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Cornell Conditions Student Group Funding on ‘Diversity and Inclusion Plan’

Cornell University’s Student Assembly (SA) has passed a resolution calling for scores of student organizations to demonstrate a plan to enlist membership that is demographically similar to the rest of the student body. According to Campus Reform, groups that do not submit a “Diversity and Inclusion Plan” will not be eligible for funding from Cornell’s Student Assembly Finance Commission (SAFC), which funds registered student groups on campus using mandatory student activity fees.

SA President Ulysses Smith cited recent “bias incidents” as a motivation for the change. “A lot of people felt like they weren’t welcome on campus,” he said. But critics of the resolution argue that it burdens certain groups to promote physical diversity with no consideration of other kinds of diversity, such as political or ideological diversity.

Campus Reform reported last week:

The groups specifically listed on the United Student Body resolution, an updated version of which was obtained by Campus Reform, are racial and ethnic organizations, gay and lesbian organizations, and religious organizations.

The resolution stresses the importance of “making sure the demographic makeup of the student organization reflects the diversity of the student body.”

SA passed a similar resolution last academic year and required approximately 50 groups to submit their diversity plans at that time.

So what exactly does a student organization have to do to receive funding? According to a draft of SA’s “Student Life Diversity and Inclusion Plan” (.doc) from last spring, still available on the Cornell website, each organization’s Diversity and Inclusion Plan will include three of SA’s suggested “Annual Initiatives.”

Some options are more burdensome than others; the initiatives range from sending targeted emails to “diverse organizations,” to collaborating with other student groups, to having “scholarships for events or activities that are not financially accessible to all students.” But particularly with suggestions that organizations “[c]hoose event themes that foster a sense of diversity and inclusion that allow for all people to be represented,” SA is in effect attempting to mandate a particular point of view—the view that one particular type of diversity is valuable and necessary.

The Supreme Court has ruled that non-discrimination policies (or, in the context of student groups, “all comers” policies) are constitutionally permissible—though certainly not that they are constitutionally required. This applies even when an all-comers policy’s enforcement allows students hostile to the group’s core mission and message to run for leadership positions within that group. But Cornell’s resolution takes the desire for diversity one step further by requiring groups not just to accept all members who apply in response to neutral outreach but also to promote a certain message in order to attract a particular demographic.

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), the Supreme Court wrote:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

By requiring student organizations to send certain emails to certain types of groups, to collaborate with other groups, or to promote “inclusive themes,” Cornell’s SA is compelling student groups to convey through their words and actions the idea that achieving physical or racial diversity is a laudable goal or even a priority. Not all students or student groups believe this. Nor do all groups have the resources to expend effort on this goal over the group’s central mission. And it is crucial to remember that because SAFC distributes funds to registered student groups, its role is effectively that of an arm of the university, not simply members of the student body.

This mandate, therefore, runs contrary to Cornell’s stated commitment to free inquiry. SA should recognize that while there are benefits to a diverse community, groups must not be forced to compromise their politics or ideology in the name of achieving racial or physical diversity. Further, it is unclear how the groups required to submit a Diversity and Inclusion Plan are chosen—creating the risk that the resolution will be selectively enforced against certain groups to which SA might want to deny funding. A non-binding resolution simply encouraging members of the Cornell community to interact with those outside of their regular circles would be a better way of working toward the same result while not compelling the promotion of a certain message.

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