October 27, 2014

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT: Encouraging Dialogue Addressing Our Campus Climate

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By ROSS GITLIN

The Class of 2018 is our University’s most diverse class yet. Fifty-one percent of the class is female, 42 percent identify as students of color and 10 percent are international students hailing from countries across the globe. As Cornell becomes increasingly diverse, however, it is crucial that we continue to reflect upon our progress and ask ourselves: What are we doing to ensure that every person feels supported on our campus?

One way in which we measure how supported each student feels is through the Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences Survey. Every other spring semester, the PULSE survey asks students to describe themselves on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race and citizenship, disability status, religious affiliation, political views and socio-economic background. We learn from a 2013 report by Cornell Institutional Research and Planning that based on the results of our latest PULSE survey,“students who identify with historically less represented groups have more negative perceptions of the climate for diversity [when compared to] their peers.”

Such perceptions can, in turn, affect the health and well-being of our friends and classmates, and may impact academic and personal success. For example, in the 2013 PULSE survey, students were asked: “During the last year, how many times were you unable to function academically (e.g., missing classes, unable to study or complete homework) for at least a week due to depression, stress or anxiety?” In reviewing answers based on race and citizenship, 33 percent of white respondents answered that they were unable to function academically for at least one week due to depression, stress or anxiety, compared to 51 percent of underrepresented minorities and 49 percent of international respondents.

This is a problem we need to address. We must continue to analyze the implications behind these statistics in order to maximize each student’s capacity to excel academically. We can begin to alleviate these mental health discrepancies, together, through developing an even more inclusive and supportive campus, as every student should have an equal opportunity to succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

Today, Cornell maintains a steadfast commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion, as well as providing support services in an effort to improve the health and well-being of our community. The administration, students, staff and faculty are working diligently daily to address these pressing issues. Whether it be at 626 Thurston: The Center for Intercultural Dialogue through their Breaking Bread Program or the Intergroup Dialogue Project, which bring people together to discuss issues across difference; at Gannett Health Services through their Let’s Talk program that provides informal walk-in hours with health professionals across campus or inside Willard Straight Hall through various student-led programs, including Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service and Minds Matter, we are continuously seeking new ways to advance the success of every student.

Still, as a university community, in my opinion, we need to do more. It is critical for us to continue to assess our progress in this important area of student life. Though there’s no easy answer, by gathering opinions and collaborating with one another, we can move towards a solution that works best for our campus. We all know a friend, a classmate or have experienced challenges ourselves, which further informs us of the importance of this work. We all need to participate in this conversation. With this in mind, I will be hosting a series of meetings throughout the next semester with various student organizations to encourage dialogue and to learn more.

I am seeking input from every student. I am eager to hear your thoughts and suggestions about what we could be doing better. What policies or programs do you feel ought to be established to further advance our goals?

Ross Gitlin is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the undergraduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at rhg68@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.