Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell President Martha Pollack speaks to the Sun on Thursday in her office in Day Hall.

October 10, 2017

Pollack Spotlights Presidential Task Force Amid Diversity Initiatives

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In the past month, residents of the Latino Living Center heard chants to “build a wall” around their residence, a possible hate crime occurred in Collegetown and the N-word was used at a house dinner on West Campus.

President Martha Pollack is disgusted and has vowed to take action. The University has already taken some steps to increase inclusivity on campus, but Pollack is delegating possibly the most important decisions to the hands of others.

In an interview with The Sun, Pollack highlighted the upcoming formation of a Presidential Task Force, a group that she previously said will be “charged with examining and addressing persistent problems of bigotry and intolerance at Cornell” and will recommend how the University can create a more inclusive environment.

The task force has become an increasingly important part of Cornell’s efforts for inclusion. Its formation was not only included in one of Pollack’s first announcements after the alleged assault of a black student in Collegetown, but it was also mentioned in two sets of demands delivered to Pollack in recent weeks.

One of those sets came from Black Students United. Delivering its demands just before leading over 300 students in a march from Day Hall to Willard Straight Hall, which it occupied for several hours, the group called for “a permanent Presidential Task Force for student community leaders to have bi-annual meetings with the current President of the university.”

In a second set of demands, sent a week later by members of the Graduate School Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement’s Student Leadership Council, Pollack was urged to increase the size of the task force to 20 members, up from its original proposed size of 10 to 12. Graduate students also demanded that they be able to nominate their own representatives to the task force.

Pollack originally intended to convene the task force as soon as possible, the president told The Sun, but the question of who is going to be on the task force is “nuanced and tricky and we want to make sure we get it right.”

“Getting it right is much more important than getting it done. We’re dealing with issues that have been around for centuries,” she told The Sun. “And an extra week or two to get it right is worth it.”

Pollack has said that the point of the task force will be to examine various ideas — including those ideas brought forth in the demands — but that the size of the group needs to be small enough to be able to take action.

“If you have a cast of thousands you won’t get the work done, so we’re trying to figure out a way to ensure that there is good representation, representation that does sufficient outreach, but is still a group that can come with actionable recommendations within a reasonable amount of time,” she said.

The decision of who exactly will be on the task force to represent the community has likely been a cause of the delay in the formation, especially given the stakes.

Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina said in a statement last week that “While we are all eager to get the effort started, we want to make sure it is structured in a way to maximize its success,” before announcing that Pollack will have additional meetings before completing the task force.

Pollack has not yet revealed what exactly will be within the task force’s purview, but some issues seem likely to fall into the hands of the group.

Among the more prominent topics it could examine is the push to amend the Campus Code of Conduct to ban hate speech. Both the Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly have passed resolutions urging the University Assembly’s Codes and Judicial Committee — through which such an amendment would likely have to pass — to consider the ban.

But the buck could stop with Pollack, who would likely have to approve any such ban before it could go into effect. The president has noted that drawing the line on what constitutes hate speech may prove difficult and could even have the opposite effect of what its proponents intend.

“When I look at the history of speech suppression, when I look at hate codes, what I see are enormously difficult issues having to do with drawing the lines, and what I see is that almost always it is the case that the very people you’re trying to protect are the ones who get harmed by the speech codes,” Pollack said in the interview.

But she also pointed out that not all speech is free — including harassment and speech that incites violence — and said that debating where those lines are is “a very appropriate action for free universities to undertake.”

Pollack declined to say what she thought should happen to students who have shown bias in the last three weeks. This issue too — disciplinary repercussions of bias activity — may fall into the task force’s hands.

“I think that responding to any one example is not going to further the conversation,” she said. “I think we need to have these conversations as a community.”

But Pollack and others have already made some decisions that the task force will not be able to address. After a black student was allegedly assaulted by a possibly underground member of Psi Upsilon, the fraternity will not be returning to campus. In addition, Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi announced several new initiatives, including hiring additional staff to increase the diversity of Counseling and Psychological Services and increased programming for low income first generation students.

And members of the Greek community, under increased scrutiny over its alleged connection to the recent acts of bias, will soon see changes.

The administration is helping the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Council develop “a meaningful substantive training program that will be implemented before the next rush period,” Pollack told The Sun. Greek Tri-Council leaders presented their plan to the Student Assembly several weeks ago.

“And beyond that we’re simply going to hold the fraternities to an appropriate standard behavior,” she said. “An awful lot of Cornell students are fraternity members, it’s an important part of their social life, but the fraternities have to be held accountable for their behavior. They have to step up and lead.”

Many at Cornell have emphasized that the initiatives proposed so far are a starting point, and not the last word. Who ends up on the task force, and what their exact charge ends up being, could very well affect diversity efforts at Cornell for years to come, and may determine the essence of that last word.