Culture

Cornell Dean Candidate’s Plan to Work with ‘All Students’ on Inclusion Upsets Student Diversity Chief

Vijay Pendakur (photo via Facebook)
His inclusion is too inclusive.

In an open forum at Cornell University on Friday, a dean-of-students candidate stressed that he would be a dean for “all students” — leading a student diversity officer to express concern that this approach might oppress marginalized groups.

The controversy began when the candidate, a higher-education administrator and first-generation American named Vijay Pendakur, started explaining that he would be a dean for “all students,” that he would focus on making campus more inclusive, and that his efforts to make campus more inclusive would involve talking to everyone.

“If I say, ‘The dean’s focus area is diversity and inclusion,’ the unspoken thought in many people’s minds is, ‘Oh, so he’s here for only the marginalized students,’” he said, according to an article in the school’s official newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun.

“So we have to undo that, because that is a deeply problematic framework,” he continued. “If we’re going to fix this, it’s got to be everyone’s conversation.”

Sounds pretty good, right? He thinks this issue is so important that he wants to involve everyone! After all, in order to change a campus as a whole, the campus as a whole would have to be involved.

But senior Julia Montejo, vice president for diversity of inclusion at Cornell’s student assembly, didn’t see it that way. No, she thought that this kind of thinking could actually hurt marginalized people.

“I’d like to hear more on how that kind of approach and philosophy still puts the concerns of minority students, students of color, underrepresented students, LGBTQ-identifying students and students with disabilities at the forefront,” Montejo said. “Underrepresented students feel really afraid to speak up and oftentimes those with more privilege in the room are more likely to take up more vocal and physical space.”

(Yes . . . she is concerned about Pendakur’s inclusion efforts being too inclusive.)

Pendakur — himself the son of two immigrants from India — responded by saying that although he definitely does understand the importance of having separate spaces for marginalized groups, he still thought it was important to involve everyone in inclusion efforts:

“There is a deep need to have this dialogue in spaces where dominant-group members are not, because that is one face of the dialogue that has to happen,” he said. “There are [also] really important needs for the dialogue just with dominant-group members in the room.”

Now, for some, the first inclination might be to compare this controversy to something like “Black Lives Matter” vs “All Lives Matter.” But it’s not the same thing. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is called “Black Lives Matter” and not “All Lives Matter” not because it’s saying that only black lives matter, but because the specific focus of the group is black lives.

#related#“Dean of Students,” however, is a position with the job description of helping all students. That’s why it’s called “Dean of Students” and not “Dean of Some Students.” It’s not even a position in the school’s Diversity & Inclusion department, and so the fact that Pendakur vowed to place such a strong focus on these issues should have been something that pleased Montejo, especially because of — not in spite of, but especially because of — his saying he wanted to involve everyone, because after all, that’s really the best way to create real, widespread change.

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