March 11, 2012

Time for a Progress Report

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We are writing in response to The Sun editorial “Tackling Gorge Safety,” Jan. 24, which asserted that, “A stronger sense of urgency on the part of the administration may help to prevent more deaths in the future.” This urgency, and the fear that bureaucratic intransigence will inevitably lead to more deaths and injuries this coming summer, were the motivations for our efforts to establish a cautionary memorial for our son as covered in The Sun article “City Rejects Memorial for Nathaniel Rand ’12,” Feb. 10.  As of this writing, it’s been eight months since the last two student drownings at the gorges; enough time to ask whether President Skorton’s promise to implement effective safety measures has yielded results. To be specific, President Skorton charged vice presidents Susan Murphy and Mary Opperman to “rapidly review past and planned actions and report back … by November 1, 2011 with recommendations for future actions.” That report, which President Skorton endorsed, omitted any references at all to past actions, a lapse that logically precludes formulating an effective forward-thinking solution.Without this evaluative component — which President Skorton himself stipulated in commissioning the report  — there is reason to worry that future measures will not be any more effective than past ones. We are likely to see a repetition of that all too familiar cycle of tragedy, followed by expressions of resolve to prevent future tragedies, ineffective committees and half-hearted measures that are progressively diluted by other priorities and distractions, and then the next tragedy. This is not a theoretical issue; on average, every year about one to three Cornell students die from non-suicidal drowningIt is time to get a progress report on the steps that the University has taken since the report was submitted and to learn the answers to the following questions.

1. Responses to the tragedies of last summer:  What did the administration do to prevent further deaths after Kendrick Castro ’11 drowned in May, a day after graduating? What did they do when Stanislaw Jaworski grad died in the early afternoon of July 2? What was done when Nate Rand died later that afternoon? What was done prior to and following our telephone call to President Skorton at the end of July to demand action to prevent additional deaths?

2. A report on the failures of the prior committees and task forces: What was the track record of the prior committees?  Our concern is that such committees, established repeatedly over the years, have been worse than inefficient; they have fostered the illusion that the matter was being addressed.

What was the history of the  Gorge Safety Task Force that was formed after the accidental drowning of Navin Parthasarathy in August 2006? The current committee could have read about the prior one that was formed five years ago in the Nov. 2008 issue of Cornell Alumni Magazine. What did that committee do before Doug Lowe’s ’11 drowning in June 2008? What was done in the aftermath? What did the committee or University administration do after Leslie Reed ’09 suffered severe injuries in May 2009? Who was responsible for addressing gorge safety? The current steering committee could have read about some of the less than effective measures in the July 19, 2009 issue of The Sun.

On  Dec. 2, 2011, Vice-President Mary Opperman was quoted on these pages as saying, “There [has] been work on gorge safety through a standing committee for years. We came together in a really focused way this fall after the tragedies … The planning and the ideas that you see there have been worked on for many years.” It would be important to know what VP Opperman is describing. Surely, President Skorton and the members of the current steering committee all have access to the minutes of those meetings and could review and assess the outcomes of those “many years of work.” The notion that a committee’s “planning and ideas” can be construed as accomplishments is a Kafkaesque illusion that is exactly counter to substantive action.

The story of the danger signs at the gorge sites is sadly emblematic of the ineffectiveness of this approach. Signs had been  designed by the Spring of 2011, but it was decided not to post them in time for the summer swimming season. Vice-President Murphy told us that the university wanted to wait and get opinions about the signs when the students returned for the Fall semester. After our insistence, VP Opperman arranged for those signs to be placed at gorge sites on the Cornell campus in time for orientation week in August. Similar signs have not yet been posted at other gorge sites that are just outside the boundaries of the Cornell campus. This would require the coordination and cooperation between Cornell and the City of Ithaca recommended by the Gorge Safety Steering Committee report of Oct. 1. Have Cornell administrators met with Ithaca officials about this?

3. The apparent absence of leadership: How is it that a university administration that can be extraordinarily nimble in pursuing a massive complex project like the NYC Tech Campus, which is currently budgeted for $2 billion, appears to be incapable of addressing the issue of recurring and preventable drowning? This  success involved extraordinary leadership, a sophisticated public relations effort including professional videos, expensive lobbying efforts and negotiations with the NYC government, regulatory agencies and a foreign university. Why can’t Cornell successfully negotiate with the City of Ithaca and local constituencies to take measures to prevent a continuing cause of recurrent deaths?

4. Project management: Many specific recommendations were made in the current Gorge Safety Steering Committee report. Remarkably, this committee strongly recommended that yet another committee, “an ongoing committee be charged with oversight of the gorge and be given the institutional authority to monitor progress on those activities that you authorize.” Who is responsible? What was done? Have they met with City of Ithaca officials to coordinate efforts on appropriate signage and  safety measures?

Twenty five years ago, the family and friends of Danny Sastrowardoyo ’87 placed a memorial plaque engraved with the words “to caution others in the hope that he will be the last.” Sadly, he and many others were not the last. If such deaths were isolated, we could understand the inclination to attribute their causes to common sense lapses. But the repeated and unending trail of death shows it’s not the common sense of the victims that was lacking. Enough with voices, condolences, memorials, concerns and pleas.

There is no doubt that this great university has the resources and talent to address gorge safety effectively. But does it have the will?

Jacob Rand, Maggi Rand, Freya Rand, Gabriel Rand, and Ethan Rand

Jacob and Maggi Rand are the parents of Nathaniel Rand, Class of 2012.  Freya, Gabriel (Class of 2004 College of Agriculture and Engineering), and Ethan (Class of 2005 College of Human Ecology) are Nathaniel’s sister and brothers.

Original Author: The Rand Family