrich, political ideology has nothing to do with selection during hiring processes and Campus Life actually has “a very diverse opinion among our staff.”

“My staff members do challenge me, and overall, that allows us to be a much stronger team,” Helfrich said. “Conversations lead to a more productive and efficient staff.”

Through Campus Life’s extensive interview process, directors are “looking for people who are accepting of everyone,” according to RA Evan Cantor ’04. Cantor said that RAs are hired to make sure things for students run smoothly and that programs are created to establish dialogue.

Cantor also said that although Campus Life does not require dorm RAs to cross-program with the program houses, it is encouraged because “[the houses are] a good resource.”

King said that one Campus Life goal is to offer a wide variety of programs regarding many different issues. The staff, according to King, is from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

“We have a very diverse opinion among our staff, which allows us to better serve the diverse population on campus,” Helfrich said.

McLean has a different perspective on Community Development. She said that many of the people in the department are “closed-minded and rude” and said that contrary to Campus Life’s policy, “you don’t bring your beliefs and political values to work.”

Helfrich characterized the staff as “respectful but passionate members [of the community]” and said that students are “free thinkers and are able to look at many sides of the question.”

“In my opinion, at my tenure here at Cornell, I don’t think there is a liberal bias in Community Development or Campus Life,” Helfrich said.

Even though some students do not notice this possible bias, Sherin Varghese ’06 said that because the University administration is “left-leaning,” it is reflected in Campus Life programs and initiatives.

“There’s much less of an exchange of ideas than a one-way flow of information down the ladder,” Varghese said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao