As the spring semester begins, student leaders are critical of the University’s progress on anti-racist initiatives, hoping for increased, substantial action around campus throughout the remainder of the year.
The University updated students over winter break on the ongoing diversity and inclusion initiatives at Cornell, including the creation of the Public Safety Advisory Committee, the Community Response team, the Faculty Senate’s anti-racism initiatives and research into Cornell’s ties to Indigenous dispossession.
But according to some Cornell student groups, the way these initiatives were communicated to the general student body was unimpressive. An email detailing these initiatives, they said, did little to raise awareness.
“I didn’t even read an email like that. I barely read University emails as it is, and I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way,” said Mikala Bliahu ’22, the Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell co-chair.
Bliahu said the University needs to take steps to make this information more public and accessible to students.
Co-president of the South Asian Council Atif Akhter ’22 agreed, noting that if students aren’t directly impacted by the initiatives, it might be easy for them to overlook this information.
“I think most students here have the privilege to not be affected by diversity [and] inclusion initiatives, and especially for people of color here like myself, diversity and inclusion is almost present in all aspects of our lives,” Akhter said.
Cornell Students 4 Black Lives organizer Sherell Farmer ’22 expressed that the University could improve by posting more about their diversity and inclusion actions on social media platforms. She also suggested they reach out to student groups with a vested interest in these initiatives.
“The important part is that the University needs to meet students where they are,” Farmer said. She explained that information on social justice tends to spread on social media, and suggested an active University commitment to updating Instagram, Facebook and other platforms.
Reflecting on the initiatives, NAISAC co-chair Della Uran ’22 was skeptical that they would produce real change, noting the vagueness and lack of details about how many of these initiatives would be realized.
“I’m all for these things conceptually. But I’m like, ‘I need you to give me a plan,’” Uran said. “I think it’s highly possible that a lot of this just won’t happen.”
Akhter echoed these sentiments, questioning whether the initiatives will be fruitful. He referenced a recent Sun letter to the editor about the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, expressing disappointment with the administration’s response to the racism and misogyny that resulted from several Cornell students being targeted during calls for disarmament.
“That letter to the editor really showed that task forces have great initiatives and great ideas. But how many are being followed through after the task force is gone?” Akhter said. “The students really put their hard work into the task force, only to see that it didn’t work.”
Akhter added that he wants to see initiatives carried out faster, though he understands why there is a need for extensive planning and discussions.
“I think when the University has a crisis, the first thing that happens is a committee or task force is [put] in place,” Akhter said. “[I’m] not saying that change is unable to happen from these. I just have a desire for it to occur more urgently.”
Others, however, disagreed with the need to speed things up. Farmer said she wishes the process could go faster, but she felt this would result in a rushed, incomplete outcome.
“Perfection doesn’t come overnight, but I feel like the Black community and other marginalized groups on campus deserve perfection,” Farmer said. “So, I’d like to make sure they get that.”
CS4BL organizer Ashley Bishop ’22 was hopeful that the initiatives will lead to real changes, even though progress might seem slow. However, she noted that the University still falls short when it comes to proactively addressing issues of racism and bias.
“I think there’s a lack of [the University] being proactive to handle these issues, and for that reason, there’s a lot of pressure put on students to create these demand lists, and to sit here and plan what could be the right solution that the University can implement,” Bishop said.
Bliahu agreed that there is still progress to be made to address the racism and bias that students of color face on campus.
“Cornell hasn’t made me feel safe,” Bliahu said. “I am very white presenting, and I have the privilege [of] feeling safer around police. But I don’t even feel safe, so I can’t even imagine how unsafe a lot of our students of color feel.”
Akhter hopes that students, faculty and the administration will work together to address issues of diversity and inclusion. He said he was glad to see the formation of the Public Safety Advisory, seeing it as a tangible marker of progress toward reforming the Cornell University Police Department and addressing student safety concerns.
However, he still believes more needs to be done on an administrative level.
“If it’s such a weak update that nobody really knew anything about it, or the students who are a minority here on campus don’t feel like their life has changed at all or will change while they are students,” Akhter said, “then I think there’s an issue.”