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The GPSA Diversity and International Student Committee discussed Cornell's campus climate following multiple racial incidents on campus.

October 5, 2017

Graduate Students Highlight Diversity Issues at Cornell

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The GPSA Diversity and International Student Committee gathered graduate and professional students to discuss Cornell’s campus climate following multiple racial incidents — including the alleged assault of a black student in Collegetown — and the lack of involvement from University departments on issues of hate speech and violence on campus.

Students said that only one STEM professor was part of the faculty coalition that organized last week’s Take a Knee protest, where hundreds of professors, staff, students and locals took to the Arts Quad to kneel in solidarity with professional athletes and Cornell students who have been protesting violence against black Americans in Ithaca and around the country.

The STEM department’s lack of involvement in the protest reflects the department’s general silence on issues of race and diversity on campus, students said.

“Departments like Latina/o Studies, Africana Studies, American Indian and Indigenous Studies, and Asian American Studies should not be the only departments engaging with these issues,” Stephen Kim, grad, said. “STEM seems to consider itself separate from issues of race, gender and oppression.”

Students were also frustrated about the administration’s lack of compensation for graduate students who feel burdened with addressing issues of race and oppression within their respective departments.

“They should either provide compensation for grad students, or find professionals who have been trained extensively themselves and feel committed to offering this training to people across departments,” Kim said.

Graduate students who do spend time working on diversity within their fields are often discouraged from doing so by department faculty, despite these department’s simultaneous advertising to recruit diversity, students said.

The Presidential Task Force that President Martha Pollack is convening — which will address problems bigotry and intolerance at Cornell — must also consider the limitations of diversity discourse, Jesse Goldberg, grad, said. Diversity training, he added, must also teach students that differences are mediated through power rather than the “mere fact of difference.”

“At Cornell, there has been a concentration on diversity as cultural competency,” Goldberg said. “We cannot equate the protecting of conservative students from saying things that we know are racist and problematic to protecting people who are marginalized because of their race, sex and gender.”

Some students raised concerns about the University’s Title IX training, which is offered to students online. Manisha Munasinghe, grad, said there are no consequences if students choose not to participate in the training.

“It’s clear the University did not want to invest in staff members to do in-person training,” Munasinghe said. “They didn’t even follow up to see who did the Title IX training.”

Prior to the Collegetown assault, Alicia Brunson, grad, said she felt comfortable with Cornell’s campus climate.

“I never felt racism or bias on campus,” she said. “Now I feel the shift. Now I feel like I need to protect myself because I don’t know who is against me because I’m black, or female. It’s uncomfortable now.”

“There is a common narrative that Cornell is a liberal fairy tale where everything is great,” Eugene Law, grad, added. “I know a lot of students hear that, but don’t experience it.”

While the graduate community has started various diversity recruitment efforts and support organizations on campus, Law said that the fact that these programs are not widely recognized on campus is a problem.

“Publicizing your involvement in these groups to faculty advisors can be a poor career move,” Law said. “I’ve had people tell me that I’m wasting my time.”

Some students suggested that Cornell creates organizations such as the Africana Studies and Research Center — which they said is underfinanced and understaffed — in order to fill a void, rather than to fulfill the University’s mission of “any person … any study.”

Spaces for exclusively marginalized students can often become isolated and subsequently fail to achieve inclusivity on campus, Kim said. He added that the University must cultivate spaces that encourage intergroup interaction.

“There need to be spaces where people with privileged identities can talk to each other about the implications of their privilege,” Kim said. “I don’t see many spaces where white students are talking about their privilege, about what meaningful allyship is. Many white students we know might find these spaces significant.”

The decentralized nature of Cornell creates barriers to collaboration across groups on issues of diversity and inclusion, Law said. While the University has made concrete recommendations addressing campus climate, Kim said many of the recommendations have not been addressed.

The Cornell community Breaking Bread discussion was a “useful” and “educating” event that brought together people of different status and privilege to discuss diversity, Brunson said.

“Some people don’t recognize that there is racism on campus,” Brunson said. “Events like Breaking Bread get people to come together and have powerful conversation that educate people on what’s happening, because some people just don’t know.”