Jason Ben Nathan / Sun File Photo

The living-learning community, which takes place in the old Psi Upsilon house, promises to foster a residential community that “embraces the strengths of diversity, multiculturalism, and intersectionality."

October 9, 2018

Equity & Engagement Living-Learning Community Opens in Former Psi Upsilon Fraternity House After Multi-Million Dollar Renovation

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In August, the brand-new Equity and Engagement Living-Learning Community quietly opened its doors in the former house of Cornell’s chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity — infamous for sexual and racial assault incidents — at 2 Forest Park Lane on West Campus.

The living-learning community, which is currently housing 35 residents at its full capacity, promises to foster a residential community that “embraces the strengths of diversity, multiculturalism, and intersectionality,” preparing residents to be “strong leaders in a pluralistic world,” according to a statement provided to The Sun by Devon Carrington, assistant director of residential programs.

Cornell placed the Chi chapter of Psi Upsilon on interim suspension in February 2016 following sexual assault allegations against then-president Wolfgang Ballinger ’17, who pled guilty to forcible touching last spring, and revoked recognition for three years in May 2016 after the fraternity violated the suspension’s terms, The Sun previously reported.

After a racially-charged altercation between a white student linked to the suspended Psi Upsilon fraternity and a black student in Collegetown last fall, the Board of Governors for the Chi chapter of Psi Upsilon elected to remove all Psi Upsilon presence from campus. The University also announced their intent to devote the chapter’s house to “the use of student organizations at Cornell that are dedicated to promoting a diverse and inclusive student community,” in a joint statement from Cornell Vice Presidents Ryan Lombardi and Fred van Sickle in September 2017.

The renovation, which was completed in May, included full-scale remodeling of both the first and second floors as well as an entrance complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act, surface finishing and masonry repairs, The Sun previously reported.

According to the University’s operating budget, $3.5 million was slated for the remodel of the house, of which $1.96 million is to be spent during fiscal year 2019. The red-brick house itself, which the Cornell facilities website describes as “palatial,” was worth $1.49 million in 2018 according to a City of Ithaca property report.

No moves to shape the University-owned house for student organization use were immediately made after the September announcement, as the property was undergoing renovations overseen by the Psi Upsilon Board of Governors. The board did not return The Sun’s requests for comment.

The University eventually chose to re-designate the property as housing instead, in line with its future housing initiatives, according to Carrington, who said that he was approached about the plan by Joseph Burke, executive director of residential programs, around the same time.

“He asked ‘could you think of it having this kind of social justice/identity/belonging feel to it?’” Carrington told The Sun.

Carrington said that he had been shaping the idea for the living-learning community for several years, including the possibility of locating it in Schuyler House in Collegetown. However, the process was accelerated as there were only a few months between the go-ahead and student move-in day in August.

“In a perfect world, we would have had a semester to really develop going into it,” said Robert King, the new director of Residential and New Student Programs, but added that this sort of challenge was “par for the course” for the department.

“Students will learn and continue to develop whether we’re part of the process or not, so creating a space where they can have open, honest discussion is just an opportunity,” King continued.

The living-learning community recruited its first cohort of residents via an email sent on July 30 to selected undergraduate students. Carrington told The Sun that he worked with the housing office to offer spaces to students who may not have gotten their first choice of housing or may have been interested in the new opportunity.

The original email, obtained by The Sun, described the Equity & Engagement LLC as a “unique” opportunity to “enhance the academic and social experience of all students through outreach, support, cultural exploration, identity development, and social justice education.” Topics for discussion included race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ability status and religion.

Prospective residents were required to submit a brief interest statement, which Carrington said would be expanded into a full application for future years, in keeping with the work-in-progress aspect of the living-learning community.

“Right now we’re in the developing stages of getting everything together,” Alex Anyanwu ’21, a current resident, told The Sun. “I see it being a very large part of Cornell’s program housing like on Ujaamaa’s level, on [the Holland International Living Community]’s level, like the Jewish Living Center.”

Currently, the house has two resident advisors, who were chosen from the pool of R.A.s who applied last year and were given special training and mentorship over the summer to prepare them for their new role, Carrington said. The live-in advisors are charged with the direction of the programming for the house and were given direction in how to foster discourse across divides in background.

Anyanwu said that even though the house was still in its “beginning stages,” he loves living there. “It’s like a hotel,” he said of the house itself, describing the environment fostered by the living-learning community as “amazing.”

Carrington stated similar sentiments about the house being a work in progress, both in terms of programming and the house itself.

Despite the allotted budget, Carrington described the renovations as a “facelift,” with a few minor repairs left to be completed. According to Carrington, the house had not yet even been outfitted with electronic locks — which allow students to access buildings using their Cornell ID cards — like most residential buildings on campus.

The lack of this technology makes it harder for opening the house’s events to the more general public, Carrington said, as visitors can’t be granted temporary access when dealing with physical locks and keys.

In the future, Carrington hopes to help the RAs expand events to multiple times a semester and work closely with the Intergroup Dialogue Project on campus.

The University has been relatively quiet about the new house as it gets up to speed, forgoing press announcements but including a brief mention of the living-learning community in President Martha E. Pollack’s Sept. 7 update on diversity and inclusion efforts. A description of the facility was added to Cornell’s website earlier in the semester.

On Oct. 9, a briefing regarding the Equity and Engagement LLC was included in a housing update emailed to undergraduates, announcing that applications for residency in the house next year were open to interested students.