Cornell Students Defend Racially Segregated Rock Climbing Course

Participants say segregation is necessary to create safe spaces

(PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images)
May 4, 2021

Cornell University students expressed support for racial segregation after the school allowed white students to enroll in a rock climbing class originally restricted to minority students.

Cornell first offered "BIPOC Rock Climbing" in the spring of 2021, exclusively to "people who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, or other people of color." The school removed the racial enrollment requirement in response to a Campus Reform inquiry.

Students enrolled in the course objected to the move, telling the Cornell Daily Sun that segregating the class "is a small step" toward greater racial equity.

"At the end of the day, there is an issue of inaccessibility for minorities in this white-centric sport and BIPOC rock-climbing is a small step towards desegregating that community," Matthew Gavieta, a junior and BIPOC Rock Climbing class instructor, said.

Instructor Michelle Croen, a senior, claimed it’s typically "difficult" for minority students to feel welcomed in rock climbing due to the cost and other "microaggressions," such as course names.

"From larger issues such as cost of entry and accessibility, to smaller microaggressions like the names of some outdoor climbing routes, it’s difficult to be a minority and feel welcomed in the outdoors," Croen said. "Just under the surface, the climbing world especially is affected by racism, sexism, and sizeism."

Lwam Asfaw, a senior enrolled in the course, said the "BIPOC" label influenced her choice in the class. Critics of the class should focus "less on why segregation exists and more on why there’s a need to segregate," the Sun paraphrased Asfaw as saying.

Safe spaces on college campuses proliferated after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. More recently, universities have begun to create exclusive spaces for students based on race or gender in the name of equity and inclusion.

Marymount University conducted two separate "healing circles" last fall, one for white students and one for black students. Columbia University announced in March it would host six separate graduation ceremonies for minority groups, LGBT students, and first-generation and low-income graduates. Students at New York University and Rice University last summer called on their schools to create black-only dorms and other separated campus spaces.

William Jacobson, a Cornell Law School professor, told the Washington Free Beacon that while the course as modified didn't present any legal challenge, the squabble over the course shows how "identity politics" can clash with laws banning discrimination.

"It appears that the course now explicitly is open to all students. If that is the case, then I don't see a problem with a 'themed' activity," Jacobson, who founded the conservative legal blog Legal Insurrection, said. "The earlier description, which suggested it was open only to students of certain racial and ethnic groups, would have been a significant potential legal problem had it not been corrected. This controversy highlights how identity politics can run into conflict with anti-discrimination laws and Cornell's own university policies against discrimination."

Cornell did not respond to the Free Beacon’s request for comment in time for publication.