I had intended this final column of the academic year to be one mainly of gratitude to my colleagues at The Cornell Daily Sun and to readers of the newspaper for permitting me this space and for the tremendously helpful feedback I received as a result of these “From David” columns. I look forward to another year of useful interchange through this column and in many other fora in 2007-08.
I believe we have made progress as a campus this year in confronting important issues, ranging from violence, to mental health, to what it means to be part of an inclusive campus community. Although we have not resolved some issues of importance to this campus, I believe we have learned a great deal together about how to have the sorts of conversations we need to have in order to create change. I am especially heartened by the progress we have made on diversity issues, and I look forward to continuing our progress with the support, leadership and encouragement of the University Diversity Council and through the self-governance processes underway to foster greater community involvement.
As Cornellians, all of us can take pride in the achievements of our colleagues and friends this year. Some have won major national and international awards and many more have demonstrated a great willingness to share their skills and talents with the campus and the world — in the classroom, laboratory and studio; on the playing field; through public service; and through music, dance, theater and art. Eli Northrup ’07 and Joshua Raff ’07 have even come up with a rap to update the Alma Mater, which I heard performed last week by Pants Velour. Whether you are moving on to the next stage of your life or continuing on at Cornell, you have helped make this a vibrant and engaged community, and I congratulate you and thank you for your efforts.
Unfortunately, the end of the academic year has brought with it the incomprehensible, horrific tragedy at Virginia Tech University. In the best Cornell tradition, we have shared the sadness of the moment, extended our sympathy to our colleagues at Virginia Tech, their friends and families and also taken action to improve our systems for dealing with emergency situations that may arise on our own campus.
At least two areas require our continuing attention:
• the mental health and wellbeing of students, faculty and staff.
• the state of campus security and communications and the regulation of firearms and other weapons in the context of our campus communities.
In earlier columns I have touched on the issues of stress and mental health, as well as on violence on campus. In the sphere of mental health services, a balance must be achieved between the rights of privacy of the individual and the more general public interest. As mentioned in my earlier column, at Cornell we are experimenting with a range of approaches for reaching students, including serious efforts to locate counseling and mental health services where students live and gather and to establish effective “early warning systems” that permit us to identify colleagues in distress and to intervene as appropriate. Last week’s op-ed in the Cornell Chronicle by Gregory T. Eels, associate director of Gannett Health Services and director of counseling and psychological services, described what Cornell is doing in this area and also what counseling can and cannot do.
Campus security also requires a delicate balance — one that enhances the safety of our campuses without destroying the openness of either our built environment or the intellectual environment, both of which make the university experience what it is. While we cannot shrink from doing what we can to enhance the safety of our campuses, we also cannot and should not turn the learning environment into a high-security, gated community, where fear trumps openness and threatens the grand experiments that universities offer in what historian Carl Becker called “freedom with responsibility.”
For the past several years, long before the Virginia Tech tragedy, those responsible for safety and security at Cornell have been working to optimize emergency procedures and communications through an institution-wide approach. We already have in place a variety of methods for mass notification in the event of an emergency, ranging from telephone trees to message-blaster e-mails, and we are examining additional ways of reaching large numbers of people during the middle of the day through text-messaging, enunciation panels in individual buildings and expanded alarms. In the weeks to come, we will share with the campus the results of accelerated deliberations on these safety and communications issues.
The subject of firearm regulation is, of course, extraordinarily controversial throughout our country. New York State law prohibits anyone from possessing a rifle, shotgun or firearm (or pellet guns, spring guns and certain other weapons) on a school, college or university campus, without written authorization from the institution. The Cornell Police takes that law very seriously and is committed to its enforcement.
Nonetheless, the more general issue of the easy availability of lethal force is one that must be faced squarely in order to reduce the likelihood of other gun-related tragedies, whether on a college campus or in another venue where people feel relatively safe, such as a shopping mall or sporting event. And the interaction between the regulations regarding mental health record privacy and the background check process for weapon purchase requires constant attention.
Whether this marks the conclusion of your time at Cornell or a brief hiatus, I leave you with three messages. First, let’s remember this year for its achievements, but also with new empathy for those who are struggling with the challenges of alienation and loss. Second, please make your own views on gun regulation known to our elected leaders in order to encourage the discussion we, as a nation, need to have in the wake of the most difficult circumstances in Blacksburg, Virginia. Please report acts of violence to those in a position to help, and also express your thoughts about mental health and campus security to me and to others on campus who help shape our policies and procedures. Third, thank you for making my first year at Cornell so enormously rewarding and productive.