February 7, 2011

Skorton Responds to Africana Backlash

Print More

Amid an ongoing debate regarding the proper position of the Africana Center within the Cornell campus, President David Skorton sat down with The Sun on Friday. The administration announced in December that it would move the center from under the provost’s control to the control of the College of Arts and Sciences Dean.

Sun: The Africana Center announcement was made last semester. Did you expect the kind of backlash that happened on campus, and where do you see it going from here?

President David Skorton: I didn’t view it as a backlash in the sense of something negative. I view this as not a backlash. I view this as a discussion among people who are affected by the decision. Maybe I’ve been doing these kinds of jobs for too long or something, but anything where there’s a very substantial change at a university, the nature of the ethos at a university is people affected by the change are going to raise questions about it.

[A student] asked me yesterday [at the Student Assembly meeting], whats my vision for the future of Africana? What is it going to change? And I told him that the details are going to be worked out by the dean of Arts and Sciences, the director of Africana and the provost. But the three things I said was that they would continue to have this physical manifestation on campus, on Triphammer Road, and it was very important to say that because people have approached me and asked, ‘Is the next shoe to fall going to be that they won’t be in the building  that was developed for them?’ The second is the development of the doctorate program, and the third one is the increase in the faculty complement. And I am going to make sure those three things happen, and the details of exactly what else will happen has got to be up to the people running the day-to day.

I think it is very important that we continue to have dialogue. I expect we will have more dialogue this semester. Since about four years ago, we have been meeting with minority individuals in town. And we meet every three months, four months. The last meeting we had, we had a specific discussion about Africana because the African American community in general, even outside of Cornell, has a right to talk about this and hear about it. I think it’s very healthy to be talking about it. I don’t view anything that’s happened, including the protest that occurred out here, including even the very strong words that were said by people in the protest, I think this is the part of the atmosphere here.

The beauty of this kind of atmosphere is that we can talk to each other. We can listen to each other and keep the dialogue going. The tough part is making the decision work when the decision is not a popular decision. In this kind of austerity, there are going to be a lot of these kinds of decisions, unfortunately. And with these recent state cuts, we have more of these discussions coming up, I’m not sure exactly what they will be.  I wouldn’t use the word ‘backlash.’ It’s a reaction, a very understandable reaction.

Sun: How did you take the charges of institutional racism that came not just from disgruntled students but also from faculty members? How do you see that in the overall dialogue?

D.S.: I know that there is no administrative institutional racism by any design, strategy, policy or tactic. I also know  as a member of a minority group myself, being Jewish, having had circumstances in my life, exclusionary circumstances, it’s possible for racism to be involved in ways that are not reflected by an official policy. Nonetheless, I reject that claim. And the reason I reject it is that the stated objective of the change was to improve the resources at the disposal of the same people who are running the Africana center. No change in leadership of Africana itself  was made, only changes toward increasing resources and delivery of a product, a Ph.D., was made. I don’t believe that institutional racism exists in that regard.

I do believe the climate on campus for underrepresented groups continues to be a challenge, as I would inspire retention issues that the campus has had, not only in students, but in employees, faculty and staff. I don’t know if you buy that, but I think it’s an issue. Whenever you say ‘climate’ somebody can ask, is an underlying factor for the climate issue unspoken institutional racism, and I don’t think it is, but I do think we need to pay attention to the climate in all areas in which a certain group is very heavily underrepresented. And I think that’s true in all areas in which a certain group is very heavily underrepresented and I think that’s true for gender equity in leadership, gender equity in the senior ranks of faculty, racial equity in other areas like that, but I don’t think there’s institutional racism.

One of the other things that was brought up on a couple of occasions is whether it is institutionally racist or paternalistic for us to say what’s better for the Africana community. But the idea of the Ph.D. program and the idea of increasing the faculty complement came from the Africana faculty. They were reinforced by the external consultants in 2005, but they came from the faculty. So, this is a realization of the aspirations of the Africana faculty and students. It’s not something that was decided from the outside.  Putting it under the auspices of a dean is what every other top-ranked Africana program, every single one, not most of them, not 90 percent, but 100 percent of them do.

Sun: Do you have any regrets about the process of it? That was a primary source of criticism.

D.S.: I know that there has been discussion about this the whole time I’ve been president, and I leave it between [Provost Kent Fuchs] and the people who feel that there may have been issues about process  to talk it over. The one assertion I reject is that all of a sudden this came from nowhere because I know that this has been talked about for at least five years.

Sun: You mentioned the issue about the retention of minority students. We ran a story about the Higher Education Opportunity Program numbers at Cornell. The person we quoted from HEOP admitted that this was an issue about recruiting and finding students. How can the University do better?

D.S.: It’s definitely a problem, and there are several administrative changes that are not just pie-in -the-sky, that are happening I think this very year. Its not just that we have some ideas that we will implement someday. There are very substantial changes going on in the way that Office of Minority Education Affairs is staffed and characterized. Specific hires going on right now. The basic response is that we so have a problem and that we have to do better on recruiting.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this interview incorrectly stated that President Skorton, in discussing the process of Africana Center changes, was referring to Dean of Students Kent Hubbell. In fact, Skorton was referring to Provost Kent Fuchs.

Original Author: Sun Staff