Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Dr. Renee Alexander, new senior advisor to the dean, described her vision for Cornell's diversity initiatives.

September 28, 2017

Advisor to Dean Details New Diversity Initiatives After Assault

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While recent events involving incidents of bias and discrimination have propelled the University to release plans for “diversity initiatives,” many students are looking for clarification of how diversity training would take shape.

Dr. Renee Alexander ’74, recently promoted to senior advisor to the dean, provided a clearer vision to The Sun of the University’s plans.

Alexander said the University’s diversity initiative, “Towards New Destinations,” looks at four critical areas: composition, engagement, inclusion and achievement. An in-depth look into these areas distinguishes Cornell’s plan from most diversity initiatives.

“Most diversity initiatives start with composition: the structure of the demographic,” she said, “That’s very easy to assess: it’s called enrollment figures. How many of whom do we have sitting in our classrooms?”

In her new role, Alexander hopes to push these diversity initiatives toward inclusion and engagement. In fact, she identifies the main hurdle that students of color face on campus as a lack of feeling included.

“Historically, when you take a look at satisfaction with the student experience, students of color do not have the same intensity of warmth,” she said. “So, what’s going on in the environment that we need to be working on? It’s that sense of inclusion.”

She hopes to combat this perceived isolation through “authentic forms of engagement,” addressing the issue primarily through new channels of dialogue because “the way to break down barriers is to get people talking to each other,” she said.

New-hire Marla Love, set to begin in mid-October as senior associate dean for diversity and equity, echoed Alexander’s sentiment with her plans for increased engagement.

“I and others on my team will work closely with students to promote and create third spaces where students, who are not always in the same spaces, can engage honestly to encourage community transformation,” she said.

Alexander also pointed to the social divisions between races on campus, identifying this lack of casual communication as a contributor to the problem.

“If you look around, you see, what I call the default setting … social groups and friend groups can be by race,” she said. “That’s just one thing that contributes to the racial and social structure of our campus.”

She also highlighted biases and prejudices as obstacles that needed to be addressed.

“A real component of the work that we need to be doing is finding ways for people to challenge their own preconceived notions,” she said.

One such method that can encourage communication and engagement is integration of workshops. Cornell Woodson, ILR’s associate director for diversity and inclusion, facilitates and leads many of these workshops.

The main goal of the exercises in his workshops, Woodson explained, is to engage people in the conversation.

“I am really big on people seeing themselves in diversity,” he said. “Most of the time, people don’t want to do training because they don’t see themselves in that conversation.”

So far, the response to his trainings has been overwhelmingly positive.

“You have the stereotypical person. They’re required to be here. They really don’t want to be here, and you can read it all over their body language,” he said. “By the time I’m done with my workshop, that same person is laughing and engaging.”

In addition to these workshops, Alexander thinks there needs to be a “strong educational component,” suggesting a mandatory first-year program in the resident halls.

Commitment to coalition-building serves an equally important role to diversity initiatives, Alexander said. This requires making the silent majority speak up.

“The silent majority [on campus] are white students who are appalled by these behaviors. I don’t think these behaviors typify the average white student on our campus,” she said. “So, [the question is]: is there a role for you in helping us?”

Alexander believes that this emphasized focus on inclusion and engagement will eventually “lead to achievement.”

“We are going to find a way to leverage the wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary diversity of Cornell University,” she said. “I hear it all the time, ‘I came to Cornell because of the diversity.’ I want us to live up to those aspirations and expectations.”