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Diversity and the Nature of Cornell

For those who have yet to listen to the NPR podcast that Andy previously posted about, I strongly urge you to do so. The segment rather nicely addresses issues facing minority students as they seek to navigate the often confusing and scary admissions process to find the school that may be their best fit—or where they will feel the most comfortable.

Issues of diversity and inclusiveness at Cornell are a two-headed monster, and in many ways, one of the University’s great strengths can be perceived as a competitive weakness. Cornell perhaps encapsulates more socioeconomic, ethnic, academic, and international diversity than any other selective private university in America. But as a result, our alma mater is not necessarily a cohesive entity, and it is often a challenging place for underclassmen to navigate. It has a fraternities and co-ops, farm boys and city slickers, and engineers, architects, food scientists, and hotel managers. Or as some Big Red hockey-fans like to claim, it is a loose federation of fiefdoms united by a common hockey team.

Can any college campus have it both ways -- is it possible to have diversity and inclusiveness? Or does an increase in campus diversity necessarily lead to an increased level of self-segregation on campus? And what exactly do students want?

The final outcome of the NPR podcast is a little bit telling. The student faced between choosing Cornell and Xavier ultimately chooses the more ‘nurturing’ Xavier, claiming “Who wouldn’t want to feel loved?”

Granted, Cornell isn’t the most ‘loving’ of places (except, for maybe, Slope Day), but for the most part, I think that Cornell does a pretty good job of fostering supportive interactions and inclusiveness on its very diverse campus. Some students may be quick to complain that it is ‘self-segregating’, but I don’t think it is as bad as it is at some other colleges. And it’s pretty hard to get by with four years on the hill without meeting people who have incredibly different backgrounds than oneself; anybody who wants to cultivate diverse friendships with people from all walks of life is more than able to do so. Any college that is more inclusive than Cornell is most likely much smaller or far more homogenous.

Moreover, Andy is right—Cornell does do relatively well in terms of minority retention and graduation (although this metric varies across Cornell’s colleges) – even though it could offer a more supportive environment to all of its students, regardless of background. For instance, many students spend four years on East Hill without learning about some of the helpful counseling services that Gannett provides. Elsewhere, there are complaints in some colleges (especially in some of the more-patrician departments in the College of Arts and Sciences) that faculty do not necessarily always live up to their mentoring/advising roles. But it’s not all bad: relative to a place like Harvard, where undergraduates regularly complain that they do not even get to see their advisers (or that their advisers are graduate students, not faculty), Cornell can sometimes feel like a cozy liberal arts college (especially in the smaller colleges and departments).

Plus, as many alums will claim, the sense of accomplishement upon graduating from a challenging, diverse university like Cornell may be unrivaled.

There’s no doubt that the new West Campus House system is addressing a lot of these issues. Students in the Cook and Becker houses already report a more diverse sense of community living there. But there’s always a limit as to how much effort the university administration should exert to make Cornell a ‘loving place’. After all, students should also be actively engaged in making their environment an inclusive and supportive place, and if they aren't interested in challening themselves to contribute to the campus community at large, then Cornell is probably not the best place for them. As Andrew Dickson White told Cornell’s first entering class, “You are here to build a university.”

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 01, 2006 (#)

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