A Familiar Face at the Front of the Room

By La Jerne Terry Cornish, November 25, 2020
Provost La Jerne Terry Cornish discusses the issues facing Ithaca College with regard to structural racism.

La Jerne Terry Cornish, PhD, is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Ithaca College. She came to IC in 2018 from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she taught and served in administrative capacities for 20 years.

When I attended Goucher, I was one of nine Black students in my class. I never had a Black professor. I began teaching there and, in the fall of 1998, when I started, I was the only African American female on the faculty. The reason that I went into academia was because I never had anybody who looked like me in the classroom, and I thought it was so important for students of color to see themselves reflected in the front of the room.

One of the goals for Ithaca in our strategic plan is for us to become a national model for colleges committed to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We created a new diversity, equity, and inclusion statement as a result of the strategic planning process.We also stated it as one of our five core values: academic excellence, respect and accountability, innovation, sustainability, and equity. So, we are saying that this is who we are; this is what we are committed to. Now we have to translate the words into action. What does that mean? What does that look like?

[In December] I invited the campus community to join me in a slow read of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Little did I know when I invited the campus to participate in this what this book would become. My office purchased 1,000 books and made them available to anybody in the campus community who wanted a book.

“It took 128 years for IC to become the institution that it is, and it is not going to change in a short period of time. But the fact that we are willing to name our issues, confront them, address them, and be willing to admit the role we play in the maintenance of structural racism is powerful.”

La Jerne Terry Cornish, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs

In February, I, along with RosannaFerro, vice president for student affairs, and Professor Chris McNamara, who is the chair of the Faculty Council, met with student leaders from the people of color (POC) organizations to hear from them about their lived experiences on our campus. The things that they shared were hard to hear.

I met with the Faculty Council Executive Committee. And they said,“You know, I think we should return to the book.” And I thought, Yes, that’s a really good idea. And I think that some faculty should take the lead on having book circles with their colleagues to discuss the book. Long story short, 20 faculty agreed. And not only did they use How to Be an Antiracist, but they also did a book circle on White Fragility, and they brought in plays and documentaries. By the end of June, early July, the faculty got together, virtually, to discuss the text.

Along the way, the Faculty Council Executive Committee said, “We want to write a statement to our students and our faculty of color.” The statement — it made me cry because my white faculty owned their whiteness and owned how complicit they have been. What I love about the statement is they are now saying, “You can hold us accountable. We are going to call out each other when we see microaggressions and racism on this campus.” And so that was powerful.

It’s a moment where I felt like I came here because it was what I was supposed to do.

I’m now going into my third year as provost. The work ahead of us is tremendous. It took 128 years for IC to become the institution that it is, and it is not going to change in a short period of time. But the fact that we are willing to name our issues, confront them, address them, and be willing to admit the role we play in the maintenance of structural racism is powerful.We need faculty of color — in every school. We need to diversify the curriculum. It’s one thing to have diversity at the top, but change happens in the middle, and the middle is still predominantly white. When things change in the middle, we will have done something.

As told to Nichole Owens '94.

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