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.”   

  • SixthAmendment

    I have to object on several counts to a mandatory diversity class for all incoming students.

    1. The idea that already packed curriculums can support an additional requirement that is irrelevant to most fields of study is simply false.

    2. The increased funding required to allow all students to fulfill a university wide diversity requirement would be fairly high. Tuition is rising steadily each year and there are efforts underway to limit the investments that can be made with the endowment reducing possible investment income. This requirement would be a very poor appropriation of funds

    3. There is very strong evidence that a course fulfilling such a requirement would be intolerant of dissenting opinions. For example, consider a course that teaches that wearing certain Halloween costumes is racist. If a student disagrees and writes a paper to that affect, will they be punished for disagreeing with the instructor? I would withdraw this objection if there were courses available that demonstrably allowed disagreement with the instructor.

    4. The requirement is being suggested presumably as a way to remedy ‘accidental racism’ such as so called micro aggressions. I claim that most of the incidents people have been complaining about at Cornell are either things that aren’t actually racist or more rarely instances of intentional racism. The diversity requirement would do nothing to address the later type of racism and attempt to shame people for having views that aren’t progressive enough in an attempt to ‘fix’ the former.

    We are getting dangerously close to a campus that actively punishes dissenting opinions. The diversity requirement would likely force students who hold these views to either lie about them in coursework or accept a penalty in form of a poor grade. We cannot allow this

    • Don

      Whether or not a racist act is intentional or not doesn’t matter – the effect on the person affronted is what matters and a lesson in diversity would teach that. Certain Halloween costumes are racist and insensitive – that’s not debatable. Freedom comes with responsibility – use it wisely, and not as an excuse to insult and marginalize.

      • Batista

        No. Under your theory if someone decides wearing blue jeans affronts them because slaves had to pick cotton, then we could be forced to stop wearing jeans. Which costumes are offensive and who decides? Also it is debatable. Only fascist and socialist tyrants believe opinions are not debatable. You do not want lessons in diversity you want indoctrination into your beliefs. This is not an internment camp for reeducation. We reject you thought police agenda. Lenin came to power on the backs of ignorant students like you then took away everyone’s rights. The road to hell and totalitarian states is paved with good intentions and it always starts with the little things.

  • SixthAmendment

    As another point, “eradicating hateful speech” cannot mean restricting free speech. It is very very disturbing to me that many people define offensive speech as “hateful speech” and want it eradicated. Offensive speech must be protected

    • CUAlum13

      “There are always going to be people who will use freedom of expression to behave uncivil ways and hateful ways.”

      It is important, to me, that Garrett rightfully classifies hateful speech as protected expression. Yes, we should all do our part to object to ideas we see as detrimental to building a community, but those ideas are still ideas — and therefore are protected expression.

      A university like Cornell that receives public money and governmental support must necessarily avoid banning certain forms of expression simply because the ideas are objectionable to many people.

    • Old Man McCloud

      Stomping on or burning the U.S. flag is offensive also, but the courts have ruled time and again that it’s “free speech”. I see it done frequently overseas, but that’s to be expected. In the USA? I say head overseas you poor thing…see what it’s like living over there before you complain.

      The same goes for those who may feel offended by someone’s actions or words. You have to keep your distance from fools who throw spears, act crazy, or can’t be civil. Just LEAVE.

      When I arrived at CU my Irish Catholic roomy was dating an Italian girl…his grandmother wouldn’t speak to him. WHAT?? This didn’t compute. The two guys across the hall: one went to Choate, the other to Phillips Exeter*. The guys in the room next door were Jewish (and so were others). I’d never met a Jewish person before. Surprise! *I went to Longfellow High.

      ~~ Things as far as diversity have REALLY changed since then, I don’t think there’s much room for complaint, especially if it’s just a FEW folks with nothing else to do. Diversity training? Save that for your first job or take it online. No one will give you any credit for the course – sorta like “stupid study”.

  • Parent ’18

    As the full pay parent of a sophomore, I have to say that as far as I can see, there is plenty of diversity at Cornell. There are plenty of Chinese, Indians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hispanics of many countries, etc. There are also large number of academically superior students that are too poor to attend without financial aid (no complaints there). The reality is that all of this complaining is about the lack of Blacks on campus. Perhaps this has far more to do with the fact that there are empirically too few qualified Black applicants to even fill top tier Ivies like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, let alone a large University like Cornell. Even a 350 point SAT bump is not enough for these complainers. How many of these brats are even paying a fraction of Cornell’s retail sticker price of $65,000/year? It is beyond outrageous that they would demand a diversity requirement (and it’s additional cost burden) for a campus so already incredibly diverse!

  • Professor

    As a white male professor, I feel very unwanted at Cornell. I am not alone, almost all of my friends feel the same. Also the black and the asian fell unwanted. And why it is? Because we do not look at people anymore, we only care about their “label”. Stop looking at labels, look at people. Not two people are the same. The fact that we are put in “boxes” to define diversity is so wrong.