April 29, 2009

Top Admins Talk Diversity on Ho Plaza

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Cornell’s president, vice presidents and deputy provost stepped out of Day Hall yesterday at noon and spent an hour amidst the hustle and bustle of Ho Plaza to speak with students on issues of diversity as part of a week-long event called “Day Hall Talks Diversity.”
Questions such as “Is the percentage of whites higher among faculty, staff or students?” and “What percentage of Cornell faculty are women?” were posted on colored signs to facilitate conversations with some of the top administrators, including President David Skorton, Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman, Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73 and Deputy Provost David Harris.
The event, organized by the University Diversity Council, was briefly interrupted when, to the surprise of the administrators, about three dozen protesters — including students, staff and labor organizers — marched onto Ho Plaza, shouting in unison: “What do we want? Fair Contract! When do we want it? Now!” The protesters wielded a variety of signs calling for a fair living wage for Cornell staff as they approached the booth.
Skorton and Opperman briefly talked with two protesters. After handing Skorton a letter and a DVD of a 1992 short film about Cornell workers called “In the Shadow of the Tower,” the group peacefully disbanded. The whole protest lasted for about five minutes.
“[The protest] is not negative at all,” Skorton said afterwards. While stressing that collective bargaining and diversity are two different sets of issues, Skorton said that both events were “very, very important because … they function for ‘Day Hall’ to communicate with [the community.]”
The importance of communication was repeatedly emphasized in the event — the first of its kind in terms of congregating the University’s important decision-makers onto Ho Plaza for casual conversations with passersby.
“The administration cares an awful lot about [diversity],” said Harris, who initiated yesterday’s event. “Sometimes we’re not communicating as well, so I thought maybe we can get out of Day Hall and get out and directly engage with people.”
Skorton also said that the many bar charts, which were attached to large boards, showing statistics related to diversity at Cornell, allowed the “data to speak for themselves and show where we are.”
“We are not here to sell what we’re doing is perfect,” Skorton added.
Opperman agreed: “The goal is to be a community and have conversations in open and honest ways [instead of] shy[ing] away from our problems.”
Indeed, some students are struck by some of the statistics presented. For example, a couple of bar charts showed that more than 90 percent of Cornell’s staff and 85 percent of Cornell’s faculty are white. Anne Escobedo ’12, who was observing the statistics, noted that Hispanics are not well-represented in students, staff or faculty. Another passerby was surprised that some older statistics would group several ethnic groups — including African American, Asian American and Hispanic Americans — into the broad category of under-represented minorities.
Harris welcomed the exchange of opinions and challenges, saying that they are necessary for improvements.
“Sometimes in areas that are politically sensitive, we need to push ourselves to ask the hard questions,” he said.
Other students who stopped by the table and engaged in conversations with the top administrators were surprised by the approachability and laid-back atmosphere of the event.
“I thought they were going to give a speech [on Ho Plaza,]” said Daniel Araniz ’09, who engaged in long conversations with some administrators. “I’m pleasantly surprised that they just talked to us. I think this is a whole lot better than giving us a speech. This should be a monthly event.”
Some students, including Escobedo, wished to learn what the administrators would specifically do to transform their ideals about diversity into action. Durrell Harper ’10, who works for the University Diversity Council, hoped that by sparking discussion, more understanding could be eventually brought to campus.