March 1, 2006

Rawlings Promises C.U. Response Plan

Print More

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III promised to produce a strategic diversity plan and more uniformly evaluate the University’s progress in diversity initiatives in an “informal” discussion last night, held in response to the Feb. 18 stabbing of Union College student Charles Holiday.

The discussion, which began with statements by Rawlings, Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson and Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant law ’88, packed the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room. Students, faculty, administrators, alumni and Ithaca residents asked Rawlings how the University was responding to the stabbing and called for improved diversity initiatives, fairer hiring practices and courses to address racism. Rawlings responded to over 20 questions in the two-hour discussion and invited attendees to continue the dialogue, stressing the need for continued student involvement in improving race relations on campus.

Before opening the floor to questions, Rawlings invited Wilkinson to speak on the state of the criminal investigation. Wilkinson said she was “limited in what I’m able and willing to talk about,” but explained that her office had charged Nathan Poffenbarger ’08 with assault in the second degree and was looking to include a “hate crime enhancement.”

Wilkinson said the case would not go to a grand jury before April because Holiday needs to heal and many witnesses may be away on spring break. If there is a trial, which Wilkinson was optimistic about, it would not begin until the fall.

If no hate crime is attached to the charge, the perpetrator would receive something between probation and five years in prison if found guilty. With a hate crime enhancement, he could receive three to seven years and could get “in excess of 10 years” if found guilty of a more serious version of the assault charge.

Grant then said that the University’s prosecution of Poffenbarger would be held until after the criminal process is complete, but her office did issue a “temporary suspension” on Feb. 18, the day of the assault.

Rawlings admitted early in the meeting that the administration was “not highly effective” in communicating the details of the assault. He said, “We need to respond more rapidly.”

When asked whether the University should institute a mandatory class on diversity and racial issues, a proposal that was voiced during Monday’s Ho Plaza rally, Rawlings said that the faculty in each college make the final decision on curriculum, but he can give suggestions.

“It might be reasonable for faculty members to talk about what students should learn about cultural diversity,” he said.

Provost Biddy Martin agreed that faculty should reconsider what students need to know before they graduate. Martin suggested an interdisciplinary course with professors from many departments, but did not want it to be mandatory for all students. She said if the course satisfied many distribution requirements, people would want to take it without being forced to.

One student asked Rawlings if he thought there was a double standard in criticizing white-on-black racism while financially supporting Snoop Dogg and Ludacris, two musicians who recently visited Cornell and whose lyrics include what the student called “derogatory language.”

While Rawlings acknowledged that there are many forms of racism, he said, “In general, the problems that are encountered in society are encountered by members of minority groups.”

Rawlings received enthusiastic applause when he criticized The Cornell American as “really trashy.” He said, “I find things like that quite dangerous and reprehensible,” adding that “just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you have the responsibility.”

Rawlings said, “You have the responsibility to exercise your freedom well” and said the Student Assembly could “make a good statement” by removing funding from the publication, which had “overtones” – not just undertones – of racism.

Eric Shive ’07, editor of The American, later said that the campus’s reaction to the stabbing “was precisely what we predicted back in September.”

He argued, “White on black crime is treated much more importantly than black on white crime” and pointed out that there were no rallies when white students were allegedly attacked by a group of black girls this fall.

Rawlings shifted to the other side of the room after Shive spoke, taking a comment from Mary Gayne, a graduate resident fellow at the Alice Cook House.

Gayne suggested that every segment of campus from the Cook House to the Sigma Pi fraternity and Gannett Health Center “do a serious, critical self evaluation and report back as to what they have been doing, where they have been failing, and where they will begin to pick up some slack.”

She added, “We need to think about why what happened the other night happened.”

The topic of discussion later switched to a critique of Cornell’s hiring practices and lack of staff and faculty diversity.

Sylvia Vitazkova ’95, now a lecturer at Ithaca College, said she was disheartened that her multicultural interests did not come up when she was interviewing for jobs. Cornell should show a “deep commitment to diversity,” she suggested, by pushing departments to be more active in recruiting faculty with such interests.

Ken Glover, residence hall director for Ujamaa, said there is a “lack of racial diversity across the University” not just among faculty, but also in staff and clerical jobs.

“As a world-class university we should not be in this state,” Glover said. As a result of the homogeneous staff and faculty at Cornell, he said he “do[es] not accept that institutional racism doesn’t exist.”

Rawlings responded that the University “puts a very high value” on efforts to “increase diversity” and reiterated his belief that “the jump to institutional racism is a jump.”

Rawlings did admit, however, that the numerous diversity initiatives needed better oversight and a clearer purpose. “While Cornell has many means of emphasizing diversity