On April 4, I had the pleasure of attending the Perkins Prize Award ceremony, a prize celebrating “the Cornell student, faculty, staff member, or program making the most significant contribution to furthering the ideal of university community while respecting the values of racial diversity.” While it was inspiring to hear from the Cornell DREAM team, the Women of Color Coalition, and the Cornell Asian Pacific Islander Student Union, I learned quite a bit more at the dinner afterwards. There, a staff member asked me point blank, “What do you think the racial climate on campus is?”
I responded that I did not think it was my place to say what the racial climate was. “I think we need to keep all lines of communication open so that if someone feels like there is a poor racial climate they can speak up about what needs to be changed,” I said.
She quickly responded, “That did not answer my question.”
True, I had not. I took another stab. “It can always be improved. I think there are certain things Cornell does well and others that might need changing.”
“That still didn’t answer it,” came the reply.
True again. At this point, a student sitting next to me piqued up. “I think the racial climate is terrible. People don’t ‘get’ race here.”
People don’t get race? I was certainly aware that there were issues on campus related to race: African American males have a six-year graduation rate  17 percentage points lower than average, for one. Asians are twice as likely to attempt suicide, for another. But does the racial climate on campus contribute to these phenomena? Is the racial climate on campus actually terrible?
Since then, I have met with a variety of students to get their views on race at Cornell. President Skorton announced new diversity goals in an email to the University on Feb. 15, and I was curious to hear if people were confident that this new agenda would make a difference. I met with a leader of CAPSU, and asked what she thought about President Skorton’s diversity goals.
“I hate the word diversity,” she said. “Originally, the concept was anti-racism, then it was multiculturalism, now its diversity. But that language has moved us away from the original goal, which is eliminating racism and race-based differences in life chances. Now, if we have a white, straight, male professor with liberal views and a white, straight, male professor with conservative views we call ourselves diverse.”
Cornell’s new “anti-racism goals” might not have quite the same ring to them.
Based on these comments, I asked some of the trustees what their thoughts on diversity were. One response stuck with me, “I failed tests when I was here. But when I failed a test, I took it as a sign that I needed to work harder. Some people take it as a sign that they don’t belong here, and that’s what we need to counteract. If people feel included, they won’t beat themselves up over failure.”
What quickly became clear (if it had not already been so) is that “diversity initiatives” need to reach past numbers and make sure that people feel included. No good comes from having a diverse incoming class if students do not feel welcome on this campus. And that feeling of being welcome plays into many other issues ranging from academic success to mental health to sexual assault.
The point of presenting all these opinions is not to construct a coherent view on a racial climate — far from it, because it is impossible to essentialize the viewpoints from all over campus into one statement. The point I mean to make is simple, that views on diversity are diverse. As much as Cornell is beating national benchmarks on hiring faculty of color, on student retention rates or on other quantitative measures, there is discontent. Whether or not you agree with the exact sentiments expressed (for example, I personally think the word diversity encompasses more than “anti-racism”) those views are legitimate, must be understood and must be addressed.
There is no silver bullet to improving a racial climate on campus; a plethora of policies is needed. Honest communication, both within groups and between them, is a good way to start. These talks should encompass not only where we want to be in the future but how we got to the present. But, as I learned, keeping lines of communication open does not really answer the question. Talk must lead to action.
Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com . Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.