Dean of Students candidate Vijay Pendakur laid out his vision for inclusive diversity dialogue at an open forum Friday, stressing that he would be a dean for “all students,” and accommodate different opinions on minority issues.
Pendakur described his path to Cornell, saying his immigrant parents’ move from India to Chicago was critical to the formation of his worldview. He also remembered growing up in faculty housing at Northwestern University, where his father was a junior faculty member.
“[Time in Chicago] was an important part of my story, and part of what draws me to this opportunity at Cornell,” he said. “So many of my formative years were spent in such an intellectually rich … environment, like Cornell. If we hadn’t moved, I probably wouldn’t be standing in front of you, interviewing for this role or doing the work that I do today.”
Pendakur listed three mottos that he said would be integral to his work at Cornell — “relationships make the world go around,” “social justice work is a marathon and not a sprint” and “keep students at the center, always.”
“Students are out in front of us on a lot of these issues,” Pendakur said. “I am able to learn from my students, about the rapidly-evolving nature of trans-inclusion politics that they’re better at than me. It’s an inspiring and powerful moment, when I can listen and learn, by keeping students at the center.”
Pendakur also presented a few concrete plans on how he would propose to improve student centers, prepare Cornell’s graduates to enter the workforce and improve campus climate.
He stressed that advocacy and resource centers must work collaboratively with students, rather than working “for” them. He also suggested helping recently graduated students prepare for life after college and spoke about the need to elevate dialogue on campus inclusion.
Pendakur stressed that he would consider all students when make decisions as dean, noting that his role would extend beyond aiding minority students.
“If I say ‘The dean’s focus area is diversity and inclusion,’ the unspoken thought in many people’s minds is ‘Oh, so he’s here for only the marginalized students,’” he explained. “So we have to undo that, because that is a deeply problematic framework. If we’re going to fix this, it’s got to be everyone’s conversation.”
Julia Montejo ’17, vice president for diversity of inclusion, expressed concerns about Pendakur’s approach of including all members of the community in a discussion about issues of diversity and inclusion.
“I’d like to hear more on how that kind of approach and philosophy still puts the concerns of minority students, students of color, underrepresented students, LGBTQ-identifying students and students with disabilities at the forefront,” Montejo said. “Underrepresented students feel really afraid to speak up and oftentimes those with more privilege in the room are more likely to take up more vocal and physical space.”
Pendakur responded by explaining that his approach to diversity dialogue is nuanced and aims to balance the virtues of including all community members in discussions and ensuring that marginalized members feel their voices are heard.
“There is a deep need to have this dialogue in spaces where dominant group members are not, because that is one face of the dialogue that has to happen,” he said. “There are [also] really important needs for the dialogue just with dominant group members in the room.”
Pendakur was the first of three finalists to hold an open forum for the position of Dean of Students. The next forum will take place on Monday.