When Cornell Outdoor Education chose to offer a BIPOC rock climbing P.E. class in spring 2021, they did not anticipate an outpouring of criticism and claims of racial segregation.
The course description initially said that the class was open only to those students identifying as BIPOC, which sparked controversy on Cornell’s campus and beyond. A thread of posts to the Cornell reddit called for an end to “racially segregated P.E. classes at Cornell.”
Some argued that the implementation of BIPOC rock-climbing, by offering the class only to students of particular races, was a hindrance to diversity and inclusion efforts. Others said that Cornell’s decision was racist and in violation of federal Title VI, which states that no educational program receiving federal financial assistance may exclude participation on the basis of race or national origin.
With national scrutiny and claims that the course instituted a “white ban” in the media and in communications with University Visitor Relations, the University made the decision to open enrollment to all students.
The PE 1641: BIPOC Rock Climbing course description now explains that the “class is designed to enable Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian or other people of color underrepresented in the sport of rock climbing to learn the sport and to feel included and supported. The class is open to all Cornell students interested in learning rock climbing with this special focus.”
This decision, too, was followed by a wave of media coverage. One article published by Campus Reform was headlined “Cornell Charges Students $1,800 for Racially-segregated Rock Climbing Class, Frantically Scrubs Website When Confronted”.
“While some [activities] may include a focus on students with specific identities, they are not restricted to only those students,” said John Carberry, a University spokesperson. “Cornell offers many programs that support interests and perspectives of different parts of our community. We encourage any student who is interested to take advantage of the unique opportunities across campus to learn from and with the many diverse perspectives and voices across campus.”
Nearly a semester after its creation, students and instructors in the class reflected on how the focus on creating a community of students of color benefitted their experience.
Lwam Asfaw ’21 explained that when choosing a P.E. class, it was the BIPOC label that ultimately encouraged her to enroll in the course. She explains that the BIPOC label works to make participation more comfortable, accessible and encouraging in an unfamiliar environment. Asfaw said that people should not be questioning why the class exists, and should instead focus more on why people feel the need for a class that creates a safe community for BIPOC students.
Yvonne Chan ’21, another student in the course this semester, described the class environment as a safe space — encouraging, supportive and community-oriented. She explained that she sees no reason to attack the existence of the course when there are eight sections of P.E. 1640: Basic Rock Climbing in addition to the one BIPOC rock climbing section. She sees the course as a valuable effort to encourage inclusion of marginalized groups, noting similar efforts by larger organizations like Brothers of Climbing, an organization which aims to increase diversity in the sport.
Thomas Gambra ’24 shared some of these sentiments. Gambra explained that being a minority at a predominantly white institution can create a feeling of isolation, and that having a space to connect with other underrepresented students can alleviate that.
“Hearing people complain about this class, saying it’s taking away from our white peers is laughable and frustrating,” Gambra said.
Few students expressed any objection to the University’s decision to open enrollment to all. Matthew Gavieta ‘22, a BIPOC instructor leading the course this year, believes it is highly unlikely that someone who does not consider themselves BIPOC would enroll in the course given the course’s stated mission.
However, Gavieta highlighted that there is no difference in the structure or learning objectives for BIPOC rock climbing compared to other intro rock climbing courses. All courses aim to provide students with the necessary skill set for climbing, but the qualifying factor for BIPOC rock climbing is the community of students and the specific focus on the overarching mission of improving access for BIPOC in a white-centric sport.
“At the end of the day,” Gavieta said. “There is an issue of inaccessibility for minorities in this white-centric sport and BIPOC rock-climbing is a small step towards desegregating that community.”
Michelle Croen ’21, another course instructor agreed that lack of access necessitates efforts to expand the reach of the sport.
“From larger issues such as cost of entry and accessibility, to smaller microaggressions like the names of some outdoor climbing routes, it’s difficult to be a minority and feel welcomed in the outdoors. Just under the surface, the climbing world especially is affected by racism, sexism and sizeism,” Croen said.
Multiple students highlighted the value of the course fee waiver which is available to students receiving financial aid. This aspect was unique to the BIPOC rock-climbing class and allowed some students to take advantage of an otherwise inaccessible opportunity.
Students and instructors also expressed appreciation for Cornell Outdoor Education’s handling of the controversy.
Instructors described COE as understanding and proactive, providing instructors with guidance to effectively discuss the attacks with students enrolled in the course. Some of the statements and forums against the existence of the class were particularly threatening, but the staff at COE were able to assuage most concerns by supporting students and implementing added safety precautions.
“By creating a community of traditionally underrepresented people, we allow students to explore climbing and what it means to them on their own terms, in a comfortable, safe space,” Croen said.