The racial attack at Sigma Pi last spring prompted an outpouring of demands from the leaders and supporters of minority organizations on campus. Now that the University has responded to the incident — creating a new staff position, placing the fraternity on probation and offering a new course on intercultural dialogue — protesters both expressed cautious optimism and emphasized the need for further reform.
Rebecca John ’14, one of the founding members of the Cornell University Women of Color Coalition, said that several of the University’s measures “could be positive” but stressed that none of them would be a cure-all solution.
“I don’t know what benefit the suspension of one frat would [have] for the larger Cornell community,” John said. “I hope it’s a catalyst for larger structural and cultural change.”
Similarly, Selam Gebre ’14, co-president of Black Students United, praised facets of the University’s most recent diversity push.
“I do not have any objections with the decision and the punishment placed on the fraternity, as long as they recognize their accountability and responsible steps are taken moving forward,” Gebre said. Sigma Pi has apologized for the incident.
Still, she said that Cornell must do more to eradicate forms of bias on campus.
“The role that diversity plays in increasing the learning environment is really dependent upon the University taking an accountable role in strengthening and encouraging the experiences that we have with one another,” Gebre said in an email. “I think the new pushes on diversity are good steps in the right direction and demonstrate the necessity of actively working to facilitate an inclusive environment.”
On May 6, an individual unaffiliated with the University threw beer bottles and cans and hurled racial epithets at black students below as they passed by the fraternity house. Cornell’s campus saw a wave of outrage from minority organizers demanding that the administration take direct action in response.
The outcry culminated in a protest on May 16 at which about 100 protesters marched from the Sigma Pi fraternity house to Day Hall, where various minority groups presented a list of demands to administrators.
Last Thursday, the University lifted its temporary suspension of Sigma Pi and announced that it would place the fraternity on probation for the 2012-13 academic year.
Minority leaders said they were not angry that the fraternity avoided major disciplinary consequences. Rather, they emphasized that the University needs to take action beyond addressing the incident as an isolated event.
Ashley Harrington ’13, an advisory board member of the Women’s Resource Center, said that the issue was part of “a larger structure.”
Harrington said the University’s actions have not addressed the demands made by protestors in May. Its response to the issue, Harrington said, focused on diversity and not anti-oppression, as the protesters had asked.
“Having more people of color in the Greek system is not going to solve the problem,” she said. “Diversity means you can be white, Asian and black in the same room. It doesn’t mean anti-racism.”
Other leaders of minority organizations, however, spoke more positively about the University’s diversity initiatives.
John said it was more productive to focus on new steps to foster diversity, such as the newly-created Intergroup Dialogue Project, instead of Sigma Pi’s fate.
According to the course description, the project will “create a setting in which students engage in open and constructive dialogue, learning and exploration concerning issues of intergroup relations, conflict and community.”
According to E-chieh Lin, an administrative assistant for the Intergroup Dialogue Project, the project was conceived before the bias incident in May. However, she said that the incident likely encouraged people to become more excited about the course.
Listed as EDUC 2610, the class will focus on not only race, but also other topics such as socioeconomic differences and gender, Lin said.
Still, she expressed concern about the effectiveness of the University’s diversity goals, mentioning the instances of two alleged hate crimes before the start of classes.
“Why is it that every year I can predict that something bad will happen?” Harrington said.