September 29, 2005

C.U. Community Ponders Diversity

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“Hey, what’s red, white, and black all over?” joked one student to another.

“I give up,” said the friend.

“A defaced diversity archway!”

Many have been quick to ridicule the 15 Big Red arches that have sprung up across campus for the fifth anniversary of Cornell’s “Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds” campaign.

Students have scrawled obscenities on them, knocked them over and lambasted them in a half-dozen Facebook groups.

Few of the critics, however, claim any knowledge of the slogan’s short history at Cornell and its implications for the University.

“Five years ago, the students thought that we should have something that [would indicate] Cornell’s aspirations for the community,” explained Robert Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development. “Practically everyone is familiar with [Ezra Cornell’s statement] ‘I would found an institution where any person could find instruction in any study.’ And given this notion of ‘any person, any study,’ there was interest in developing something that would symbolize the University’s receptivity to individuals of different backgrounds. And that’s how we came up with ‘Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds.'”

The campaign, he said, is multi-pronged. There is Cornell’s “Statement on Diversity and Inclusiveness” affirming the University’s commitment to an environment of tolerance; the formation of a “Diversity Council”; the establishment of the annual “One Vision, Many Voices” program for incoming freshmen, featuring a skit and discussion on diversity issues; a redoubled effort to bring students and professors of underrepresented groups to The Hill; and the enforcement of a “Bias-Response Protocol” that holds accountable perpetrators of verbal and physical abuse against students because of their race or creed.

It’s all part of what Harris calls “Cornell’s holistic approach to diversity.”

Many minority student leaders have relished the spirit of “Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds” and have defended the arches bearing the slogan.

“I think what ‘Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds’ does is set the tone for Cornell,” said Calvin Selth ’07, LGBTQ liaison to the Student Assembly. “I think it’s very important, especially for incoming students, to know what they can expect from this University: an institution that’s inclusive and is [continually] evaluating itself on that basis. In essence, the administration is telling its students, ‘this is where we stand’ [on diversity]. These arches are a celebration of our accomplishments over the past five years, but also a reminder for us to keep our focus.”

Black Students United president Justin Davis ’07 agreed:

“It’s important to give credit where credit is due,” he said, “and the administration, including former President [Jeffrey S.] Lehman [’77], deserves credit for getting the ball rolling. In celebrating the fifth anniversary of ‘Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds,’ Cornell is letting students know that they haven’t forgotten about this important mission. To some people, these arches may be an eyesore, but to me as a minority student, they’re an invigorating sight. They’re a reminder that we all need to wake up and venture beyond our comfort zones. That goes for minority and non-minority students alike.”

Some Cornellians have been more cynical.

“If you ask people on this campus what [‘Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds’] means, you’ll get a different answer from everybody,” said Sun columnist and former Editor-in-Chief Andy Guess ’05. “That’s because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a feel-good motto that was ripped off from the United Methodist Church, that has little meaning, and that’s exactly why Cornell took it on. It makes them look like a warm, fuzzy university that’s welcoming of everybody, but they don’t actually have to stand by anything.

“I think you can have minority students saying there are no ‘open doors’ because there aren’t a lot of minorities on campus; and you can have gay students saying there are no ‘open hearts’ because they’re discriminated against; and you can have conservative students saying there are no ‘open minds’ because their views are marginalized,” he said. “I think you can find just about anybody on this campus who would have a beef with that slogan, and they’re pretty much all legitimate. It’s ridiculous that you have an Ivy League university that goes by a pithy slogan. It just shows how out of touch the administration is with the student body.”

Harris has denied Guess’s assertion regarding the United Methodist Church, insisting that the Church’s similar slogan features a different permutation of the words and that it followed Cornell’s adoption of “Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds.”

Harris also criticized certain individuals and groups he believes have needlessly violated the spirit of civil discourse called for by “Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds.”

In a letter to The Sun earlier this week, Harris lamented The Cornell American’s recent cover story, “The Dark Underbelly of Violent Crime,” and its call for Cornell students to arm themselves with “Smith and Wessons” against “black thugs”:

“As Cornell prepares to celebrate the Fifth Anniversary of its Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, Open Doors, Open Hearts and Open Minds, The Cornell American (9/2005; 8:2) has once more crossed the line with a scurrilous story that violates the call for ‘constructive engagement without degrading, abusing, harassing or silencing others.'”

Harris, who is black, said that he believes The American’s funding should be permanently revoked unless the editors issue an apology.

In a written statement to The Sun, Cornell American Editor-in-Chief Eric Shive ’07 responded to Harris’s letter and remarks by accusing him of fanning the flames of racial animosity at Cornell: “Diversity czars like Harris love provoking campus racial tension because it allows them to spring into action, thereby justifying their exorbitant salaries,” Shive wrote. “By formally accusing The Cornell American of violating University policy, Harris is not only forcing Cornell to underwrite his ego trip, but dragging it into yet another public relations fight. Why should Cornell risk its reputation and money just so someone can play Al Sharpton?”

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer