March 11, 2013

In Diversity Push, Cornell Outlines Goals for Colleges

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More than a year after President David Skorton announced he would implement a set of diversity initiatives across Cornell, the University Diversity Council has revised the goals this month to include an assessment of their impact to date on various colleges and departments.

As part of the diversity push, which is called “Toward New Destinations,” individual colleges, professional schools and units across the University are each addressing challenges specific to their respective departments. Prof. Laura Brown, English, vice provost for undergraduate education, co-chair of the UDC, said the modifications to the initiatives now seek to determine which goals have proved the most “workable and achievable” during the past year.

“We had intended all along to revise [the initiatives] every year,” Brown said. “Since last year was a year when people were proposing the initiatives, we needed to have a different kind of goal this year.”

The updated initiatives, Brown said, provide specific examples of how engagement and inclusion could be implemented on a college or departmental level.

For instance, to satisfy the goal of engagement, the revised plan suggests that each college appoint one faculty member to encourage underrepresented faculty members to attend activities offered by the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, which provides resources and training for faculty members on diversity issues. To improve inclusion –– an area Brown said focuses on bettering interpersonal relationships –– the new goals encourage faculty to participate in an annual training session focused on issues of gender, race, ethnicity and disability.

Moving forward, Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, who is a member of the UDC, said the UDC hopes to make grant money available to colleges and units that might require additional funds to meet their diversity goals.

“We are encouraging people to take on the hard stuff,” she said. “Some of that might not be possible without help. We’d like to help them realize the goals of whatever they’re working on.”

Alexander also emphasized that some of the proposed initiatives may require years to reach their fruition.

“We constantly remind ourselves that this is a marathon and not a sprint,” Alexander said. “We knew that coming out of the starting block …  we had to allow ourselves room to modify and tweak and we moved forward.”

Alexander pointed to the goal within the Division of Student and Academic Services to increase the retention of black males at Cornell, who have a 75-percent graduation rate within six years –– a figure she called “unacceptable.”

“In order to really craft a meaningful initiative, one has to take a look at the source [and] the root of the problem, and that’s a multifaceted, multi-layered answer,” Alexander said. “We are going to stick to it, [but] we are going to be very realistic. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Brown said the UDC will meet with the individual diversity councils of colleges and units on Wednesday to continue its assessment of the efficacy of the diversity initiatives.

“We’re excited to learn more about what they’ve been doing,” Brown said. “That will be a chance for them to demonstrate their progress to us and for us to provide our own input on what’s been going on.”

The revised initiatives also include updated definitions of two of the areas of focus: engagement and inclusion. While the plan also targets the composition and achievement of underrepresented minorities on campus, Brown said engagement and inclusion of these groups on campus is a concept that is often difficult to quantify.

“When you talk about achievement, [it’s] more straightforward,” she said. “For instance, for a faculty member, it’s about tenure. For a student, it’s about good grades or graduating on time. But … engagement and inclusion … are a little harder to define in a straightforward way. They’re a little harder to measure.”

“We want people to understand those [goals of engagement and inclusion] are equally valid,” Brown said. “We want the diversity councils to think about their own college and their own unit and what’s most likely to be work best there.”

Alexander also said that individual colleges and units should work toward implementing the goals of Toward New Destinations in a way that best suits their specific needs.

“There is a lot of room for personalizing these initiatives,” she said. “The importance of having a document that evolves is very, very important. We want people to feel comfortable doing this. We don’t want people to resent having to do it.”

Original Author: Kerry Close