May 10, 2012

At Forum, Students Demand Improved Race Relations at Cornell

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Students and faculty expressed deeply-entrenched frustrations about the administration’s handling of racial issues at a forum held Wednesday that brought together approximately 200 members of the Cornell community.

The forum was held in response to an incident that occurred at the Sigma Pi fraternity on Sunday morning, in which a person or group of people on the roof of the fraternity reportedly threw bottles and other objects at black students who were walking by the house. Sigma Pi was placed on interim suspension Tuesday, and the incident is currently being investigated by police.

Prof. N’Dri Assie-Lumumba, Africana studies, said that the administration has often employed “damage control politics,” adding that its responses to racial incidents have not been adequate.

Though the event was held in response to the controversy, it proved a venue for the airing of other grievances.

Africana studies professors at the forum also criticized the administration for not including them in major decision-making processes, pointing to the decision made in December 2010 to merge Africana into the College of Arts and Sciences.

Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, Africana studies and English, likened the incident at Sigma Pi to the way that professors in the Africana department are typically treated by the University.

“Symbolically, we are thrown bottles by the institution itself,” Boyce Davies said.

After the forum, Catherine Jung ’13 said that the event deepened her frustration with the administration, saying that the administrators’ responses at the forum were “about damage control” and that the administration failed to listen and only defended itself.

Kunbi Adefule grad agreed, saying that although she has been to forums like this before, “a lot of the time the administration says that they are going to do something, but they never carry it out.”

When Omar Figueredo grad asked for a more concrete evidence that the administration prioritizes ethnic studies programs and hiring of faculty of color, Provost Kent Fuchs said that the University spends two million dollars hiring faculty of color “for my office in this broad area to arts college.”

When Figueredo responded, “two million dollars, what is that, two faculty members?” Fuchs said that it was two million dollars per year, and that “that is a lot of faculty.”

When Courtney Knapp grad asked what the university was doing to make “substantive, actual policy and practice changes,” Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic initiatives, responded with a list of initiatives under way — including the “fundamental restructuring of the office of academic diversity initiatives” and “initiatives … for first generation students.”

Some students at the forum also raised concerns that the incident that occurred at Sigma Pi was not an isolated occurrence.

Karin Zhu ’12, vice president of external affairs for the Cornell Asian Pacific Islander Student Union, cited examples of racism she has encountered on campus.

Questioning the structure of the Greek system, Zhu also claimed that “there’s very, very few minorities” in “the highest ranking sororities.”

“Where are the priorities? Do we matter?” Zhu said.

“Of course you matter. All communities on campus matter,” Murphy said in response.

In order for the Greek system to remain relevant to the University, however, Murphy said it must adapt to “represent what the student body looks like.”

Other students said that the incident that occurred at Sigma Pi was symptomatic of issues affecting more than just the Greek system.

As Karim Abouelnaga ’13, co-president of Black Students United, recounted the events of the incident, he said “the incident was not a Greek or, more broadly speaking, a Sigma Pi issue.”

Following Abouelnaga, Sigma Pi President Zach Smith ’13 told the audience that the fraternity “offers the sincerest apology for the terrible incident that happened last weekend.”

“We don’t condone in any way what went on,” Smith said. “We’re all here tonight to listen and learn from the conversation that will be had.”

Sheri Notaro, associate dean for inclusion and personal development, said she hoped the forum would create an opportunity for “the entire community to come together” and to brainstorm suggestions on “how to move forward” so that all members of the community can feel safe and included.

Ava Post ’13 said that although the forum was limited because there were overwhelmingly more minorities than white students attending, it was nonetheless productive.

“We have to start somewhere,” she said.

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee