Intentional momentum: The state of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus

The work of contributing to making the campus more inclusive as an alumna of color, former interim director of Intercultural Life, and social justice advocate is personal. I spent 16 years, directly and indirectly, moving the conversation forward.

The time for Cornell to take the next big step resulted in the creation of the senior diversity officer role in July of 2020 to address systemic racism on campus. 

Language matters
When terms like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) caught traction for individuals outside of the field, the phrase “now more than ever” resurfaced, and honestly, it irked me to my core. As if the gut-wrenching work of Nat Turner’s Revolt (1831) to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to Black Lives Matter (2013) were not urgent enough. My body, this fight, these conversations are not a trend. For some of us, we have been exhausting ourselves and justifying our existence all of our lives. For others, the real work, the ownership, the accountability, has just begun. 

Before diving any deeper, it is essential to take the time to define the key terminology used. The Office of Intercultural Life defines the following terms: 

  • Diversity—the differences in identities and practices regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ideology, geographic origin, age, etc.
  • Equity—the fair and respectful treatment of those people and their differences
  • Inclusion—the understanding, respect, and acceptance of those differences

To be clear, you can have diversity and not have inclusion, and without equity, we miss the opportunity to ask who is not at the table and why aren’t they here. There can be a diverse room; however, the environment needs to be psychologically safe to express oneself freely, feel heard and valued. These concepts work anywhere from the boardroom to the student experience. The more intentional the efforts, the easier the transformation. DEI work cannot just be transactional; it needs to be relational similar to our Each One Teach One orientation. 

Director of Intercultural Life and senior diversity officer
When Hemie Collier first stepped on campus in 2008 as a football coach, he connected immediately to the Office of Intercultural Life [pictured above: A mural in Stoner House, the home of Cornell’s Intercultural Life Office] and by 2016 he was assistant director of the office. Now, 13 years later, Collier is the senior diversity officer and in the position to enhance the college’s vision around DEI initiatives. One of Collier’s goals is to be at the forefront of DEI work and serve as a model for other small liberal arts institutions.

With this understanding, Collier wasted no time moving initiatives forward to set the mission, vision, and direction of diversity and making Cornell a more diverse and equitable place. The campus is currently examining itself and asking questions like, what are we doing to make sure all students feel safe on campus? How can we enhance education for everyone on campus? How are our students affected?

All of this work begins with examining Cornell’s foundation. Collier admits, “Some things we are looking at are easy fixes like making an intentional effort to figure out what is going on. We are trying to fix a system that started in 1853 when conversations about privilege were not at the forefront of people’s minds, and it’s not going to change overnight.” 

Re-examining and dismantling these structures will take time. 

The Cornell student body is diverse; 73% of the students are not from Iowa, one out of every four students on campus is of color, and various socio-economic, political backgrounds, and sexual orientations comprise today’s Hilltop population. The question then becomes, how do we learn how to navigate these differences?

The three-to-five-year plan
The work of examining ourselves starts at the top, as President Jonathan Brand continues to support Cornell’s foundational shift.

“I was acutely aware that I am not an expert in DEI-related matters,” Brand said. “As a result, I decided that I needed to educate myself. I have made it a priority to attend as many DEI-related programs on campus as possible, particularly those led by students. I’ve asked several on campus to explore and share how we spend our money on campus to determine whether we have been unintentionally acting in an inequitable way.”

Here is where Brand began reading numerous key texts in the field including “White Fragility,” “How To Be An Anti-Racist,” and “Me and White Supremacy.” 

DEI efforts continue to expand into the short-term, three-year plan with three areas of focus:

  • The student experience and campus environment
  • Academics 
  • Athletics

Within these three main categories live 16 initiatives spanning campus. This includes the development of an Indigenous land acknowledgment, a statement affirming that the college occupies the unceded territory of the Meskwaki Nation, and building a working relationship with them. There is also work around decolonization of the curriculum, and evaluating Cornell’s Title IX compliance, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or educational program that receives federal money.  

In addition, the Office of Intercultural Life, Director of Athletics Seth Wing, the NCAA Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC), and the Midwest Conference SAAC are working together to implement a Unity Pledge for Cornell student-athletes starting the fall of 2021. Following the lead of the NCAA and Cornell’s SAAC, Wing said, “will allow our student-athletes an opportunity to collectively take a stance of a united front for equality for all.” 

The diversity strategic plan includes evaluating the direction of the institution over a two- to three-year period. 

“It is not just about reviewing our programs. I really want to dive into policy, culture, and practices on campus because some of our policies, past and present, have affected marginalized populations,” Collier said.

The college’s commitment to the recruitment and retention of faculty of color is critical to the learning experience for all students. Provost and Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs Ilene Crawford ’92 is addressing this head-on. Through her new role, Crawford is making long-term shifts including working with the Faculty Council to appoint a faculty equity officer who will advise and oversee faculty searches.

“Every hire is an opportunity to strengthen our community by diversifying its perspectives and experiences,” Crawford said. “The faculty officer will also develop a faculty retention initiative with campus stakeholders to contribute to larger discussions and decisions about diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.” 

There has also been work around the restructuring of the Diversity Committee for sustainability and efficiency purposes. The ongoing DEI employee seminars have expanded and the launch of a new section of Cornell’s website dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion demonstrates the beginning of Cornell’s commitment. 

To make sure we are continuing the multi-layered approach, there are ways we can support Cornell’s DEI initiatives, Collier, and the Office of Intercultural Life. 

What can you do?
Thankfully there are a lot of people on campus who want to see change, and the process of building a new foundation and much of the work starts within. 

“I’ve learned that when people interact with each other, there is a lot going on in that interaction and we need to be alive to the nuances of human communication. Many small, seemingly innocent, transgressions can actually add up to big problems,” Brand said.

When posed with the question, What calls to action do you have for the campus, Collier said: “Take inventory of yourself. Take the next step of understanding everything is not about you. Ask yourself, what are you doing to better society? How are you contributing to the success of the community? Sometimes that can be just listening to somebody’s story. Finally, understand just because you do not understand someone’s story does not mean it is not valid. Your experience is not the only experience.” 

For students
A lot of the things you learn at Cornell are going to apply to your experience inside and outside of the classroom. There are different identities on campus. 

“As a student, you must be active in your education and be willing to learn outside of the classroom,” Collier said. “There is not only the academic piece associated. You have social and emotional learning happening simultaneously, so how can we skill-build together? Cornell is where you can work through how to navigate your challenges and successes together.”

For faculty, staff, and administration
Following in President Brand’s footsteps, it is important to take the time to educate oneself in DEI-related texts. The thought transformation is essential and requires everyone to be on the same page in defining and educating students on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’ve reached the point where we need to walk the talk with creating a base for DEI work on campus. 

The efforts to transform the campus should not solely land on the shoulders of the Office of Intercultural Life. The entire campus needs to be involved in the shift. 

“For some of us, it’s in the classroom, for some of us, it’s what they do on the field, for others it’s policy. We all play a part in how this works,” Collier said.

For alumni
Contributing to making an institution better than when we left it is crucial to the success of any college. We need to do a better job of supporting students. Collier’s dream is to create great alumni who want to give back, whether it be with their time as a mentor, focusing on strengthening the Cornell alumni network, or donating to a cause on campus focusing on DEI work. Ask yourself, what can I do as an alumna/nus to assist current students? 

Ultimately, Collier’s dream is for Cornell to be the premier place people think of when talking about DEI work that goes beyond the surface: “I want to create an environment where students are allowed to be themselves,” he said.

“There are good bones here,” Collier said. “This initiation may start with me, but it can’t end with me.” 

This work is not a trend. 

We are past the time where we are checking boxes and having the luxury of returning to our lives and calling ourselves allies. The world has shifted, and for some of us, the world is exactly the same. 

We must unlearn that we can do it ourselves. We all have different perspectives in life. We all bring different elements to this community. Evolution is messy, but we keep moving. There is work to be done. The outcome will outweigh the challenges and allow for a necessary rebirth.

Learn about the new Alumni of Color Association

Review Cornell’s DEI ongoing work.

See President Brand’s list of recommended reading.

Read the NCAA student-athlete pledge.