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Cornell's diversity, equity and inclusion policies relating to the student body have recently faced criticism.

February 1, 2024

Inside the Backlash to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Cornell

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Jon Lindseth ’56, emeritus member of the Cornell Board of Trustees, released an open letter on Jan. 23 calling for President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff’s resignation over their response to antisemitism and Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which Lindseth considered a consequence of the University’s “misguided commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Lindseth’s letter came in the wake of national scrutiny of DEI initiatives at Cornell and peer institutions. On Jan. 10, Jason Smith (R-M.O.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, sent a letter to the presidents of Cornell, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenging their tax-exempt status over their treatment of Jewish students and requesting answers to 13 questions about campus policies. Four of these questions concerned DEI programs and initiatives. 

With the criticism toward DEI policies at Cornell, The Sun explored how DEI practices impact students and faculty at the University.

Cornell’s DEI glossary defines diversity as the “age, socioeconomic background, gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity differences” present in the workforce. Equity is defined as the ability for everyone to “access the same opportunities.” Inclusion is defined as “the invitation for someone to actively engage as their authentic self” in an educational or professional environment.

Katrina Greene ’27, the freshman representative of external affairs for the Caribbean Student Association and member of the Black Ivy Pre-Law Society, explained the benefit of spaces that encourage students to share their diverse lived experiences.

“I think [DEI initiatives] should definitely be included [in academia] in the sense of basically allowing for everyone to learn about different cultures and different ideas,” Greene said. 

Cornell implemented DEI initiatives during the 2017-2018 academic year when the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate and the Provost’s Task Force to Enhance Faculty Diversity created a list of sixty suggestions for institutional and faculty initiatives to promote DEI.

The University launched the Belonging at Cornell institutional model in fall 2019 to meet the task forces’ initiatives of determining priorities for diversity and inclusion-related progress. The framework conducts analyses of diversity scorecard information and examines staff evaluations to ensure an inclusive workplace atmosphere. 

According to the University’s website, Belonging at Cornell uses a data-driven approach to address DEI-related metrics, such as by assessing faculty and staff turnover rates and the diversity of candidate pools. It also tracks qualitative data such as employees’ feelings of fairness and belonging and their inclination to recommend Cornell to others. 

In 2020, Cornell acknowledged historical and current instances of “racialized violence in our nation” by promoting existing DEI initiatives and establishing new ones. 

The promotion of former initiatives included amplifying anti-racist-oriented education in Cornell’s academic departments, such as the Africana Studies and American Indian and Indigenous Studies programs, among others.

Cornell’s newer initiatives include the six-course certificate program on advancing DEI at Cornell, mandatory for all staff, and campus resources such as the Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures, established this month. Additionally, every college at Cornell has a webpage acknowledging their commitment to DEI initiatives. 

In Lindseth’s letter, he claimed that DEI policies are replacing what he called Cornell’s “four essential pillars” of open inquiry, academic freedom, viewpoint diversity and free expression. 

These pillars are not officially associated with Cornell, but three of the four pillars appear in an August letter to Pollack, Kotlikoff and the Board of Trustees from the Cornell Free Speech Alliance as priorities that members of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a collective of alumni groups from various higher education institutions, the administration should promote. Lindseth’s name appears as a signature on the letter.

He also called for Pollack and Provost Kotlikoff to resign and outlined seven policy recommendations, which include terminating Cornell’s Bias Reporting System and canceling the new Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures. 

A representative of the University declined to comment on Lindseth’s letter and potential changes to DEI initiatives. They also declined to explain what the University considers to be the purpose of DEI initiatives on campus.

Nadine Strossen, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while the concepts composing DEI are fundamentally positive, certain DEI initiatives are often flawed.

“No matter how well intended these concepts are and programs for training in them, study after study has shown that mandatory training is at best ineffective in promoting those goals and is often counterproductive, undermining people’s understanding of and commitment to those values,” Strossen said. 

Strossen also believes that individual DEI programs warrant examination to assess their effectiveness.  

“When we find evidence that a particular program is not effectively promoting [DEI] values, it should be repealed or reformed,” Strossen said. Citing an op-ed from journalist Bari Weiss, she noted how certain programs “infamously [place] everybody in binary groups, that you’re either an oppressor or oppressed. Any such DEI program is counter to its stated goals and does help foment antisemitism.”

The claim that DEI programs are associated with campus antisemitism was also brought up in Smith’s Jan. 10 letter, which cited research from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative activist group, that claimed campus DEI staff were “unwelcoming toward Jewish students.” 

Strossen said that positive programs can be nurtured through the unity of DEI values with academic freedom and diversity of beliefs.

“Constructive criticism will help improve programs that [need] improving, and reinforce the pride of those that are already implementing positive programs,” Strossen said.

Prof. Randy Wayne, plant science, claimed that DEI programs at Cornell are in opposition to the free expression of ideas on campus.

“Cornell has taken over the authoritarian way of thinking,” Wayne said. “And DEI goes very much with [the notion of] ‘We decide who speaks.’”

Wayne said that facilitating conversations and open dialogue is effective in combating hate and racism, whereas DEI initiatives, he claimed, actually cause them. 

Greene disagreed with Wayne’s assessment.

“I don’t think DEI is meant to exclude or separate and divide people,” Greene said. “I think that DEI helps bring people together to understand each other’s hardships and struggles.”

Wayne claimed without evidence that a majority of Cornell students and staff share his views, but many are too afraid of backlash from DEI to publicly admit it.

“I believe that at most 20 percent of the people on Cornell campus are into DEI,” Wayne said. “There’s 10 percent that think it’s terrible and [are] outspoken that it’s terrible. 80 percent are too afraid to even speak, and that’s unfortunately what DEI does.”

However, Greene contended that discontinuing DEI initiatives and programming as Wayne and Lindseth have proposed would stifle the expression of students of color on campus.

“I think [abandoning DEI is] very hurtful for students of color,” Greene said. “Because if these [initiatives] are places where their voices can be heard and shared, why diminish those organizations [by taking] money back from them?”

Carly Hermann ’27 is a Sun staff writer and can be reached at [email protected]

Kate Sanders ’27 contributed writing.