MAXWELL:  The great divide on campus

11/9/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A half-mile-wide ravine traverses a major portion of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The ravine, called a “gorge” by students and locals, physically separates North Campus from West Campus, with large numbers of whites living on one side and blacks on the other.

If Cornell _ the academy _ is a microcosm of race and ethnic relations in the United States, we are in big trouble. And if the school’s troubles are indicators of our future, we are facing bleak times as a nation.

After all, our future leaders in all areas of American life are being trained and educated at our institutions of higher learning.

The Oct. 17 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Cornell’s president, Hunter R. Rawlings III, wants to unite this highly segregated Ivy League enclave by requiring all freshmen to reside in the same area.

Here is a description of the mess that Rawlings faces: For several years now, the university has had “program houses,” dormitories that let students with the same cultural, ethnic and academic interests live together. Heated controversy has arisen over the three houses that focus on ethnicity because, as critics argue, they perpetuate “racial balkanization” in a setting that should be drawing young people together to learn how to tackle problems in the world outside.

Instead, from the first day that a student steps onto campus, the opposite is happening. Freshmen can decide if they want to reside on West Campus or North Campus. Blacks, American Indians, Hispanics and other minorities occupy more than half of the dorm space on North Campus, with whites taking up 70 percent of the beds on West Campus.

During an interview with the Chronicle, Rawlings was blunt in his estimation of the situation: “Cornell’s gorges are not simply geographical features; they have come to divide the student body socially, culturally, and, to some degree, even racially.”

Rawlings’ solution? He proposes to require all freshmen to reside on North Campus, where all program houses will have to be located if they want freshmen residents. Currently, freshmen make up 54 percent of the theme house population, which includes Ujamaa Residential College for African-Americans and Akwe:kon for American Indians.

Under the new plan, the count will be reduced to a quarter of the current program house head count. But many Akwe:kon student leaders believe that the new percentages will give officials a free hand to reject a disproportionately high number of American Indians for the theme house.

Cornell has attracted the attention of Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. He alleges that the school is guilty of race-based housing assignments.

Although the department threw out the complaint in September, Meyers insists that Cornell should drop program houses and return to a random lottery system that would let students of different races and ethnicities live together. “Anything short of that is a capitulation on the university’s part,” he told the Chronicle.

Rawlings is to be commended for his efforts. But he apparently underestimated the depth of race and ethnic consciousness at Cornell. His belated wake-up call came after a committee of 20 professors, students and administrators returned with a report that challenged his core philosophy.

In a draft of his proposal, he wrote of “promoting integration across racial, ethnic, college, and class-year distinctions.” Little did Rawlings know that the word “integration” has become verboten in the language of race. For many of today’s minority students, especially blacks, integration is another multisyllabic term for assimilation. In other words, minority students see a conspiracy to force them to give up their identity to be like whites.

In fact, the committee rewrote the integrationist language of Rawlings. Instead of “promoting integration,” the committee envisions “promoting meaningful interaction and connection across differences.”

Thus far, Rawlings has not faced the anger that he experienced in the spring of 1996, when he first introduced the housing proposal. Rallies occurred for several weeks, and 16 students went on a hunger strike.

Unfortunately, Cornell’s is not an isolated case. Campuses in other parts of the nation are seeing the rise of theme housing and other forms of balkanization. But no one should be surprised because our universities are no better than the forces that shape the rest of the nation.

Given the current, fractious debate on race and affirmative action, many people _ including our university students _ in all parts of the country are choosing sides. Is separatism, then, the new destiny on campus? Perhaps so, especially when the word “integration” continues to lose favor.

When asked why “integration” was deleted from Cornell’s housing proposal, Susan H. Murphy, the head of the committee and vice president for student and academic services, said: “It appeared to be a push-button word, and we didn’t want to push a button.”