Cornell President Martha Pollack, pictured here in May, reinstated an international student work-study program in a surprise announcement that appeared to catch other University officials off-guard.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell President Martha Pollack, pictured here in May, reinstated an international student work-study program in a surprise announcement that appeared to catch other University officials off-guard.

September 1, 2017

Pollack Reverses Cornell Decision, Reinstates International Student Work Program

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President Martha Pollack reinstated a program on Thursday that makes work-study benefits available to international students in a surprise announcement that came while another University official was defending Cornell’s axing of the program.

Pollack’s decision to continue offering the Foreign Student Employment Program — which the University had said it was ending two weeks ago — was conveyed by the dean of students at a Student Assembly meeting on Thursday evening just moments after he was informed of the reversal.

Dozens of students attended the Assembly meeting in protest of Cornell’s initial cessation of the program, and Laura Spitz, vice provost for international affairs, at first defended the University’s decision. After Pollack’s unexpected reversal, Spitz called the University’s original decision “a mistake.”

Spitz had been fielding questions from students for about 10 minutes — admitting that the decision to cut the program was poorly communicated but saying it was ultimately a “net gain” — when Vijay Pendakur, the dean of students, quietly left the room.

Pendakur had just received a text from Ryan Lombardi, the vice president for student and campus life, who had been speaking by phone with Pollack.

“Can you step out of the room and call me?” Lombardi texted Pendakur.

Minutes later, Pendakur walked back into Willard Straight Hall, grabbed a microphone, and conveyed the president’s new decision.

“[Pollack] wanted to immediately jump the speakers list — I’m here to represent her voice — and say that she’s immediately reinstating the program,” Pendakur said.

“She apologizes for —” he began, but his voice was drowned out by scores of students applauding Cornell’s new position.

Vijay Pendakur, dean of students, delivers the news of Pollack's decision to reinstate FSEP moments after learning of the reversal himself.

Edem Dzodzomenyo / Sun Staff Photographer

Vijay Pendakur, dean of students, delivers Pollack’s decision to reinstate FSEP at Student Assembly on Thursday, moments after learning of the reversal himself.

Pollack, who began her term in April, was not consulted in the initial decision to cut the program, Pendakur said, adding that “she was happy to get involved and to right this wrong.”

The $40,000 program, commonly known as FSEP, allows international students who receive financial aid to receive the same benefits from Cornell that domestic students receive from the Department of Education’s Federal Work-Study Program.

Instead of the federal government, Cornell pays a portion of the employee’s wages and the employing business pays the rest, reducing costs for the employer.

Earlier in August, the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment told international students on financial aid in a 130-word email that the program was being eliminated because “funding for the program is no longer available.”

Ming Khan ’18, one of 26 undergraduate students employed through the program, told The Sun before Pollack’s announcement that ending the program put her job at the Cornell Library in jeopardy.

“I asked my supervisor what [the decision to end the program] means for us, and she said that they will discuss it and let us know,” Khan said earlier this week.

The library employs 20 students through FSEP and had committed to retaining the students through fall 2017, although it was unclear if the library would have continued to employ all 20 next semester.

“I think it’s our last semester working there,” another student employed at the library through FSEP, Gideon Amoah ’19, told The Sun this week before Pollack reinstated the program.

The timing of the reversal appeared to catch Spitz, the vice provost, off guard, and put her in the awkward position of having defended cutting a program moments before the president called it the “wrong” decision.

Before Pollack’s announcement, Cornell officials, including Spitz, said eliminating FSEP would allow the University to provide additional financial aid to at least one international student. Spitz said the elimination would not affect international students in the FSEP program, and she promised to find employment for any students if they did end up losing their campus jobs.

But despite her initial defense of the cut, Spitz had actually been pushing behind the scenes for the administration to reinstate the program, Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, told The Sun.

Laura Spitz, vice provost for international affairs, fields questions from Student Assembly members on Thursday evening as students against Cornell's initial elimination of FESP look on.

Edem Dzodzomenyo / Sun Staff Photographer

Laura Spitz, vice provost for international affairs, fields questions from Student Assembly members on Thursday evening as students against Cornell’s initial elimination of FSEP look on.

Pollack’s decision on Thursday “was the result of Laura Spitz’ initiative over the last few days,” Malina said in an email. “She actively championed the cause behind the scenes and President Pollack was happy to support her recommendation.”

Assemblymember Chris Schott ’18, international students liaison at-large, called the contrast between Spitz’s public and private actions “bewildering.”

“How do I know exactly what her position is on any issues if she was the most public defender of defunding this program, when privately she was working [to keep it]?” Schott said, adding that it appeared Cornell had asked Spitz to advocate for a position she did not hold.

Other S.A. members noticed the contrast, too.

“Before President Pollack made the decision to reverse the [original] decision, … your tone was very much ‘this [cutting the program] was not that bad,’” Assemblymember Jaëlle Sanon ’19 said to Spitz, “but now that she made the decision, you’re like, ‘clearly this is bad.’”

Varun Devatha ’18, executive vice president of S.A., said that when controversial policies are enacted, Cornell regularly sends officials who were not directly involved with the decisions to explain them to the Assembly.

“It feels like every time a situation like this arises, the individuals responsible for that situation never appear,” Devatha said. “It’s really frustrating to be in this place where someone like you [Spitz] can come up and be kind and polite and try to answer the questions to the best of your ability, but that only goes so far because we don’t understand the full context of the situation.”

Schott, who met with Spitz and an International Student Union representative for 30 minutes before the public S.A. meeting, said he does not think the University acted with malicious intent.

“I still believe that the administration generally acts in good faith,” Schott said in an interview. “If that’s the case, why not be more transparent?”

Divyansha Sehgal ’18 contributed reporting to this article.