April 22, 2005

Program House Forum Sparks Lively Debate

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“Does Cornell Sponsor Segregation?” read the advertisements for the forum on program houses that took place last night in the Appel Commons Multipurpose Room.

The event, which began with a 10-minute video of Cornellians expressing their opinions on the matter, featured a discussion panel of eight students — four in favor of program housing, four against, moderated by Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development. After delivering brief opening statements, the panelists fielded questions from audience members and offered concluding remarks. About 200 students were in attendance for the forum, which lasted about two hours.

“I saw a need on campus for further discussion on this issue, and I wanted to provide a venue for that,” said Algernon Cargill ’05, who organized the event. “I think in general there need to be more forums where students can engage critically around controversial issues in a safe space.”

The panelists in opposition to program houses were Stephen Pelle ’06 of The Cornell Review, Nitin Chadda ’07 of Cornell Republicans, J.P. Freire ’05 of the Society for Individualists, a libertarian group, and Andy Guess ’05, a Sun columnist.

Guess, who lived in Multicultural Living Learning Unit for two years, said he had been disturbed by the “ideological conformity” he witnessed: “It seemed that people felt restricted in expressing their views on particular issues,” he said. “I think if you have a group of people who are relatively like-minded and put them in a confined space, they are liable to become even more polarized in their views, be they liberal or conservative. Any social psychologist will tell you that.”

Chadda, Freire, and Pelle echoed Guess’s sentiments regarding the disadvantages of students of similar ethnic backgrounds and political views “self-segregating themselves” from the wider Cornell community. The panelists seemed less bothered by program houses organized around common interests, like Just About Music and the Ecology House.

Panelist Shaconda Junious ’07 defended ethnic program houses, including her own Ujamaa Residential College, against accusations of student homogeneity: “Ujamaa is one of the most diverse places on campus,” she insisted. “Not all black people are the same. We’re from different places, we’re from different socioeconomic backgrounds, we have different points of view. I just don’t understand why the burden for integrating is placed solely on the shoulders of minority students. Our doors aren’t closed at Ujamaa. Where are all the white people?”

In her defense of ethnic program houses, Junious was joined by panelists Justin Davis ’07 of McLLU, Satya Stainton ’06 of Risley Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts, and Kervin Pillot ’06 of the Latino Living Center.

“If you look at the numbers, the percentage of minority students living in program houses is actually very small,” Pillot pointed out. “The reason there isn’t enough interaction between white students and us on campus isn’t because we’re all in one place. It’s because there aren’t enough of us on campus to begin with,” he said to applause.

Last night’s event reprised a similar one held two years ago, also organized by Cargill, which degenerated when one of the panelists was asked to leave the debate after calling audience members “inflamed savages.”

Cargill said steps were taken this time to avoid a repeat of the previous event’s mishaps: “We were extremely careful in selecting our panelists this time, and we used roaming microphones to make sure people spoke in turn.”

There were some tense moments, however, including one in which an audience member appeared to question Freire’s claim that he was Hispanic. “Yes, there’s one of me on this side of the table,” he shot back. “Try to get over it.”

Most students in attendance reacted positively to the forum.

“I though the debate presented both sides well. I think both sides have valid arguments,” said Michael Kiper ’08. “Personally, I believe ethnic-based program houses do nothing to relieve racial tensions on campus. I remember one of the students from Ujamaa insisting that had she lived in Court, she would not have been accepted by those around her. She automatically made the assumption that a white person like me would reject her, and living in Ujamaa has clearly done nothing to rid her of such suspicions.”

Charlene Morales ’06, a Risley resident, defended the mission of Cornell’s program houses: “I think that beyond serving as a safe haven, one of the primary purposes of ethnic program housing is to teach people on the outside about the particular culture of that house. That’s why most of them have open events where students from around campus can come to learn about some of their issues. The doors are open, and if you want to open those doors, you can. Most people just don’t take the opportunity.”

“I’m glad we had this debate. I only wish it was held in a larger room,” said Roger Gousse ’08, who identified himself as Haitian-American. “I’m a huge fan of diversity, I love being around other cultures. That’s why I chose to live in the Latino Living Center. But I’m living in Alice Cook House next year because I don’t want to limit myself. I want to be able to learn about all the different groups of people on campus and, possibly, to teach them something about myself, about my culture, and maybe even to dispel some stereotypes. I think the reason we have racial tension on campus is because of ignorance; I don’t think program houses have done anything to wipe away that ignorance.”

In addition to the program houses themselves, the event was sponsored by The Cornell Review, the Cornell Political coalition, Mortar Board, the Society for Individualists. Black Students United, Cornell Chapter of NAACP, and Community Development/Campus Life.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer