September 17, 2013

EDITORIAL: Fair and Feasible Diversity Initiatives

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At the very end of the spring semester, the Student Assembly approved a piece of legislation that may have gone unnoticed by some in the Cornell community: Resolution 45, or “United Student Body.” The resolution will soon require every group registered with the Student Activities Office to create and execute a diversity inclusion plan — or possibly lose recognition as a campus organization. Though the philosophical basis for United Student Body is sound, we wholeheartedly disapprove of this threat, and we question whether the plan will be able to achieve its intended goal.

The United Student Body plan asserts that although the majority of campus leaders would like to see their organizations become more diverse, they are often unequipped with the necessary resources or know-how to effect that change. It is certainly within the power, and even duty, of the S.A. to guide leaders toward that end. By offering organizations a clear framework for how to implement diversity initiatives, the Assembly has indicated a desire to elevate their role from cheerleaders to active agents in the push to diversify student life.

But despite the positive nature of the initiative, we have serious lingering concerns with its substance. United Student Body contains language that does not merely encourage groups to adopt diversity inclusion plans — it threatens punitive action if they fail to do so. The new S.A. Organizational Review Subcommittee will have the authority to recommend revocation of a group’s status as a student organization if it does not establish a diversity inclusion plan. We agree with President David Skorton who, in his June 18 response to Resolution 45, wrote: “While it is true that the S.A. has legislative authority pertaining to many student organizations and activities, I think the resolution overstates the authority of the S.A. vis-a-vis the Student Activities Office.” The S.A. would be overstepping its bounds if it punished noncompliant groups by revoking their SAO recognition — even if they did so only “under extremely rare circumstances,” as the resolution insists would be the case.

Skorton also pushed the S.A. to evaluate “how realistic it is to implement all of the monitoring and training involved in the plan.” With nearly 1,000 registered student groups on campus, according to the SAO website, we too wonder whether the S.A. can feasibly oversee the development of meaningful diversity inclusion plans for each and every organization. During this first year of phased implementation of United Student Body, only byline-funded groups and those that receive top-tier SAFC funding will be subject to the new requirement. Perhaps the requirement should remain limited to these organizations, which receive substantial funding with the expectation that they will provide a service to the broader Cornell community.

As the S.A. begins to roll out United Student Body this year, we hope it will reconsider enforcing diversity inclusion plans as a blanket requirement. We believe it would be more effective to focus on groups who elect to undertake diversity reform, as well as those who are expected to be inclusive of the entire campus. It would seem inefficient to force it upon all groups regardless of their size, mission or existing level of diversity.