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Faculty Senate debates new anti-racism requirements for students and faculty.

April 19, 2021

Faculty Senate Debates Anti-Racism Proposals

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After hearing proposals for faculty and student anti-racism education requirements as well as the creation of a Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures at the faculty senate meeting on Wednesday April 14, professors engaged in fierce debate about how best to educate the Cornell community about the history of race while respecting subject matter experts and ensuring academic freedom.

The proposed Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures would bring together interested faculty from across the university, as well as encourage collaboration with other University institutions including the library system and with outside scholars.

One of the proposals is the student educational requirement, intended to ensure that all students are educated in the history of racism, colonialism and injustice while being able to communicate across differences that they will encounter both in work and in their life as a whole. Potential implementation strategies include videos and instructional guides made by relevant faculty that could be incorporated into courses across the University.

If the faculty education requirement was passed, Cornell’s Office of Faculty Diversity and Development would receive additional support in order to collaborate with other university offices to create a library of modules to help faculty navigate their different roles, including advising, mentoring, and teaching, in various venues. 

To keep faculty accountable, a DEI question may be added to course evaluations and DEI statements would be required as part of renewal and promotion cases. Reports by chairs to deans would document course evaluations, department climate issues and faculty participation in racial justice related education. DEI evaluation would also become part of periodic program review. Faculty would be required to participate in one educational opportunity per semester, which would likely take just a few hours.

The format of the student educational requirement was a major source of disagreement. Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, American and Indigenous studies, is concerned that asking faculty with expertise in ethnic studies fields to make educational materials for use by faculty outside of those fields would decrease the effectiveness of the teaching. 

“That is not the way to deliver this material. What you have is non-experts interpreting experts. These non-experts are not qualified, actually, to talk about these matters,” Cheyfitz said.

Prof. Olufemi Taiwo, Africana studies, Prof. Vilma Santiago-Irizarry Latina/o studies, Prof. Noliwe Rooks, American studies, Prof. Jane Juffer, feminist, gender, sexuality studies, Prof. Kurt Jordan, American Indian & Indigenous studies and Prof. Christine Bacareza Balance, Asian American studies released a joint statement expressing their disagreement with the process and outcome of the creation of the student anti-racism education requirement.

According to these professors, they were consulted too late in the process. After they expressed their disagreement with the video module approach, they began developing an alternative proposal. 

“Beyond the unnecessary duplication of what we have been teaching for decades already, the format of this course can hardly meet the pedagogical goal it pursues,” the statement reads. “Educating our students in antiracism is not a matter of sheer information or objectified content but of engaging them in deep reading and extended dialogue.”

According to Dean of the Faculty Prof. Charles Van Loan, computer science, video module and instructional guide based education materials may have some drawbacks but allow for faster implementation, which is important to meet the needs of campus.

“There’s a view here that only experts are capable of communicating these things, and there’s certainly some truth to that,” Van Loan said. “But when you talk about delivery, unless you want to wait 20 years when we hire enough faculty in these units, nothing’s going to happen.”

Some faculty, including Prof. Richard Bensel, government, consider the anti-racism educational requirement for faculty to be a violation of academic freedom. According to Bensel, requiring faculty to be present at anti-racism related educational events would be a political litmus test that could have a negative impact on freedom of discussion.

“A great university should never be a morally comfortable place because dissent is necessary for creation of knowledge,” Bensel wrote in an email to the Sun. “The only values that a university should have are academic and intellectual freedom of thought.”

While Prof. Carole Boyce-Davies, literatures in English, who is teaching the Introduction to Africana Studies course this semester, agrees that freedom of opinion and inquiry is important, she thinks that faculty should want to learn more about race and the history of racism in order to be more effective researchers and instructors in their fields. 

“If you’re a medical doctor and you don’t get the latest field discoveries, developments and new findings, then you’re technically committing malpractice on a day to day basis,” Boyce Davies wrote in an email to the Sun. “An academic who doesn’t want to get an expansive sense of what is available in the field is operating pretty much like that.”

Multiple members of the working group that developed the proposal, including Jeff Pea grad and Krinal Thakkar ’23, are hopeful that the student educational requirement would help ensure all students have the information they need to help build a more equitable future.

“A lot of people who are not taking these classes are the people who are the most privileged who don’t have these experiences,” Thakkar said. “My hopes were that those people, those peers, would then have access to this knowledge to be ethical leaders.” 

The one proposal that got no opposition during the meeting was the Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures. Conor Hodges ’21, a member of the working group which planned the center, still emphasized the importance of continuing to advocate to ensure that the center goes beyond a plan on paper and is actually implemented.

The future of the proposals is uncertain. Van Loan pointed out that working groups make recommendations in order for the faculty senate to debate, and make modifications as needed before resolutions are sent further along the process.

“A working group does homework, lays out interesting possibilities, and in this case, sends them to the Senate,” Van Loan said. “Unfortunately, the longer it goes on, the more people think that it’s the final word, but it’s almost the opposite. It’s step 1.”