October 18, 2012

Working Together

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Amid the concerns about personal safety and the climate of our campus that have been on our minds this semester, there is a fundamental question of how we come together across our differences to address difficult issues. We are facing such issues now, and I need your help and partnership.

There is no doubt that the reported incidents of sexual violence and bias on and near the Ithaca campus have left many of us feeling angry, anxious and vulnerable. Investigations are continuing, and the Cornell Police are following up on every lead.

But, beyond the incidents under investigation are concerns about what can be done not only to increase safety, but also to change values and practices on our campus that allow violence and bias to persist.

I believe that we can make progress toward preventing violence and bias by taking personal responsibility for how our behavior affects others and for our own safety, affirming individually and collectively that no individual has the right to harm another person; by listening to each other respectfully, even when we disagree; and by working together to find common ground.

The conversations other University leaders and I are having with individual students, faculty and staff, as well as meetings with standing and ad hoc groups and at open forums, are proving to be very useful. I have learned much from these conversations and I am implementing some of the ideas suggested.

First, issues of safety. We have identified improvements to lighting in areas where previous incidents have occurred, and many students will participate in our upcoming annual lighting survey. We have learned that many members of our community, especially students, were not aware of some of the safety services available—such as Blue Light buses, phones and escorts—so we are sending out regular reminders about these services and urging everyone, and especially students, to utilize them. In a meeting earlier this week, the Employee Assembly reminded Vice President Opperman and me that safety measures on campus should include advice for staff and faculty as well as students. We are reviewing the specific suggestions we have received and will take further steps to improve safety on our campus.

We are listening as well to those who emphasize the need to address the broader issue of rape — both acquaintance rape and stranger rape — through education, training, law enforcement and outreach. The American College Health Association endorses a public health approach that is population-based and proactive — an approach which has been echoed by on-campus groups at Cornell. Nationally and at Cornell, faculty, staff and students must play key roles in creating a campus culture that, to quote the ACHA, adopts “healthy and caring sexual attitudes and practices” and that reflects “civility, honor, respect and nonviolence.”

This year, many of us on the faculty and staff are taking the training course, Respect@Cornell, to learn our responsibilities for dealing with reports of sexual violence and other climate issues under Title IX. I learned much from this training and believe it is well worth your time.   I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the very significant role of high-risk drinking in incidents of bias and violence. Whatever the general cultural milieu, whatever challenges we face, it is more difficult to face them when impaired by alcohol or other drugs. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take responsibility for our own actions — for our personal safety and because it affects others. For example, when someone who is significantly impaired because of alcohol or other drugs does not or cannot consent to sexual activity, it is never acceptable to assume or act as though consent was given.Second, issues of bias. Building on earlier efforts and the goals outlined in our strategic plan, we have re-energized programs in diversity and inclusion throughout the University through the “Toward New Destinations” initiative announced last spring and being implemented this academic year. The program involves an annual process of goal setting and assessment in four broad areas: composition, engagement, inclusion and achievement. In this first year the deans and vice presidents have committed to 142 specific initiatives that support diversity across our entire community — including faculty, staff, students at all levels, alumni, parents and the external constituencies with whom the University interacts. The Respect@Cornell program also provides guidance on dealing with bias, harassment and discrimination, and some units are using it as a component of their diversity initiatives. We know that the use of alcohol or other drugs can also lead to instances of ugly and unacceptable manifestations of racial, ethnic and gender prejudice, but impairment due to alcohol or other drugs is no excuse for bias, intolerance or discrimination.I am far from having all the answers to the challenges we have faced this semester. At the Faculty Senate meeting last week, I conveyed these sentiments to the faculty and asked for their comments and suggestions. We also are examining programs offered at other institutions to determine which ones might fit our campus. I invite input from the entire Cornell community.As our discussions continue, we can learn a great deal from how our campus has faced other difficulties over the past few years. In response to the suicides and accidents in our gorges two years ago, faculty, students and staff worked together to make our campus safer and to improve mental health. As part of our “caring community” initiative, we are getting out the message that it is important for each of us and all of us to take care of ourselves — to ask for help when we need it — and to look out for others.Conversation can seem too passive when there are difficult problems to be solved. Dialogue can seem pointless when action is sought. Yet honest conversation pursued with openness, rigor, civility and a commitment to work together toward resolution, imperfect though it may be, is an essential step in building a more safe and caring community.I am committed to working with students, faculty and staff, as well as our colleagues in Ithaca on all matters that affect our safety and the climate of our campus — openly and transparently — because by doing so we can make progress toward being the kind of community we aspire to be. Please help me achieve these aspirations.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at david.skorton@cornell.edu. From Davidappears bi-monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton