November 17, 2015

Garrett Meets With Black Students at Ujamaa

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This is the first story of a two-part series. Read the second story here, on President Elizabeth Garrett’s response to student accusations of silence regarding racial issues. 

Addressing over 100 students in Ujamaa Residential College, President Elizabeth Garrett and vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi discussed the potential for a University-wide diversity course requirement, the need to increase Cornell’s diversity and racial tensions on college campuses around the country.

“It seemed like a particularly appropriate time to come and talk to you all,” Garrett said. “We’re here to talk about about the things we’re doing now and what new things we ought to be doing to make sure this is a campus that lives up to our ideals of diversity and inclusion.”

Garrett said she received the letter of demands delivered by Black Students United Tuesday, and assured the group that she would respond to their requests by next Monday, the day requested in the letter. Stressing that she believes it is important to cultivate an atmosphere of empathy for students of color, Garrett also said she understands it is different “to live the life than to empathize.”

“Some of you know I clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall,” she said. “I remember once he told me that he never had to look down at his hand to know he was an African American in this country, and that’s always kind of stuck with me. I want to hear from your lived experiences.”

Diversity Requirement

During the discussion, a student suggested that Cornell implement a mandatory diversity course for all incoming students, similar to the way in which the University currently requires freshman writing seminars and swim tests.

“You would think the President could just say that’s what we’re going to do,” Garrett responded. “There is no ability at the current time to have University-wide curriculum requirements. Each college sets its own requirements.”

However, she said the provost is also starting a strategic planning committee to reevaluate this policy.

“We will do everything we can to make sure you know how those processes work. I will not have things die because it just got too confusing,” she said. “I think we need to continue to talk about how to move forward on that and figure out how we feel about a University-wide requirement. I want to be very transparent on this.”

Faculty and Staff Diversity

A student suggested that faculty’s reluctance to embrace a diversity requirement may be due to lack of racial diversity on campus.

“It’s great for you all to be working with us, but there’s very little diversity in the higher administration at Cornell and at all levels including faculty,” the student said. “Until we address those issues, we’re going to continue struggle with pushing through this diversity requirement.”

Garrett stressed that Cornell’s faculty shares a commitment to diversity and inclusion, advising students to make a “common cause” with the faculty. She also said faculty diversity changes more gradually than that of the student body because there are fewer new faculty members added each year.

“We have been working very hard on increasing the diversity of the faculty,” Garrett said. “We’ll share those numbers with you, I think we’ve made some gains on that.”

Lombardi also said he prioritizes diversity in his search for new staff members.

“I have already told my staff to never bring me a candidate pool that’s not a diverse pool,” Lombardi said. “I will reject it straight out if that’s the case.”

Several students also expressed concerns about the University’s failure to retain minority faculty members.

“When you attract one of these great faculty members, you want them to be with you for their career,” Garrett said. “I think retention is an enormous part of this. We need to emphasize mentorship and support for professors of color.”

She conceded that faculty of different ethnicities face various challenges and said administrators must adopt “nuanced” means of supporting faculty members.

Racial Tensions on Campuses

Speaking about the eruption of racial tensions on various college campuses, Garrett said she sees the role of the University as eradicating hateful speech “through reason, through empathy, through grace [and] through bravery.”    

“There are always going to be people who will use freedom of expression to behave uncivil ways and hateful ways, in ways that as a community that we would not support,” she said. “I think that’s where it’s important for all of our voices to be heard, to ensure that the words that are hurtful that reflect bias or ignorance are combatted not just by persons of color but by the community.”

Garrett said she is committed to the success of students of color at Cornell and assured students that a productive dialogue would continue, telling students, “I do not want you to feel disempowered.”

Shanice Maxwell ’17 said she was gratified that Garrett is committing to continuing the conversation, but said she is sick of hearing, “there will be more discussions.”

“President Skorton used that line often and I just really want to see action,” she said. “Our community plans on following up with her and Vice President Lombardi as well. We have no problem holding them accountable for any actions they take or fail to take.”