May 1, 2009

Program Housing Review Sparks Student Defense

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This is the second article in a series examining the controversy surrounding program houses.

Campus program houses are touted as “safe spaces” by members of minority communities at Cornell, and the current review of the program houses gives minorities, including Native Americans, Asian/Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning members, a new angle to voice their concerns. The review provides an appropriate avenue to explore the history of minority activism at Cornell as well as current pressing issues facing these communities.
Both Latino and African-American student leaders expressed that they are worried about the specific program houses right now.
Jonathan Pomboza ’10, co-chair of La Asociación Latina, said that the University and Skorton have been saying that the future of the program houses depends primarily on student interest. However, Pomboza brought up the issue that while the program houses may have good programming, a familial environment and serve as cultural hubs, their facilities are often not up to par to the level that would entice students to live in them. Pomboza said that he hoped the program house review would not lead to a discussion of whether the houses are valid but rather a discussion of what can be done to improve them.
“I think it would be nice to see improved program houses in general, I would like to see the [Latino Living Center] in a more modern facility,” Pomboza said. “It would help a lot to increase the budget of the program houses to be comparable to the budget of the West Campus houses. The budget of the program houses pales in comparison.”
In terms of the history of Latino activism at Cornell, Pomboza said that the Day Hall Takeover of 1993 was the pivotal movement of Latino student activism here at Cornell as it led to the creation of the LLC.
Meaghann Lawson ’10, co-president of Black Students United, said that the African-American community at Cornell sees the Willard Straight takeover as the major turning point of student activism. According to Lawson, the program houses are currently one of the most pressing issues facing the community and it is important that students have a part in the dialogue.
Lawson also added that in terms of admissions, the University should not only focus on admitting more students of color, but should also encourage minority applicants by making their attendance more viable by offering support services and financial aid. In addition, the University should make sure to have faculty from diverse backgrounds that have the opportunity to get on the tenure track — not just in Africana studies, but in all departments so that students have the opportunity to benefit from their insights, Lawson added.
“The program houses are great but I feel like there’s so much more we could do with them. If they were removed it would rob students of an experience that could make their time at Cornell much richer,” Lawson said.
Lawson’s primary suggestion to improve the program houses was to work on outreach, since many people think the program houses are self-segregating and would only choose to live in them as a last resort. Lawson said that she believes there needs to be more awareness of the program houses; they are not segregationist in nature and in fact have a lot to offer the outside community that more people need to be made conscious of.
Aviva Horowitz ’10, co-chair of Native American Students at Cornell, said, “There haven’t been large numbers of Natives here and the biggest accomplishment in activism was the building of Akwe:kon. It was a huge stepping point in the history of Native American activism at Cornell. It inspires me.”
Horowitz added that the biggest priority for the Native American community is recognition as there are people who are unaware that there are Natives still alive. Horowitz also said that the University should make an effort to recognize the Iroquois natives remaining in the state — Cornell’s campus was once Cayuga homeland. (The Cayuga tribe is one of the six tribes of the Iroquois confederation). Also, NASAC usually holds an annual pow-wow; however it is not a University event, and the group does not get funding from the University. Due to budget constraints this year, the NASAC was unable to hold the event.
The LGBTQ community has similar issues with its budget and the removal of safe spaces. Although it does not have a specific program house, the LGBT resource center has had its staff reduced from three to one.
“In terms of activism, we’re trying to fight for the administration to allow us to hire at least two people for the community,” said Olivia Tai ’10, president of MOSAIC. “Two people are the minimum to maintain the community because of the sheer number of people it is made up of.”
Tai also said that at the beginning of the semester the LGBT community felt strongly that they were being pushed aside by the administration — even before the economic crisis the community did not have an assistant dean and the student group HAVEN lacked an official advisor, and they felt that the division might be scrapped altogether with the hiring pauses.
Currently the administration and the community have reached an uneasy compromise, where the administration has decided to hire an LGBT director who performs the duties of the assistant dean and HAVEN advisor, but Tai said that the situation was precarious because it would be a lot of work for just one person. Also, there has been no timeline for hiring the LGBT director, and Tai said that the community wants reassurance, preferable in writing, from the administration as to when the position will be filled.
The most pressing problem facing the Asian/Asian American community right now is similarly related to safe spaces; namely, the establishment of the Asian/Asian American Center (A3C). According to Caroline Hugh ’10, A3C committee co-chair, President David Skorton verbally pledged to support the A3C in 2008. The original plans had the center located on central campus in Willard Straight Hall; but due to construction issues, the administration changed the plans so that the center will be on West Campus instead, and there is still no expected date for completion.
“I feel like this project is so small in terms of money and size,” Hugh said. “It costs so little and supports so many people. I really feel frustrated about its progress.”
All of the student leaders from the various minority groups agreed that if the review resulted in negative results for the program houses, the effect on the Cornell community would be devastating, and there would most likely be student (and even alumni) outrage and protests.
“You can’t take away something that students once put their academic and professional careers on the line for and not expect some type of reaction in regards to that,” Pomboza said.