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Diversity Digest: Bias response program marks fifth year

This month marks the fifth year of Cornell University's bias response program.

The universitywide program addresses bias activities (based on race, national origin, sexual orientation and gender) that were not previously addressed through existing discrimination complaint processes.

The program has its roots in a November 1998 "respect" campaign initiated by Campus Life and Community Centers, which culminated in a system for addressing bias activity within residence halls. In April 1999, Cornell and Ithaca College's residence hall executive boards held a candlelight vigil, "Not in Our City, Not on Our Campuses, Not in Our Community," to denounce bias-related activities that had occurred in 1998 on both campuses.

Campus Life's bias program was used as the model for developing a universitywide program, which began in April 2000.

"We saw an important opportunity to embrace our commitment to fostering welcoming and safe communities by developing and implementing a bias response program founded upon educational principles," said LeNorman Strong, assistant vice president for student and academic services and a leader in the development of the model program. "By attending to the incident, the victim and the perpetrator in a sensitive, supportive and direct way, we've been able to teach and learn, while also enhancing the feeling of community among [participating] students, faculty and staff."

After receiving feedback from deans, students and university administrators, the program was revised and streamlined to supplement existing procedures addressing discrimination issues and was implemented in November 2000.

Since that time, the program has proven effective in helping the university reduce and respond to issues that affect its commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

The bias response program's goals are to ensure appropriate follow-up and assistance to individuals who have experienced bias activity; provide information that can assist Cornell in assessing its progress in improving the campus climate of diversity and inclusiveness; and educate students, faculty and staff about the impact of bias activity on the Cornell community. As a result of information obtained through the program, a number of proactive programs have been developed, including awareness programs in residence halls and topics for the One Vision, Many Voices student orientation program.

The program tracks activity defined as bias crime (which is reported to the Department of Justice by Cornell Police) as well as bias incidents, a term for activity that does not rise to the level of a bias crime or discrimination but is nevertheless related to the university's diversity and inclusiveness goals.

A bias incident is an act of bigotry, harassment or intimidation on campus or in an area that affects the Cornell community, that could be reasonably assumed to be directed at a member or group of the Cornell community based on actual or perceived color, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/presentation, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status or any combination of these or related factors. Incidents commonly occur when the identity of the alleged perpetrator is not known or is not reasonably identifiable.

"The bias response program is a vital component to our diversity programs," said Susan Murphy, vice president of student and academic services. "It has allowed us to be aware of incidents that have an impact on an individual or a community and prompted us to be more proactive in our outreach and educational efforts. We believe it is making a positive difference."

In September 2005, the university celebrated the five-year anniversary of the bias program as part of the celebration of the Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds diversity and inclusiveness initiative. The next steps for the program are to increase awareness of the program, particularly within staff and faculty ranks.

"We strive to create a truly inclusive workplace environment," said Mary George Opperman, vice president for human resources. "One aspect of inclusiveness is the ability to raise and address issues in a manner that is open and supportive. The bias response program provides a safe, responsive opportunity for all members of our community to raise a concern and receive support. We are pleased with its usage among the students and want to be certain our staff and faculty are aware of the program and feel comfortable using it as well."

Information on the bias program as well as the most recent data on bias incidents and crimes is available at http://www.ohr.cornell.edu/resolveWork/biasDiscrimHarass/index.html.

The Diversity Digest is one of the services provided by the university's Diversity Council. For information about the council, this column, the council's newsletter or about diversity initiatives at Cornell, contact co-chairs Robert L. Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development, at 255-5358 or rlh10@cornell.edu , or Lynette Chappell-Williams, director of the Office of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality, at 255-3976 or lc75@cornell.edu.

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