Christine D. Lovely, left, vice president and chief human resources officer, leads a panel featuring Avery August, Ph.D. ’94, deputy provost and presidential adviser for diversity and equity, and Kathryn J. Boor ’80, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education.

Inclusive Excellence Summit promotes connection

More than 400 Cornell employees and community members attended the fifth annual Inclusive Excellence Summit, gathering virtually and in-person over the two-day event on March 26 and April 17 to show their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.   

This year’s summit was designed with the hopes of challenging participants to think about those who are often excluded from efforts to create inclusive working environments. 

Raquel Willis, an award-winning transgender activist and journalist, kicked off the virtual summit with a keynote discussion of her personal and professional experiences as a Black trans woman. She urged listeners to “leave the soil of the workplace richer than before” by honoring the unique experiences and identities of colleagues and engaging in conversations that elevate this vulnerability and authenticity in places of work.   

For many attendees, the summit created an opportunity to reflect on recent challenges to their work and develop tangible action steps and connections with others in similar roles.

An audience member listens as a panel of Cornell leaders speaks during the Inclusive Excellence Summit in the Statler Ballroom.

“It has been a difficult academic year, not only on our campus but on campuses across the United States,” said Sonia R. Rucker, associate vice president of inclusion and belonging, referencing the 84 bills targeting diversity programs that have been introduced since 2023, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Among those, 12 have become law, and 13 are awaiting signatures from governors. 

“The work we do in our office and many offices across the university is primarily to educate, train, support and ensure that everyone is aware of DEI and understands how to remain in compliance with our policies and procedures,” Rucker said. “The work we do – that’s the floor. The ceiling, however, is where a sense of belonging comes in, and that’s created by the leaders of various departments, units and divisions at Cornell. They set the tone for a more inclusive and equitable environment based on how well they support and promote diversity, equity and inclusion and embed it in their work.” 

A panel moderated by Christine D. Lovely, vice president and chief human resources officer, commenced day two of the summit, addressing how senior leadership at Cornell currently prioritizes these principles and what inspires them to do so.   

Kathryn J. Boor ’80, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education, shared how she arrived at Cornell as a first-generation college student from a small family farm in rural New York, feeling as though she hardly belonged. Avery August, Ph.D. ’94, deputy provost and presidential adviser for diversity and equity, shared his involvement in the Belonging at Cornell framework and how it is designed to make Cornell a more diverse and inclusive environment for students like Boor and individuals from unique backgrounds and lived experiences.  

Other panelists included Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology; Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Jose Martinez, senior associate dean for diversity and academic affairs in Cornell Engineering, all of whom addressed how they lead their colleges and units when presented with challenges and threats to DEI.  

“Any time there is a sense of resistance, I have come to learn as a climate scientist, dean and member of society, that it is evidence that you are making progress,” Houlton said. “And so, we must turn that energy into something positive. We do that by bringing people together with a sense of purpose, gratitude, humility and responsibility. And from those things, you can always find a way to move forward.” For the remainder of the summit, attendees engaged in sessions that focused on resolving conflict in the workplace through communication to addressing campus speech conflicts to driving change through action planning. These sessions expanded upon conversations initially introduced by sessions in the virtual summit, such as media literacy, the ILR School’s Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative Restorative Record project and exploring free speech in the workplace.  

“We set out to create an opportunity for all of us, who are dedicated to embedding diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into the fabric of our systems and environments,” said Erin Sember-Chase, DEI learning consultant for the Department of Inclusion and Belonging. “This is a moment to leave our desks for the day and come together to discuss common goals and challenges we’re up against. It is our hope that participants leave feeling a little less alone and a little more connected as we go back to our offices and lives to continue the good fight and the good work.” 

Sponsored and organized by Cornell’s Department of Inclusion and Belonging, this was the second year the summit was held across two days – one virtual event followed by an in-person event nearly three weeks later. This allowed staff and faculty in any location to learn and develop skills for cultivating a diverse and equitable workplace. 

Grace DePaull is a writer for the Division of Human Resources. 

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Lindsey Knewstub