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The April 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover started peacefully, though its participants later acquired weapons, and ended after two days without enacted violence.

June 12, 2024

Tracing the Evolution of Diversity at Cornell

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From the Department of Education’s investigation into discrimination at Cornell to a former trustee’s rebuke of the University’s “misguided commitment” to diversity, equity and inclusion, diversity at Cornell has been a topic of contention throughout the 2023-2024 academic year.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s newly-admitted Class of 2028 stands as the first admitted after the United States Supreme Court overturned affirmative action, prohibiting colleges that accept federal funding from considering race as a factor in admissions decisions.

Given diversity’s evolving climate, The Sun traced Cornell’s history of DEI initiatives and milestones, from the University’s founding to the present day.

Early Diversity at Cornell

Cornell’s founding ethos as “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study” intentionally included women, a rarity in 1865. Women attended classes from the University’s founding, although they could not attend for degree credit until 1870, when Cornell became the first co-educational school in the Ivy League.

Emma Sheffield Eastman made history as the first female to graduate from Cornell in 1873. 

An 1883 article by The Harvard Crimson recounted then-President Andrew White’s views on the matter.

“[White] says that [co-education’s] influence on student life is to make that life more decent; that co-education at Cornell is a success and that sooner or later it will be the rule at all live educational institutions deserving of the name,” The Harvard Crimson stated.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries marked the beginning of racial integration at the University. William Bowler, heralding from Haiti, broke new ground as the first African-descended student in 1869. 

Following suit, Elias Fausto Pacheco Jordão became the first South American and Ryokichi Yatabe the first Japanese graduate in 1875 and 1876, respectively. 

Dr. Estevan Fuertes, originally from Puerto Rico, became Cornell’s first professor of color in 1873. He also made history as Cornell’s first Dean as well as professor of engineering. The Fuertes Observatory in North Campus is named in honor of him.

In 1890, George Washington Fields, a former slave, received his degree from the department of law at Cornell, now Cornell Law School, becoming the first African-American law graduate. Upon returning home to Hampton, Virginia, he became a leading attorney in the region. 

In 1909, Marvin Jack (Tuscarora) became the first Native American to graduate with a Cornell bachelor’s degree. 

Civil Rights Era (1954-1968)

The Civil Rights Era ushered in a new wave of activism at Cornell. Landmark decisions including Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established new standards for higher education equality.

Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights activity said universities need to desegregate their populations and to be more inclusive,” said Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, Africana studies and literature. “But becoming more inclusive was not only having the physical bodies of students on campus, but how to accommodate their culture, their history.”

In April 1969, a group of Black students staged a protest at Willard Straight Hall denouncing on-campus racism, marking a pivotal moment in the fight for racial equality at Cornell. The demonstration started peacefully, though its participants later acquired weapons, and ended after two days without enacted violence.

The protest came at a time when Cornell’s undergraduate body was 93 percent white. The 7 percent of the student body identified as non-white was comprised of 307 Black, 202 American Indian, 125 Asian and 56 “Spanish surname[d]” students out of a total student body of 9681. 

The protest led to significant changes, including the founding of the Africana Studies and Research Center by Prof. Emeritus, James Turner, African American politics and social policy, in 1969.

The center was initially set to be called the “Center for Afro-American Studies,” although Turner relabeled “Africana Studies” to encapsulate the in-depth examination of the African diaspora and Black communities.

Davies explained that Turner “put into place the knowledge system which would be representative of the breadth of the African diaspora, not just the United States,” also including Black culture and knowledge from Africa and the Caribbean. 

Today, the term “Africana Studies” is widely used in academia as a foundational theory for African American and Black studies.

The center opened in September 1969 with an initial 160 students, seven faculty members and ten courses at 320 Wait Ave, but was destroyed within seven months due to suspected arson. 

The center was moved to 310 Triphammer Road, and the original site now holds a plaque to commemorate it. 

Around this time, Indigenous students also mobilized. In 1971, Cornell’s only two Indigenous students, Roger Dube (Mohawk and Abenaki) and Janine Jamieson-Huff (Tonawanda Seneca) co-founded the Native American Student Association.

NASAC petitioned then President Dale R. Corson for improved efforts to recruit Indigenous students, Indigenous course offerings and an “Indian living unit.” The organization also undertook efforts to educate the Cornell community about Indigenous culture.

In 1972, NASAC filed a complaint against Cornell with the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare for falsely claiming that its Committee on Special Education Projects visited Indigenous schools to recruit student applicants. COSEP’s purpose was to recruit and retain underrepresented students at Cornell. 

HEW launched a federal investigation in 1972 and warned Cornell that it would withhold all federal funding if the issue was not corrected.

Cornell thereafter funded a 1972 conference designed by NASAC featuring Haudenosaunee community leaders and setting the path for future advocacies and developments that eventually led to the creation of Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program in 1983.

Late 20th Century 

In subsequent decades, Cornell further expanded its diversity initiatives with the establishment of centers and programs for Latino, female, disabled and LGBTQ+ communities.

In 1987, the Hispanic Studies Program at Cornell University was founded. The program’s establishment resulted from coordination between Hispanic students, administrators and professors who initiated discussions with the University’s administration starting in 1985.

These discussions focused on creating a program dedicated to the study of Hispanic and Latino experiences in the U.S. Shortly after its establishment, the program was renamed the Hispanic American Studies Program to better reflect its mission and vision. In 1995, the program’s name was changed to the Latino Studies Program to be more inclusive.

In November 1993, a group of approximately 100 Latino students and their supporters occupied Day Hall for four days after administrators refused to speak to the group about addressing on-campus vandalism and hate speech. The occupants advocated for improved Latino representation, recruitment and financial aid. 

In response to the takeover, Cornell created the Latino Living Center in 1994, transformed the Hispanic American Studies Program into the more well-funded Latino Studies Program, hired more Latino professors and created courses that reflected the diversity of the Latino community.

Eduardo Peñalver helped lead the occupation and went on to become the 16th Dean of Cornell Law School.

In a statement to The Sun, Peñalver wrote that the occupation “expanded opportunities for Latin students by increasing the visibility of our issues on campus when they had largely flown under the radar up to that point. Following the protests, the University seemed to invest more seriously in the success of the Latino/a Studies Program (at that time, the Hispanic American Studies Program) and in the hiring of Latin faculty, etc.”

Cornell also created the LGBT Resource Office in 1994, Women’s Resource Center in 1998 and Student Disability Services in 1999.

21st Century Initiatives

Entering the new millennium, Cornell created the Department of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity in 2004, followed by initiatives like the creation of the China and Asia-Pacific Studies program and the Latina/Latino Student Success Office in 2005.

2008 marked a milestone for the diversity makeup of students at Cornell, as it was the first year that less than 50 percent of undergraduates reported being white U.S. citizens.

Current Diversity Landscape

Today, Cornell hosts a variety of programs and resources aimed at promoting equality, such as the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, which supports first-generation and minority students. Likewise, the statistical representation of women and minorities in its population has drastically increased since 1865.

According to Common Data Sets or institutional research pages and based on total undergraduate data, Cornell’s diversity statistics roughly align with or surpass those of its Ivy League peers.

The Ivy League, including Cornell, has a generally balanced gender ratio with approximately half women and half men.

Racial and ethnic diversity, measured by the percentage of total undergraduate students of color who are not international students, is less uniform.

As of Fall 2023, Cornell had approximately 53 percent minority students, defined as African American or Black, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian and those of two or more races. This surpassed the Ivy League average of about 49 percent.

While Cornell increases DEI initiatives, incidents of discrimination have still been reported in recent years.

In 2017, a Black Cornell student was hospitalized after being attacked and called the N-word by a group of white men in Collegetown. 

At least one white Cornell student was arrested and charged.

In response and under the leadership of Black Students United, over 300 students occupied Willard Straight Hall in peaceful protest, the same location where the 1969 protest against discrimination towards Black students had occurred almost 50 years prior.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia

Following the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October 2023, incidents of both Islamophobia and antisemitism have occurred on campus.

In March 2024, a Muslim student was spat on in Collegetown during Ramadan, a holy holiday for Muslims. Likewise, in October 2023, a Cornell undergraduate threatened to “stab,” “slit [the] throat[s] of” and rape Jewish students on Cornell’s Greekrank forum, a platform for discussions about fraternities and sororities. 

Both Jewish and Muslim Cornell students have expressed fear for their safety on campus since the war began.

In late 2023, the Department of Education opened numerous investigations into universities including Cornell, Columbia and Princeton, to look into the institutions’ handling of antisemitic and anti-Muslim incidents under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VI legally mandates that any federally funded institution must ensure a learning environment free from discrimination based on race, color or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.

The Department of Education has not released which schools are respectively being investigated for antisemitic or anti-Muslim harassment.

The investigations are ongoing, and thus no definitive legal judgments have yet been made by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

In response to alleged instances of bias on campus, Cornell has issued various University statements condemning antisemitism, Islamophobia and other kinds of hatred.

Affirmative Action Overturn

Underrepresented minority representation in higher education could decline due to the Supreme Court’s June 2023 ruling against race-based affirmative action. While Cornell has not yet released Common Data Set data for Fall 2024, according to a 2023 study by Georgetown University, the ruling is anticipated to decrease African American and Black, Native American and Latino representation in higher education.

Following the ruling, Cornell added an identity-based essay for its college applications beginning in 2023, reading:  “We remain committed to the importance of diversity in our educational mission. Explain how your life experiences, particularly with a community that is important to you, will enrich our … ‘any person’ … ethos. We encourage you to think about community broadly. This could include family, school, or larger social circles.”

In a University statement after the Supreme Court ruling, President Martha Pollack wrote: “Cornell will follow the law, but within its scope we will remain a welcoming community, with strong core values and an unwavering adherence to our historic founding principle: to be a University where ‘any person can find instruction in any study.’”

Christine Savino is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].

Correction, June 14, 2:17 p.m.: A previous version of this article misquoted a phrase from Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, Africana studies and literature.