Spurred to action by this summer’s historic racial activism and inspired by the work of student activists with Do Better Cornell, a group of faculty, graduate students and staff have penned a list of demands to the University.
The demands tackle the existing racial disparities, discrimination and heteronormativity present within the University and offer solutions for Cornell’s policies, structure and practice, to push beyond symbolism of “any person, any study” toward real change.
“It is easy to recite the motto ‘any person … any study,’” the letter reads in its opening, “but easier to forget that the price of that vision of equal educational opportunity was the legacy of forcible Indigenous dispossession and African enslavement, compounded by increasing imperialist expansion and interventionism in the Americas and beyond.”
Shortly after the revolutionary spark of sustained protests following George Floyd’s murder, Prof. Russell Rickford, history, pulled together a committee, during the summertime which included professors and graduate students in the Africana studies graduate field to create a list of demands towards an anti-racist Cornell. Prof. Tao Goffe, Africana and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, was also a part of the committee process.
The 29 demands include both immediate and long-term solutions, such as the creation of benchmarks for departments to ensure they are embedding anti-racism in all Cornell activities and improving recruitment, retention and promotion of BIPOC faculty.
Reaching out to allied, anti-racist programs — including Asian American studies, Latina/o studies, American Indian and Indigenous studies and feminist, gender and sexuality studies — the committee started to mold their demands and garner support, according to Prof. Saida Hodžić, feminist, gender and sexuality studies, a member of the committee.
Over 600 graduate students, staff and faculty have signed on in support, but the list gains more signatories each day, according to committee member Prof. Carole Boyce-Davies, Africana studies and English.
Recognizing that the University has failed to create changes that truly dismantle institutional racism, Hodžić explained that this historical moment made it possible “to really stop and to refuse the answer that diversifying will solve the problem.”
The demands’ authors explained that the push for demographic diversity isn’t enough — the underrepresentation compounded with experiences of racism disempower people across the University.
If diversification was a successful sole mechanism for addressing institutional change, “multicultural diversity centers would have all just been successful in liberating us from having these conversations in the first place,” said Radwa Saad grad, a second-year Ph.D. candidate who studies Afro-Arab relations.
Instead, Saad called for more comprehensive and radical change to be enacted immediately and sustained — including the “redistribution and reallocation of resources” to address the institutional racism and disparities that prevail within the University and their effects on the surrounding community.
Some of the immediate demands include the strengthened support of anti-racist research, incorporating “decolonized readings” into the curriculum across the board, reviewing hiring, recruitment and retention campus-wide and implementing anti-sexist and anti-racist policies to address the demographics of department chair positions.
Saad was drawn to the committee due to a culmination of her experiences at the University that she wants to change for future generations, including the lack of scholars of color present in her curriculum –– an issue raised in the demands.
Although professors in Africana studies have an interdisciplinary background of research and knowledge, Saad was puzzled by the lack of cross-departmental exchanges.
“Rarely is their work ever featured in syllabuses outside of the department, even when it’s relevant to whatever topic is being discussed,” she said.
Further, professors in departments where they are one of few or the only person of color also do not “necessarily have the intellectual support for the work that they’re doing within anti-racist scholarship,” Hodžić said. Their demands hope to create a more sustainable framework for anti-racist work.
Within the longer term demands, the letter calls for the involvement of anti-racist faculty and students in the Center for Anti-Racism, improving hiring and retention for BIPOC faculty, advisors and counselors.
The committee additionally called for an increased number of people of color faculty, staff and graduate students to address the lack of community, as it can negatively impact retention, along with increased retention offers.
For Boyce-Davies, investing in these communities is key, because Cornell has lost many faculty members due to the lack of belonging many BIPOC faculty members feel in Ithaca.
Although diversity may increase, Hodžić stressed the ways in which a predominantly white institution perpetuates racial violence in even the most “subtle, mundane quotidian” ways that does not leave room for comfort for people of color on campus.
The long-term demands also include physical displays of the University’s commitment to anti-racism that would entail confronting the University’s role in displacing Indigenous peoples and contributing to gentrification in the surrounding community.
“Like many wealthy institutions, Cornell is complicit, in countless ways, in the reproduction of white supremacy,” the letter reads. “To name just one example, the university is the major driver of the soaring housing prices and other forms of gentrification that have disproportionately affected local communities of color.”
The demands include a “major construction project” for the Ithaca community dedicated to racial justice, upgrading cultural housing on campus, creating a multipurpose center to physically link Africana studies to central campus and endowing a hall with alumna Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 as the namesake.
“There should be something already, clearly identified, so that we all feel the pride of her contributions,” Boyce-Davies said about Morrison. “The University administration itself has not decided that we need to do this — that should come from them, they should be proud to do this.”
With all the demands, including these buildings, Boyce-Davies explained that the committee is trying to help them name opportunities and fill in “missing pieces that need to be put in to make us have the kind of campus we love and desire.”
Currently, the committee is expanding awareness and garnering support for its demands to reach University administration. But they hope that the demands will help Cornell to build anti-racism into every aspect of the University explicitly and lead to meaningful change.
“I really, really want to stress that all this is irrelevant if it’s not centered in an abolitionist framework,” Saad said, reiterating the demands’ framework to promote racial abolition, decolonization and marginalized perspectives.
Ultimately, the committee hopes that the University’s action could set a precedent to adopt similar frameworks more broadly because Cornell often plays an integral role in shaping university policy nationwide, Saad said.
Saad also hopes that the demands create change for the future generations, improving conditions for marginalized populations on campus and giving a voice to those who currently are silenced.
“It’s not that we want to bludgeon them with these demands,” Hodžić said. “These demands are a vision that we can aspire to, that the institution should take seriously and uphold.”