Students argued with administrators over the state of ethnic and identity based programs during a meeting on Monday. Dissatisfied with how Arts and Sciences dean Gretchen Ritter ’83 responded to their demands, many students walked out of the meeting early and described her answers as “dodging the question.” At the meeting, Ritter and Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur addressed the concerns of over 100 students and faculty who are frustrated over the lack of funding and institutional support for these programs.
At the start of the meeting, Emily Dong ’18 read the primary demands that students compiled for Ritter and the College of Arts and Sciences on behalf of programs including Asian American Studies; Latino/a Studies; Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.
The five demands are: creating University-wide interdisciplinary majors for each ethnic studies program; establishing the programs as individual Cornell departments; increasing the number of tenure-track lines for faculty; renewing the search for more program tenure-track faculty; and increasing student representation on departmental committees.
Pendakur acknowledged that the students and administration both at Cornell and at other universities are in a “low trust situation,” but assured that rumors that the administration wants to remove cultural and identity centers on campus are a “misconception.”
“I hope we can have a campus culture where we can build trust and relationships and think about how we can deepen the impact of our cultural and identity programs,” he said.
After students read the demands, Ritter responded by first saying that there have not been “any targeted cuts to these programs,” and added that this does not mean the college “can’t aspire to do more for the programs.”
In response to the demand for creating University-wide interdisciplinary majors, Ritter said that while there are “no barriers or constraints” for creating new majors in these areas, Cornell does not currently have a mechanism for creating any major that is university-wide.
There is, however, potential to create a cross-college set of majors or minors, which is what Cornell is doing for a “new major in an area of environmental science and sustainability which we are doing jointly with CALS,” Ritter said.
When one student questioned why Ritter was choosing to fund programs in environmental science and sustainability — which already has funding from CALS — over ethnic studies programs, Ritter said that the funding for the programs were not in competition.
“I’m not choosing to fund it over these programs,” she said.
“It’s our job at the end of year when we get hiring requests, as we always do, from all these programs and departments, to try to figure out how we can maximize the benefit to as many areas of need in the college as possible,” Ritter said in response to a question regarding faculty lines.
In response to Prof. Kathleen Long, romance studies, who spoke about the consistent cutting of searches and faculty in the FGGS department, Ritter said that there are “many superb scholars that you would not be able to recruit, in other areas such as history, if you only gave them an appointment in gender studies.”
“How do you maximize your relationship with faculty who have lines in other programs?” she continued. “One thing we would like to do to strengthen that relationship is help to draw understanding and agreements with departments about what commitments their faculty in these areas have towards this program. You can have much broader impact beyond solely lines.”
Prof. Kate McCullough, English, who is a FGSS joint faculty member, responded to Ritter that having faculty who are in directly and exclusively in the program is different than drawing from faculty in other programs.
“We need strong programs to have an excellent university, we have to support faculty lines within programs,” she said, to applause from audience members.
When a student said that joint faculty was diminishing ethnic studies programs, Ritter disagreed.
When asked about budget cuts to ethnic studies programs, Ritter denied that the college has made any specific program cuts.
“We have had at the college-wide level a decrease in overall operating budget and so all of our programs have been asked to use more of their reserves and reduce level of budget by common small amount,” she said. “That been true for everything from physics through these programs in a way that has been modest and equal across all programs.”
When one student asserted that the budget was always an excuse to get rid of programs, Ritter reiterated that there have been no specific cuts to these programs, but cuts to the college as a whole.
“I feel like you’re defending why certain decisions are being made,” Dong said to Ritter. “I’m not interested in why you or the college made certain decisions. I’m interested in what you are going to do. What is the future of these programs?”
“Part of my job is to tend to the needs of all our departments and our programs with the resources we have,” Ritter said, adding that allocation of resources is also dependent on student interest.
“The degree that courses have higher enrollment, it makes a difference in my ability to direct resources like T.A.s or course numbers and my ability to make arguments and claims to broader university about a need to provide us with more support,” she continued.
Dong responded that the belief that putting resources into ethnic studies program is taking away from other departments is a “weird rhetoric,” adding that the College of Arts and Sciences fails to prioritize these programs.
“I feel like you’re not making tangible steps for these programs,” she told Ritter. “How are enrollment numbers going to go up if there aren’t any courses offered?”
“I don’t blame you for feeling frustrated,” Ritter responded. “I know you don’t like conversation about economics and budgets but I’m trying to share with you realities in terms of looking at this from where I sit. I also have to think about how programs in other areas of college have also had empty lines for years.”
“I am going to do what I think I am continuing to do,” Ritter added. “I’m going to support these programs to the best of my ability within the budget I’ve got.”
One student, Jocelyn Vega ’17, then read a statement saying that “everything Cornell has shown so far is that you don’t value us these programs and our futures,” and that “our histories and narratives exist simply within your little budget,” drawing a resounding applause from the audience.
The conversation was “not going anywhere,” Dong said, adding that Ritter was not taking steps to meet students’ demands.
Dong announced that she was leaving, and after a round of applause, over half of the audience left too. Dean Ritter remained in the room to answer more questions from remaining students and faculty.
After the exit, Jeremiah Kim ’19 said that it was not fair that it took the “onus of students” to organize and publicize the event, and that the discussion did not take place on behalf of the “generosity of the administration.”
“We actually invited you all after rally,” Ritter responded. “We invited people to talk. It’s not fair to say we’re [the administration] not being responsive and trying to participate in a dialogue with you.”