President Martha Pollack on Tuesday delivered her first address to Cornell’s staff, lauding them as the “unsung heroes” of the University, and highlighted their role in the recent and upcoming diversity initiatives on campus.
“I can’t do my job without the support of staff and our students can’t learn without the support of staff,” Pollack said. Reflecting on the inaugural speech she delivered in August, Pollack told the staff that they have a role in carrying out the University’s priorities just as much as the administration, faculty and students do.
Pollack said one of her priorities in the past six months of being at Cornell has been to meet and speak with faculty, students and staff — a part of her job she said she has enjoyed the most.
In that same period, Pollack has also faced a rapidly changing political climate, multiple incidents of apparent racial bias and the arrest of a student charged with hate crime followed by several demands for a strong response by the administration against racism.
In her speech, hosted by the Employee Assembly, which represents Cornell’s staff of more than 8,000, Pollack highlighted the focus on strengthening diversity and inclusion on campus not only among students and faculty, but also staff.
“The mistake that we make all the time is to start by thinking about faculty and students,” she said. “I think the issues of staff are equally important.”
Especially on the topic of professional development and retention among staff of color, Pollack said she would promote policies implemented to increase faculty diversity to be instituted among staff.
“If we teach about bias in faculty hiring, we probably should be teaching about implicit bias in staff hiring,” she said. “As we create a more welcoming community for our faculty, we shouldn’t think of it just about faculty and students. We need to be very intentional in applying all of the things we do to staff as well.”
Pollack said that plans for the Presidential Task Force, which she pledged in September to gather as a response to “persistent problems of bigotry and intolerance at Cornell,” are underway.
While Pollack had announced on Sept. 17 that the task force would be convened within two weeks from that date, Pollack told the staff that she has been working on crafting what the goal and membership of the task force would be.
“Getting the charge and the constituency of the committee right is important,” she said.
Pollack said the task force would be directed to produce an intermediate report in the winter semester and a final report shortly thereafter evaluating Cornell’s campus code of conduct and the recommendations from the 2013 report on the student campus climate written on behalf of Cornell by Prof. Sylvia Hurtado, education and information studies, UCLA.
Besides the task force, Pollack said the administration would work on increasing diversity among mental health counselors, developing training programs to be incorporated in first-year student orientation and collaborating with the Greek Tri-Council to implement diversity trainings in Greek houses before the next recruitment season.
Pollack said that she would ensure those initiatives are aimed to make “real institutional change.” She added that “these are deep social problems and we’re going to have to keep at this.”
Pollack highlighted in her speech her priority of enhancing and expanding Cornell’s new Center for Teaching Innovation, which would play a role in enhancing education for students and faculty. Combining expertise in technology with traditional support for faculty and teaching professionals, she said, the center would provide faculty and staff with more resources to enhance faculty-student interaction and address diversity in the classroom.
“We find that students learn more when in addition to their face-to-face education, they have access to online course material,” Pollack said, adding that the center would provide technologies that help professors gauge student progress.
Pollack also addressed some concerns among staff that, with the opening of Cornell Tech, the administration would stop paying attention to Ithaca.
“I have two children — a daughter and a son five years younger — and when my son was born I didn’t stop loving my daughter or nurturing her,” she said. She added that the administration would focus on integrating the upstate and downstate campuses, and that “the campuses complement each other and make us better.”