February 9, 2007

University Hosts Diversity Forum

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The University Diversity Council hosted an open forum yesterday, and less than five students were among a small crowd comprised of faculty and staff. At the forum, called “Diversity at Cornell,” administrators discussed a new initiative not only to increase diversity, but also to increase awareness during President David J. Skorton’s first year in office.

The UDC is composed of an executive committee co-chaired by Skorton and Provost Biddy Martin, and a working group co-chaired by Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development and David Harris, vice provost for social sciences and seeks to deepen Cornell’s commitment to fostering and sustaining diversity.

“We’ve had a diversity council at Cornell for about four years,” Robert Harris said. “The Diversity Council was really to look at initiatives related to diversity across the university and for those individuals who were responsible for specific diversity offices to have an opportunity to talk with each other, to share ideas with each other, to make sure that we were not working in cross-purposes, to seek ways that we could cooperate with each other.”

He added, “The executive committee will review where we are in regards to diversity at Cornell and will look at where we need to go. The second group, the working group is just that: It will be a working group that will look to implement many of the strategies that have been agreed upon by the executive committee of the UDC.”

At its open forum, the UDC hosted a discussion about its new website “Discovery and Action: Cornell’s Commitment to Diversity.” The UDC hopes the new website will make the University’s diversity initiatives more accessible and transparent to students.

“The first thing to realize is that the website takes the perspective of the user, not the university. You want to know what we’re doing with respect to students and you can find that information,” David Harris said.

“The second thing it does, and I think this is consistent with the whole perspective that we’re trying to take, is [it makes] diversity as a strategy, diversity as goals, not diversity as public relations.”

The website provides students with information and statistics on Cornell’s past policies, current initiatives and diversity goals. It also asks students to get involved by soliciting input and comments and providing a list of UDC’s future events.

“You’ll see events at the bottom of the page. You’ll see things that are happening at the art museum, things that are happening at the library, cultural events and other things that are going on,” David Harris said.

During the forum, leaders heavily emphasized the need to foster a comfortable climate at Cornell for students of all backgrounds.

“Embracing diversity is a goal that we have so that we do have a more inclusive community. We’re beginning to think of ways that we can encourage different groups of students to cooperate together across differences in a way that they can learn more from each other,” Robert Harris said. “To tolerate diversity is in some ways passive, but to embrace it is a bit more active.”

“It’s passive and easy to tolerate diversity, so I can tolerate people of some type who aren’t my type and basically say, ‘You go sit over there and I go complain about you sitting over there and I’ll sit over here and I’ll go on with my life,’” David Harris said.

“We’re not going to force people to go over there and talk with those people or learn form them, but it seems we should make sure we provide plenty of opportunities for people so that the thought might be, ‘Oh yea, I’m going to do some things to interact with people — not tolerate, but engage.’”