October 30, 2007

Diversity Forums Fail to Attract Students

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The University Diversity Council held an open forum yesterday over growing concerns about diversity at Cornell as well as in Ithaca. Addressing a small audience that contained only six students, the forum held in the auditorium at Robert Purcell Community Center was one in a series of forums that are a part of the University’s efforts to improve the diversity of the Cornell community.
A similar forum held on Feb. 8 attracted less than five students, while one on Feb. 28 drew about 30 total participants.
“This [forum] will act as a conduit to the Executive Committee of the UDC to see what we should be doing to enhance diversity in Cornell,” said Robert Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development, as he introduced the forum.
Harris, co-chair of the Working Group of the UDC, served as one of three chairs of the forum.
One of the topics covered during the forum, introduced by Student Assembly President Elan Greenberg ’08, addressed Cornell’s opportunity to present itself to the Ithaca Community as an agent of positive change.
Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students, cited as an example of the University’s efforts to enact positive change a meeting that had taken place in Ujamma on Sunday night, in which Ithaca High School students explained to the University student audience some of the events that have occurred over the past year.
“It was not an especially large forum,” Hubbell said, “but a lot of people were there.”
Members of the audience voiced concerns over the mixed perception of students from both Cornell and Ithaca College and their involvement in the recent situations stemming from the racial tension within the local community. One woman in the audience noted that students were often seen as meddlesome. “[Student involvement] is not always welcomed,” she said.
“Cornell and the students do a great deal for the school district,” she explained, “the district will gladly take their help, but they have a tendency to not want Cornell involved with the racial tension. They like to pick and choose.”
One of the small numbers of students present in the audience saw fault with the Ithaca City School District’s hostile reaction to student involvement. “It’s interesting,” the student said. “The district’s arguments are somewhat parallel to the South’s response to the North’s efforts to dissolve slavery during the time of the Civil War.”
Despite the local protests to University involvement, some people still maintained that there was a strong need for Cornell to be a presence in the local community.
“Our children go to that school,” said a faculty member in the audience. “It is hard for black students at that school. As a parent, I could have used the support of Cornell to gain some traction to deal with these issues; we have a legitimate reason to get involved,” she said. “We are not separate.”
In addition to the issue of Cornell’s status in the public community, University specific diversity issues were also addressed.
Deondra Rose grad, representative of the Graduate Professional Student Assembly to the UDC, introduced a topic submitted by an anonymous student. The student wrote about her confusion as to how the handle the concept of “whiteness” being associated with good, as well as an experience she had in which she was complimentary referred to as “whitewashed.”
David Harris, deputy provost and vice provost for social Sciences and co-chair of the Working Group of the UDC, focused on the difficulty of the student’s situation. “It’s hard,” he said. “You want to engage the situation but you feel bad about doing it.”
“I’d hesitate” Rose agreed, “I wouldn’t want to appear as if I’m jumping to conclusion, or as if I was an angry black woman,” she said. “That’d contribute to my silence.”
In terms of the need for diverse dialogue in the community, some audiences members noted the importance of the issue as it affects the larger community.
According to Robert Harris, there are numerous reasons to increase this dialogue. Harris noted as an example, that the racial tension the Ithaca community could dissuade future potential faculty from joining Cornell.
“We need to look for ways to support diversity, maybe we can have a community forum in the town,” he said, emphasizing the need for a stronger expression of Cornell’s dedication to the needs of the community.
Harris also implied Cornell’s minimal response to the racial issues within Ithaca.
“There is a definite sense that despite the community volunteer programs, Cornell doesn’t really care about the community.”