Soon-to-be-released report will help Cornell proactively promote diversity, says Vice Provost Robert Harris

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"This moment is an opportunity for Cornell," said Robert Harris Jr., Cornell vice provost for diversity and faculty development. "We're going to have a major turnover in the coming years, so we now have the opportunity to develop the faculty of the future over the next decade."

That opportunity will soon be revealed when the university releases a proactive promotion plan for diversity at Cornell.

The plan has been drawn up, said Harris, to ensure that Cornell is a "free and open community" where all people are recognized and rewarded on the basis of performance, and not on such factors as personal convictions, happenstance of birth, appearance or personal preferences. Harris offers these highlights of the plan:

Faculty diversity

Cornell has 350 full-time women faculty members, more than any other Ivy League institution, according to "Academe: Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors." However, in the percentage of women faculty, Cornell ranks in the middle, with about 25 percent. More than 13 percent -- 208 members -- of the faculty are minorities, a jump of 36 percent over the past decade. The Provost's Academic Diversity Postdoctoral Program and the Women in Science and Engineering Program have helped to increase those numbers.

To recruit faculty, Cornell helps partners of potential hires find jobs in the area through its Dual Career Office and via the budding Upstate New York Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, a clearinghouse of jobs in higher education throughout the region.

Harris said that the fall report of the Provost's Faculty Work Life Survey will identify "micro-inequities" on campus that, when resolved, will help administrators retain faculty. Salaries, laboratory space issues and promotions to tenure and full professorships are already annually reviewed. Other programs that help retain faculty -- as well as staff -- include a parental leave policy for either parent, child-care subsidies, adoption assistance, religious accommodation, flexible work and disabilities policies.

Student diversity

Cornell champions its needs-blind admissions policy. But it faces a major challenge in how to compete with schools that offer merit or athletic scholarships -- Cornell doesn't -- as well as how to compete with such universities as Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which offer free tuition with no loans attached for students whose family incomes are below a certain level. Cornell offers many need-based scholarships, including free tuition, but loans are usually part of the package, Harris said.

Nevertheless, Cornell is one of the most economically diverse major research universities, said Harris, and it continues to recruit more underrepresented minority students (applications from minorities went up some 22 percent last year and almost 30 percent in the past two years) and women in the sciences via direct outreach and pre-freshman summer programs.

The Multicultural Hosting Weekend brings accepted students to Cornell in an effort to get them to choose Cornell. Another boon is the Cornell Alumni Mentoring Program, coordinated by Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education, which matches first-year students with appropriate alumni. Almost 400 minority students have already signed up for the program.

Each college also has a diversity office, and Cornell's various ethnic study programs have been beefed up in recent years with more faculty lines, offices and buildings. Students also have the option of living in specialized units that specifically support African-American, Latino, Native American and international students.

"Cornell has something for everyone, and I think that range of choice helps us attract, retain and graduate more students," said Harris. "As a result, we have been closing the gap in graduation rates of African-American, Latino and other minority students in recent years."

For the class entering in 1999, for example, 83 percent of African-American students graduated within six years, compared with 79 percent of African-Americans who graduated from the class that entered in 1990. Similarly for the 1999 entering class, 90 percent of Hispanic students graduated within six years, compared with 82 percent who graduated from the 1990 entering class. The percentage of white students who graduated within six years was still higher, however, at 94 percent for those who graduated from the 1999 entering class, up from 92 percent for those who graduated from the 1990 entering class.

"We want to close that gap further," Harris stated. A major study with the Teagle Foundation to be released late this summer will offer specific suggestions on how to do that.

Other initiatives on campus to retain students include efforts by Counseling and Psychological Services to target minority groups that traditionally have been reluctant to seek psychological services, and an extensive array of services from the Center for Learning and Teaching, which provides free tutors, review sessions and other support for students.

Staff recruitment and retention

Having a welcoming environment for staff is important too. An example of efforts to ensure one is the work being done by Dave Richardson, an electrician in Planning, Design and Construction, and Constance Thompson, manager of human resources' recruitment and diversity efforts, in conjunction with Human Resources' Skilled Trades Diversity Council to recruit more women and minorities into such fields as carpentry, masonry, electrical and plumbing.

In the past decade, the number of professional staff positions held by minorities has risen to 184 from 107; in just the past year, 22 minority professionals were hired, said Harris.

Campus climate

Students come to Cornell from all over the world and from all kinds of families, including some with specific prejudices, Harris noted. During orientation, stereotypes and expectations about language skills and behaviors are openly discussed. The First-Year Reading Project, initiated by Provost Biddy Martin, brings students together to discuss a provocative book that this year ("The Great Gatsby") and last year ("Things Fall Apart") addresses issues involving ethnic and economic differences.

"Asian students report that someone will say to them, 'Hey, you speak good English,' when the student is already a fourth- or fifth-generation Asian-American," said Harris. "Or students come here having never met a person with a different sexual orientation or of a particular ethnicity."

Although students can choose to live in a program house for a year or two, most won't do so for all four years. "We are a community of communities," said Harris. Students also can choose from more than 800 student organizations, many of them supporting diverse orientations and affiliations. The assistant dean of students for diversity and outreach and the director of student affairs and diversity in Campus Life provide programming to enrich students' experiences across a range of differences. Harris noted that "we expect students not just to tolerate each other but to take advantage of our diverse community and to actively engage and learn from each other."

Another initiative to foster an inclusive campus is the Bias Response Program within the Office of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality, which tracks all kinds of bias incidents, from derogatory comments to hate crimes. "We track for patterns from year to year so we can identify whether we should be developing programs to counter those acts," Harris said.

What is the overall message in the diversity report? Harris refers to Cornell's statement on diversity and inclusiveness: "Cornell's legacy of diversity and inclusion is reflected in the diverse composition of our community, the breadth of our curriculum, the strength of our public service and the depth of our commitment to freedom, equity and reason."


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