Taking Immediate Action

June 4, 2020

Cornell President Martha E. Pollack sent the following message on June 3:

Like so many of you, my family and I have been reeling over the events of the past week – events for which words seem inadequate. The images we have seen and the sounds we have heard have horrified us and broken our hearts. We are ashamed of the injustices that are perpetrated in our country, every day, against people of color; and of the reality that 155 years after Cornell was founded to help heal the wounds of a broken nation, that nation is, in many ways, still so badly broken.

The extraordinary times in which we are living are shining a spotlight on so many issues of equity, and the lack of it: on the ways that rights and opportunity are unevenly distributed across our society, and the worth of our labor and our lives unequally valued. As an academic community built on the bedrock values of diversity, inclusion, and openness, we have an obligation to ensure that the forces of these events and our feelings drive us not backward, but forward. Over these past days, the words that have resonated with me the most, as I have struggled with the question of how our community can best embrace our collective challenge, are those of the Rev. William J. Barber II, spoken to an empty church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, this past Sunday: “We cannot try to hurry up and put the screams and the tears and the hurt back in the bottle, just to get back to some normal that was abnormal in the first place. Hear the screams. Feel the tears. The very people who have been rejected over and over again are the ones who have shown us the possibility of a more perfect nation.”

Words are important. Words matter. But our words – of sympathy, of support, of shared pain – are not enough. While the challenges are enormous, and we cannot fix them on our own, that does not absolve us from taking whatever steps we can to fight against systemic racism and structural inequality. As a community, we can and must act, through our teaching, our research, and our engagement, to stand up for those who are oppressed or marginalized, to educate ourselves and others, and to work to ensure that we – our entire society – do better.

Here are some of the things that Cornell will do immediately:

Strengthen Community Involvement in Public Safety

Cornell’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) is composed of students, staff and faculty members who advise Cornell University Police on issues of public safety and victims’ advocacy. The committee, which last met in April, makes recommendations to improve campus security policies and procedures and reviews issues that affect the overall safety and well-being of Cornell’s diverse community. I have asked the PSAC to redouble their efforts to engage our community, with a specific focus on procedures and training in the areas of use of force, de-escalation techniques, and cultural competency.

Summit with Regional Law Enforcement Agencies

In addition to the work of the PSAC, the university administration has convened discussions in recent years with representatives of regional law enforcement agencies, including Cornell University Police, the Ithaca Police Department, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, and the New York State Police. These conversations have touched on shared interests, with a focus on understanding and sharing best practices around law enforcement interactions with communities of color. We will organize another session as soon as possible and include student, staff and faculty representatives in this important, ongoing conversation.

Community Conversations on Race and Racism

Using the community chat framework, the Office of Human Resources will be offering 75-minute Zoom sessions on topics such as institutional racism and the context of the current protests, ways to be an ally to our Black colleagues, and how to engage in proactive and meaningful dialogue around difficult topics such as racism. Details on the programs, and information on how to register, will be sent to all staff and faculty members by Vice President Mary Opperman early next week.

Campus Community Book Read

As a campus community, we have a collective responsibility to engage in difficult but critical conversations – to listen genuinely to, and learn from, one another. To help bring focus to these conversations, I invite all of you to participate in a Community Book Read of “How to Be an Antiracist,” by National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi. We will soon provide all students, faculty, and staff with information about how to access an electronic copy of the book, along with a schedule of virtual discussions which will take place over the summer. I hope you will choose to read the book and to join in the conversation.

Dialogue with Local Community Leaders

I will be meeting next week with a diverse group of local elected, nonprofit, business, and faith community leaders to review the events of the last few weeks and consider how we might advance town-gown initiatives to further support the needs of our friends and neighbors.

These plans are in addition to the ongoing work of the Belonging at Cornell framework that emerged from our diversity and inclusion initiatives, many of which were proposed by the President’s Task Force on Campus Climate and/or the Provost’s Task Force to Enhance Faculty Diversity. More than three-quarters of the goals laid out by the Task Force in 2018 have now been achieved, including the creation of a mandatory Intergroup Dialogue Project experience for all new undergraduates, an improved bias reporting process, implicit bias training for all faculty search committees, and increased support from the provost for faculty hires that advance diversity.

All of this work will continue, but so much more needs to be done, at Cornell and beyond. I want to close by echoing the words of the Rev. Barber, in saying that there will be no return to “normal” from where we are right now. We are in a time of profound societal change – change that we, as a community and a society, have the power to influence and to shape. We can, and we will, rise to this challenge. Our own consciences demand it, as do our values as a community, and our ethos as Cornellians.

 

Klarman Hall at sunset