Oct. 29, 2009

Program houses are more than 'just beds to us,' student asserts at event with administrators

When it comes to program houses, many members of the Cornell community are stumped by such questions as: Can common culture be fostered without self-segregation? In what directions are program houses headed? How will students' voices be heard?

Such questions were the focus of a panel discussion, "Under Review: The Future of Program Houses at Cornell," Oct. 26 in Goldwin Smith Hall to address controversial issues of program houses and to plan their future at Cornell.

Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, began by answering questions about the Program House Program Review, which was launched last spring and sparked worry among students regarding the fate of program houses. The Division of Student and Academic Services, she said, "has as a matter of practice routinely reviewed programs that are within our purview. ... It's really a way of taking stock of what is it we're doing and [asking], is it succeeding?" She later added, "We are dedicated to program houses and they are not going away."

As to whether program houses promote self-segregation, Deputy Provost David Harris, a sociology professor, argued that students choose to live in program houses not to self-segregate, but to seek out people with common interests. He received applause after highlighting data showing that the percentage of white students in fraternities is higher than the percentage of black students in Ujamaa Residence Hall. "As we seek to understand why many African-American students choose to live in Ujamaa, we should consider what we can learn by asking why many white males choose to live in fraternities," said Harris.

Murphy said, "I challenge all of us to think about how we change the discussion on this, because I always feel like we're in a defensive or responsive mode."

Kakwireiosta Hall, residence hall director of Akwe:kon, which was built to celebrate Native American heritage, said that the live-in components of program houses make them more controversial than other inclusiveness initiatives at Cornell. She said that racially insensitive and derogatory comments toward Akwe:kon residents occur often and thus, "Students need a safe space that doesn't necessarily close at 5 o'clock."

Because of the costs associated with the program houses, questions about their benefits to the community at large were raised. "This question is exactly what a program house review should be looking at," Harris said. "Program houses have potential to address both inclusive diversity and engagement diversity, and what we have to do in the next step is figure out how we are doing."

Regarding students who did not request to live in a program house but are placed in one to fill empty beds, Murphy said that a number of measures have been taken to avoid this occurrence. Nevertheless, she added, "I don't consider it forced integration. I think it is an opportunity to expose students who may not have thought about it initially, and perhaps we should strengthen our resolve to not let students out [of their housing assignment] before they get here."

But program houses, responded panelist Zachary Murray '11, a member of several campus organizations promoting diversity, "should no longer be treated like beds. Those spaces are more than just beds to us." The only student on the panel, he also noted, "We don't have a voice at the table where real diversity decisions are being made."

Harris encouraged students to make their voices heard on the matter by contacting him or Murphy via e-mail, at deputyprovost-mailbox@cornell.edu and shm1@cornell.edu, respectively.

The event was organized by Students to Unite Cornell and the Cornell Daily Sun.

Lauren McHugh '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.