February 28, 2007

Forum Scrutinizes Diversity

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Last night, President David Skorton addressed the Cornell community as the special guest of a Black Students United forum on diversity.

BSU is an umbrella organization for African-American groups on campus that seeks to create a bridge of communication between black students and the greater Cornell community.

Before the symposium began, members of BSU distributed a fact sheet that included information on the status of diversity at Cornell.

The objective of the symposium was “to give black students and others the opportunity to meet Skorton and talk about some things black students have been talking about, like racism on campus, admissions and black employment,” said Justin Davis ’07, senior co-president of BSU.

The symposium opened with remarks from the moderator, Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development. He discussed the inception of Cornell’s “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” policy, created in 1999 after a series of incidents involving Asian American women on campus.
[img_assist|nid=21738|title=Speaking to the masses.|desc=President David Skorton spoke to a crowd of students in the Straight during a Diversity Forum put on by Black Students United.|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=69]
Skorton opened the question and answer session by discussing the goals and purposes of the University Diversity Council, a council established to address issues pertaining to diversity on campus. The three main initiatives of the council are to get students and staff thinking about the issue, ensure that the Cornell community embraces students and faculty from all backgrounds and create a more diverse administration, Skorton said.

Although Cornell has long made an effort to create a more diverse and tolerant campus, Skorton said “Despite this legacy and the good work done by many, there are also persistent problems in the representation of students of color.”

In the class of 2010, approximately 30 percent of students defined themselves as “students of color.” But African Americans constitute 4 percent of students on campus. This number has remained virtually stagnant over the past 20 years, Skorton said.

Two issues more heavily discussed were the Bias Response Program, which deals with issues of racism on campus and whether or not there should be a required course or seminar on diversity.

The Bias Response Program works by helping students who have been victims of hate crimes through personal counseling and through punishment of the perpetrators in the Office of the Judicial Administrator, said Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for Student and Academic Services.

In rsesponse to the idea of a required diversity course, Skorton said, “We would all have to decide as a community.”

Not all students feel that a course could remedy diversity issues on Cornell’s campus; Ernie Jolly ’09, campus liaison for BSU, said that the administration needs to focus on already existing institutions — such as Ujamaa and the Africana Center — as a source for strengthening diversity and the increasing retention rates of students of color.

“Race is a socially constructed term. Therefore it is our responsibility as humans, as social beings, to deconstruct the origins of its use for subordination and oppression. You may be asking, what do we want? What I do want is an understanding from all students and administration of what it means to be black,” said Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo ’08, co-president of BSU, at the conclusion of the symposium.

As for the overall success of the event, symposiums like this one “Give our community a sense of where the University is trying to take it” said Melanie Lister ’08, organization representative of BSU. “This allows us to hold them accountable.”