February 20, 2007

A Year After Stabbing, Racial Tension Lingers

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Nathan Poffenbarger ’08 stabbed Charles Holiday, a visiting student from Union College, in front of Baker Tower around 1:15 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2006.

Poffenbarger, who is white, was yelling racial epithets before and during his confrontation with Holiday, who is black.

Staff were informed of the incident and “pulled together” by around noon, according to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services. At an open forum to discuss the stabbing in May, Murphy said that students found out about the crime before they received notification from the administration.

“Some said there was ‘nothing’ from the administration for 12 hours, and I don’t disagree,” Murphy said last year.

Justin Davis ’07, president of Black Students United, said recently that the University should have given out detailed, accurate information in a more timely fashion, “just so people [were] not spreading rumors.”

Students received an e-mail during the early hours of Monday morning, a departure from past procedure. Murphy said that in the past, staff would have been informed immediately only about a death but now, they are informed immediately about any sort of crisis.

At this time, three administrators were required to discuss the situation before sending out a crisis report, but Murphy said last February that the policy had been changed.

“We learned some things that need to change about our crisis management [in regards to] incidents of violence on campus,” Murphy said last February.

Cornell Police Chief Curtis Ostrander said crime reports are sent to students if there is still danger after the crime has been committed.
Student demonstrations accompanied a series of public forums on campus.

An organizer at one forum, Kalina Black ’07, a resident advisor in Ujamaa, said forums gave “students an opportunity to address what happened.”

Some members of the community accused the University of “institutional racism” and demanded action.

Ken Glover, residence hall director for Ujamaa, said last year that he “do[es] not accept that institutional racism doesn’t exist.”

Glover said there was a “lack of racial diversity” among faculty as well as staff.

Then interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III responded at the time that the University places “a very high value” on increasing diversity and believes “the jump to institutional racism is a jump.”

Some faculty and students requested a required course on diversity and racial issues for every Cornell student.

Murphy and Rawlings both told groups that the faculty of each college would have to make that decision. Rawlings also said that he could make suggestions to the faculties.

“It might be reasonable for faculty members to talk about what students should learn about cultural diversity,” Rawlings said on Feb. 27, 2006.

Prof. Dick Booth, city and regional planning, said at a public forum last May that many courses at Cornell already contain curricula relevant to diversity and discrimination. He said one of his own classes, CRP653: The Legal Aspects of Land Use Planning, addresses issues such as discrimination in zoning practices.

Not all students think a class on diversity would be the best solution.

“I don’t think we need to have a mandatory class,” Davis said. “We should be empowering students to want to learn about diversity not forcing them to.

This will come from getting students excited about diversity and its initiatives through engaging discussions, large scale programming and coming into the learning environment.”

Benjamin Woods, a graduate student in Africana studies, suggested that a group of faculty and students from different backgrounds and different departments should examine what forum would be appropriate for discussing racial issues.

Woods also said that he “didn’t see places where people are discussing race” currently.

Last semester, the University announced the formation of the University Diversity Council, which will hold public meetings and formulate policies relating to diversity.

“The [stabbing] incident prompted the University to revisit what it was doing around its commitment to diversity,” said Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67, in an interview with The Sun earlier this semester.

At an open forum about the UDC and their new website earlier this month, few community members attended — including less than five students.

Woods said that he had not heard of the UDC and was surprised that the University had not reached out to him and other Africana studies students.

The UDC has not really had a chance to gain momentum, according to Kwame Thomison ’07, president of the Student Assembly. He hopes they will be an effective group in the future.

“I hope they really get students more involved than in the past,” Thomison said. They should set “concrete goals that will really benefit the community.”

Davis agreed that the UDC should lie out specific plans.

“I really want them to be able to define diversity,” he said.

The UDC can also help people “begin to dialogue” as well as think about and enact solutions, according to Davis.

Poffenbarger’s attack on Holiday also renewed discussion about the S.A. removing funding from publications with overtones of racism.

Rawlings said just over a week after the stabbing that the S.A. could “make a good statement” by removing funding from The Cornell American. In September 2005, The American published a feature article that suggested to “just remember to be safe and carry your Smith & Wesson” as the best way to protect yourself from crime perpetrated by black people.

“Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you have the responsibility,” Rawlings said.

Eric Shive ’07, who was then the editor-in-chief of The American, said in response that “white-on-black crime is treated much more importantly than black-on-white crime,” and that the reaction on campus to the stabbing “was precisely what we predicted back in September.”

Some members of the community continue to think racist publications should not receive funding.

“I know there’s free speech … [but] students fees shouldn’t be allowed to pay for [racist publications]. I’m contributing to some of the things they’re saying about me,” said Jimmy Kirby Jr., a graduate student in Africana studies.

The American still receives funding from the Student Assembly Finance Committee.

At a Feb. 26, 2006 rally on Ho Plaza, 20 student organizations presented a “statement of demands” to Rawlings. One of the demands was the incorporation of S.A. Resolution 11, which “calls for a zero tolerance of violence and sexual assault,” into the Campus Code of Conduct. The S.A. unanimously passed the resolution on Feb. 23, according to minutes of the meeting.

While the resolution is not explicitly mentioned, a draft of a revamped Code of Conduct states that “certain types of Conduct Code violations will result in dismissal or substantial suspension from the University. Such violations include acts of violence, including sexual violence…”

“The point of that [resolution] was just to get it in the Krause Report,” Thomison said. “It hasn’t had a chance to fully impact the community.”

Thomison also said that the resolution was partially in response to crimes that happened earlier but the issue was “brought to the surface” by the stabbing.

The proposed Code and several related documents were written by Barbara Krause law ’86, then senior advisor to the president, between November 2005 and April 2006.

After Poffenbarger’s sentencing, Tommy Bruce, vice president for University communications, prepared a statement on behalf of the University.

“We believe this disturbing incident has been addressed properly by the court, and we are pleased that justice will be served in this matter,” it stated.

Many feel that the greater issues behind the stabbing have not been solved.
“We cannot place blame on the University for what happened. We need to blame … the culture of our student body,” Davis said.

Kirby said that being at Cornell does not exclude the community from “being part of the world.”

“The court has addressed the problem … [but] have we as a community really addressed the problem?” Thomison said.