In the fall of 2017, the dean of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration highlighted that for the first time, half of the presenters at the Dean’s Distinguished Lectures Series were women.
“We didn’t plan it that way,” Dean Kate Walsh MPS ’90 said. “But when we looked for the leaders making the most profound impact, that’s who we found.”
But of the 50 speakers who lectured to students in the last three years or are scheduled to speak this fall, 46 are white. Three of the speakers are Asian and one is black. All speakers from the fall 2017 series are white.
Cornell officials said the school takes racial diversity seriously, but according to interviews with four current and former hotel school professors, several students and documents obtained by The Sun, Walsh’s focus on the gender ratio of the nearly all-white group is indicative of what some say is the hotel school’s prioritization of gender diversity over racial diversity in a field whose upper ranks remain filled largely by white men.
“The best people are not all white,” Prof. Matthew Clayton, a professor who left the hotel school in 2014, said of Walsh’s comments regarding the distinguished speakers. “The fact that they said they’ve picked the best people is, in general, demonstrably incorrect. There are no doubt very good minority executives in the industry … I know a lot of them would love to come in and talk to Cornell.”
“You said you look for the best of the best, but you are telling me that the best doesn’t include any minority? It’s just ridiculous,” a current faculty member said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the administration.
In an interview in her Statler Hall office in May, Walsh told The Sun that it is “very important to us that we find top leaders that represent our populations.” She said the school did invite more minority speakers to the lecture series, which features prominent members of the hospitality industry, but one lecturer had to cancel at the last minute. “Some of the leaders … are really busy people,” she said.
As of this semester, about six percent of full hotel school faculty members — excluding visiting and adjunct faculty — are underrepresented minorities, a term that includes black, Latino, multiracial, Hawaiian / Pacific Islander and Native American people.
Among the 27 full and associate professors who have tenure in the school, six are Asian or Asian-American and the other 21 are white.
Walsh said that because most colleges have historically hired white men, it is “incredibly typical in academia” that the majority of current tenured faculty are also white men.
Thirty years ago, Walsh said research institutions were “populated by white men,” and “as they move into more senior ranks of faculty, that’s going to be your predominant population.”
Walsh began serving as interim dean in July 2016 and was selected as the school’s dean the next summer. She has vigorously advocated for women to serve in senior leadership roles in the hospitality industry and has urged hotels to take efforts to reduce sexual harassment of employees and guests. In an interview with Hotels magazine earlier this year, Walsh said “having more women in senior roles changes the culture from the top down.”
“Our industry can and should do a lot more to develop the career paths of all professionals, but especially its female talent,” she said.
Prof. Michael Sturman ’92 M.S. ’95 Ph.D. ’97, human resources, said in an interview in April that the administration should be applauded for its continuous focus on gender diversity, but that the school has not made a similar commitment to racial diversity.
“Gender diversity is critically important,” said Sturman, who is white. “But you shouldn’t focus on only one type of diversity and ignore all other dimensions.”
Sturman, who left Cornell for Rutgers University earlier this month, said increasing the number of non-white faculty in the hotel school “used to be a clear priority,” but now, “it seems little to nothing is being done to help foster racial diversity.”
“And in fact, we seem to be moving backwards,” he said.
A 2012 report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found that, within the hospitality industry, 7.6 percent of governing body members and 3.8 percent of top management level employees are black or African-American. For all people of color, the numbers are 12.8 and 19.4 percent.
Another former faculty member, Prof. Sean Rogers, management, University of Rhode Island, told The Sun in March that when it comes to taking action, the administration is “really committed to a sliver of diversity, to the exclusion” of other kinds of representation.
Rogers, who is black, said administrators “are solely focusing on one type of diversity” that “aligns with who they are,” which he said was human nature. Of the four members of the dean’s executive team, three are women and none are black or Latino.
“But when [a person] rises … to a position of organizational leadership, they are expected to transcend a sole or primary concern for their own group’s interests and … be able and willing to advocate for access and representation for all groups equally,” Rogers said.
The previous hotel school dean, Michael D. Johnson, instituted a policy in fall 2013 requiring that the pool of candidates for each faculty position be “sufficient on all dimensions,” which included “quality, quantity and diversity,” according to a list of steps for the faculty search process which was obtained by The Sun.
Sturman, who served as associate dean of faculty development until the position was eliminated following the creation of the College of Business, said Johnson’s policy led to a series of high-quality and diverse hires. Four out of nine faculty members hired between fall 2013 and spring 2016 — following the new guideline’s implementation — were underrepresented minorities, Sturman said.
Only half of those four faculty members remain at the hotel school.
In addition to Rogers, who left Cornell at the end of June, Prof. Stephanie Creary, management, who did not respond to a request for comment, left for University of Pennsylvania in June 2017.
Of the 20 professorial and lecturer positions filled during the 2017-2018 academic year in all three schools under the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, 16 new hires are white and four are Asian, according to a faculty hires report obtained by The Sun. About one third of the new professors are women.
In April, The Sun contacted the leaders of the hotel school’s four search committees in hopes of learning the demographic makeup of this year’s candidate pool. About 55 minutes after a reporter sent the emails, an assistant in the hotel school instructed 19 faculty members who participated in the search to not respond to any of the questions.
“Good morning, If the Cornell Daily Sun contacts any of you about the status of our faculty searches, please refer them to the Dean’s office,” Justina Reynolds, assistant to the associate dean of academic affairs, wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Sun.
Walsh, the dean, said in May that she did not know what percentage of this year’s candidates are underrepresented minorities, but said her administration is continuing Johnson’s faculty search directive, which also required that if a search committee cannot find a qualified underrepresented minority candidate, it has to show that the result followed a substantial effort, according to Sturman.
While it can be difficult to get professors to come to Ithaca, Walsh said, the school has specifically worked to recruit underrepresented minority faculty and Ph.D. students. “It’s an important practice that we’d like to continue,” she said. “It’s not very easy to do, and it’s not always successful, but it’s really important to us to make every effort.”
The Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate said in a preliminary report released this month that the turnover rate among faculty of color across the University has been increasing and that, “historically, people have attributed retention challenges to the fact that Cornell is situated in rural Ithaca.”
Clayton, who left Cornell in 2014 and retired from the Wisconsin School of Business in 2017, said Cornell fails to retain qualified minority candidates because, “when there’s one sitting there, [Cornell doesn’t] do anything to get them to stay.”
“They are saying that minority representation is an important thing, but they don’t do what would be required to keep minority faculty when there are minority faculty,” said Clayton.
“When you talk about academia, it all goes down to tenure,” said Clayton, who is black. “If you look at my publication record, it was certainly as good as people that have tenure at Cornell, yet they wouldn’t hire me with that.”
Prof. Todd Schmit M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’03, applied economics and management and the business college’s chief diversity officer, wrote in an email to The Sun in July that he wants faculty to “feel valued and stay.”
Schmit took over the diversity position after Prof. David Wooten, marketing, resigned and left Cornell in July after one year at the business college, The Sun previously reported.
This fall, freshmen also went through a “Cultural Intelligence” exercise during orientation, Walsh said in a follow-up interview in September, which aimed to expose students to culture and perspectives with which they might not be familiar.
Clayton said his biggest concern is that because of the small number of underrepresented minority faculty in business schools, fewer underrepresented minority students will imagine themselves as professors in the future, creating a cycle of underrepresentation.
“Yes, it’s mostly white and male,” Clayton said of the hospitality industry, “but that’s not because it’s the way it should be, it’s just because historically how it was.”
Students said they sometimes feel isolated in the hotel school, and some hotel students who attended the distinguished lectures series at Cornell said the large number of women was a big improvement, but that more racial and economic diversity should also be a priority.
“I don’t think that the only place in the hotel school that I should feel … comfortable is when I get together in a little room with other people like me,” said Shavonnie Victor ’20. “It is the case right now, but it shouldn’t be the case. I should be able to walk around and know that you all are my peers.”
Tatiana Suero ’19 said it is exciting that there are more women industry leaders speaking at Cornell. But Suero, who is Latina, also added that as she talked with other non-white students, “I began to realize how disrespectful it is to us that we don’t have someone who looks like us come in and speak.”
“Hospitality isn’t just white people,” she said. “In order to educate yourself and be successful in the industry, you should really understand everything. But how are you going to do that when you are only surrounded by people who are white and men?”
Victor said that while the lack of racial diversity among the speakers was a problem, it was most frustrating that they spoke from “a platform of privilege.”
Some speakers, she said, “are like ‘use this, use that,’ but I don’t have all that. I can’t internalize their advice because they are not meant for someone who’s like me.”
“How did you come from a place where you have so little, and how did you make yourself into something more? No one’s gonna teach me that if everybody that came in is a white guy who grew up in a rich family,” said Victor, who is black.
Both Suero and Victor said they sometimes find it difficult to have only a small group of peers in the school who share their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and with whom they can relate.
While Cornell does not release racial diversity statistics by school for the College of Business, about 5 percent of undergraduate students enrolled in fall 2017 in the business college are black and about 11 percent are identified by the Cornell Factbook as Hispanic. The percentage of underrepresented minority undergraduate students in the college has been increasing consistently, from 12.7 percent in 2007 to 19.1 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
Hotel school officials say they are actively working to foster diverse, welcoming communities.
Victor Younger, the director of diversity and inclusion for the hotel school, regularly hosts gatherings for minority students to discuss shared experiences or similar difficulties. He said these meetings are one tool that the school uses to help students find a sense of community, and that students often find a peer who has dealt with similar experiences and has tools to overcome various obstacles.
Younger said that in addition to the online trainings on diversity and inclusion, which all faculty and staff in the University are required to undergo, the hotel school also hosts workshops of varying formats, including formal sessions, panel discussions and small focus group conversations.
“We are using all these mechanisms,” he said. “Do we hit everyone? Absolutely not, but we are making the effort.”
And to be sure, many students said they enjoyed the lecture series. JT Baker ’21, who serves on the student advisory board to Walsh, said the series “has been my favorite thing since I come to Cornell.”
Baker said all of the speakers have told “inspiring stories” and pointed out that Walsh has been making efforts to bring more underrepresented minority speakers to the school.
“That’s one thing that came up in the student advisory board meetings and we are working on it,” Baker said. He added that he had secured funding from Walsh and invited a speaker who spoke “exclusively to minority students” in early April.
Baker, who is black, said he “felt like the hotel school is one of the most inclusive and supportive communities within Cornell, and I definitely know that there are schools that … do not match this standard.”
Walsh said that the hotel school is a close-knit community where the administration and faculty members care deeply about their students.
“It’s very typical for [Younger] to call up a faculty member and say, ‘wow, this person is struggling in this class, what kind of support can we provide?’” she said.
Erin Rodriguez, assistant director of admissions at the hotel school, said that the lecture series is only one of many ways that students can meet and engage with successful individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Younger said speakers that faculty members bring into their own classrooms are “complementary pieces that make sure we meet the students’ needs as well.”
Walsh said the school “absolutely [tries] to find speakers that all of our students can relate to on some level,” and she said stories from some speakers who “came came from nothing … and had really successful careers” can resonate with audience members from a variety of backgrounds.
Rodriguez said last week that the hotel school admissions office has been looking for students in “under-resourced areas” who may not see themselves applying to a hotel school. She said college counselors from high schools in these areas have also been invited to visit Cornell and the hotel school this fall in hopes of improving the diversity of the student body.
“We are trying to get people to apply to college,” Rodriguez said, “To learn that you can come from far away and be successful.”
At the end of the May interview, the administration told The Sun that it is important to recognize the different layers of diversity and the importance of not excluding other identity groups when discussing racial diversity.
“This is very important, thinking about the [underrepresented minorities], being one myself,” Younger said, but he cautioned that diversity is a large subject with many important factors. “I think we are somewhat programmed in our own country to focus on race and gender, but again, it’s our challenge to think of a broader context.”