September 12, 2012

Cornell Administrators Defend Response to Racial Attack at Sigma Pi Fraternity

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Although some students say the University has not addressed the demands made following a racial attack that occurred on campus in the spring, some administrators said they have found it difficult to address the protesters’ concerns because they were unsigned.

On May 6, an individual unaffiliated with the University threw beer cans and hurled epithets at black students passing by the Sigma Pi fraternity. Following the attack, outraged protesters marched from the fraternity to Day Hall on May 17, presenting a list of 11 demands to Kent Hubbell ’69, dean of students.

The demands included calls to form an “anti-racist joint task force,” require “all faculty and staff to undergo ongoing anti-oppression and social justice trainings” and “take responsibility to end racism and stop putting this responsibility on students.”

Although some students criticized the University for what they saw as its inadequate response, Susan Murphy ’73 Ph.D. ’94, vice president of student and academic services, also stressed the importance of dialogue, saying it would be helpful to know which students administrators should be responding to.

“If I read the list of demands, I can see what they [the demands] are, but it’s tough to know who you’re working with,” Murphy said.

But Anna-Lisa Castle ’13 –– workshop co-chair for the Women of Color Conference, which discusses issues of gender and race –– said the list of demands was intentionally left anonymous “because it was a collective effort.”

“We were clear about what we wanted and the people who were there the day of the demonstration were not anonymous, by any means. We were unanimous,” Castle said.

Furthermore, in the wake of two reported sexual assaults and two bias incidents that have occurred on campus since the incident at Sigma Pi, student leaders said administrators have failed to respond to any of their demands.

Ashley Harrington ’13, an advisory board member for the Women’s Resource Center, said in an email that the University’s response was reactive, not proactive.

“Unfortunately, it has become quite clear that the administration takes reactive measures to save face after bias incidents occur,” she said, referring to the various campus-wide discussions organized by the University after the attacks.

In their list of demands, protesters also asked the University to eliminate the word “diversity” from its lexicon and replace it with “anti-oppression.”

Instead of complying with this demand, the University, Castle said, has kept its focus on diversity, rather than anti-oppression. She said existing programs –– such as the University Diversity Council and the “Intergroup Dialogue Project” –– are not synonymous with the creation of an “anti-oppression task force” or “anti-oppression training,” as the protesters had demanded.

While both the Intergroup Dialogue Project and the University Diversity Council represent instances in which the University reacted to the bias incidents, “these programs do not appear to have anything to do with the demands we put forward,” Castle said.

But Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, said that it would be crucial to look forward on issues rather than concentrate on the word used to express concerns.

While “we can wordsmith all we want,” it is important to focus on “what are we going to do to get people to change, how do we educate people [and] how do we diminish bias and oppression,” Alexander said.

Murphy agreed, saying, “to just have that debate of words … I don’t think is productive.”

Alexander said she is working toward increasing dialogue among student leaders and organizations. On Saturday, she led the first meeting of a leadership roundtable to address the incidents of racial bias and sexual assault that have occurred on campus in recent weeks.

Alexander stressed that students leaders need to devote their efforts to addressing the string of attacks that have occurred on campus.

“We have problems on [campus] that stretch far beyond diversity or Greek [issues],” she said. “Look at the sexual assault problem. We don’t know if it’s one person or two people [out there], but there’s a sense of anxiety on campus among women. So what do leaders have to say about that? What can we do?”

A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity initiatives, who worked to organize the Intergroup Dialogue Project, emphasized the importance of bringing the community together in the wake of such incidents.

“It impacts all of us when these things happen,” he said.

Still, student leaders said they are hoping for more direct action in response to the demands they drafted.

“While these initiatives are perhaps a sign of good faith, the limited reaction that the University has had does not even attempt to disturb the status quo, and it won’t matter how much time or money Cornell spends on ‘diversity initiatives’ until they are willing to do just that,” Castle said in an email.

Harrington agreed, saying that it is crucial for the administration to be proactive in making changes. The administration must try to examine all of its work through an intersectional lens, she said.

“Much of the senior administration comes from a place of social privilege, and they have failed to unpack that,” she said.

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee