November 19, 2015

Students: Garrett Was Silent on Racial Protests

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This is the second story of a two-part series.

“When other universities across the nation were dealing with racial issues, you didn’t speak on their behalf,” a student accused President Elizabeth Garrett at a Tuesday evening forum addressing problems facing Cornell’s students of color. “This week you spoke in solidarity with the people of France, a country all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, yet here in the United States, you couldn’t stand in solidarity.”

Many other students also expressed their frustration that Garrett has not spoken publicly on behalf of those protesting racial inequities on college campuses across the nation at the meeting with Garrett and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, facilitated by Black Students United in Ujamaa Residential College.

In response to students who said they felt betrayed and unsupported by Cornell, Garrett explained that she prefers to have discussions with students rather than making “a series of statements.”

“It will be my policy to make fewer presidential statements than have happened in the past,” Garrett said. “I think it is more beneficial for me to listen to you, to work with you. … I agree with you that I could have taken a different path. My not making a statement does not mean that I do not care about how these issues affect our students.”

Garrett explained that she made a statement about the terrorist attacks in Paris because the events directly affected Cornellians living or working in the city and their loved ones on Ithaca’s campus.

Students replied that the racial tensions on other college campuses have also affected them deeply, and thus deserve to be addressed by the administration. Some singled out the recent violent detainment of a Latino Dartmouth student at Brown University during the 10th Annual Latinx Ivy League Conference as a particularly distressing incident, which personally affected a group of Cornellians also attending the conference.

“As a Latina student, as someone who is undocumented, as someone who has been deathly afraid of police, when a student of my ethnicity is attacked by police on a different campus, and our administration doesn’t make any form of public statement, that cuts me deep,” one student said.

The student added that she has struggled emotionally since the incident, feeling “not just upset, but hurt.”

“I was in tears, not able to explain that I’m undocumented and that that’s why I’m shedding these tears — and my administration isn’t supporting me publicly?” the student asked.

Garrett said she appreciated students sharing their stories with her, and expressed her regret that some had found her response lacking.

“I want to have a world in which we can have these discussions and people don’t feel that I’ve opined from above,” she said. “But I understand what you’re saying — there’s a symbolism to [making a public statement]. There’s a level of support in that. That’s helpful for me to hear.”

Ben Hernandez ’16, who attended the conference at Brown, called the University’s failure to respond to the incident there, which he said affected Cornellians, deeply disappointing.

“On the behalf of the Cornell delegation, I wanted to express to you our dissatisfaction with your lack of response, especially because we were traumatized in this experience,” he said. “The fact that you didn’t reach out to us to make sure we were okay was disheartening.”

While Garrett assured students that she was constantly being updated on the safety of all Cornellians during the incident at Brown, she expressed regret that students did not feel supported in the aftermath of the event.

“I’m sorry you didn’t feel supported by me — you are supported,” she said. “It is a very difficult thing to have that happen around you.”

Hernandez said Cornell’s administration must go beyond doing “just enough” to fully ensure the well-being of all students affected by such racial incidents.

“It’s more meaningful when the President reaches down and says, ‘My students are struggling,’” he said. “You can empathize with that.”

Garrett ensured students attending the discussion that their views will always be treated with respect and suggested that she is open to potentially reconsidering her policy on public statements are she continues to talk with students.

“What you have is my commitment that you will always be heard by my and my administration, you always will have a supporter and to the extent that has not been communicated I regret that,” she said.

After the forum, Hernandez expressed his appreciation that Garrett was willing to listen to students concerns and expressed hope that an open dialogue between students and the president will continue.

“I’m glad that President Garrett listens, I can feel the compassion in her and see that she very much wants to hear us,” he said. “But other schools are moving a lot faster, so I think we need to keep having these discussions. She said this won’t be the last of these talks and I hope it isn’t.”