Boris Tsang / Sun Staff Photographer

President Martha Pollack answers Employee Assembly membrs' questions about free speech, risk-taking behavior and the need for a new consensual relations policy.

November 30, 2017

‘Take Risks,’ Pollack Tells Cornell Staff at Employee Assembly Meeting

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President Martha Pollack addressed questions about how free speech applies to University employees and encouraged risk-taking at Wednesday’s Employee Assembly meeting.

Kristine Mahoney, the College of Human Ecology representative, asked Pollack to elaborate on comments she made during her presidential address in October about changing the culture on campus to foster more risk-taking behavior.

Pollack said she was struck by the current lack of willingness of individuals at all levels to take risks. At her level, she said the most influential thing she can do is make use of the bully pulpit and “make the case as often as I can that the world is changing quickly, and if we are too cautious, if we look inward too much, we’re not going to be able to adapt enough.”

Although she said she has not finalized the details yet, Pollack said she hopes to institute some reward programs that encourage people to take risks even if they fail, emphasizing that the important thing is not necessarily to succeed but rather to learn something.

Pollack said that the entire Cornell Tech campus is a big risk that is “incredibly important for the future of this university” and also mentioned the new Center for Teaching Innovation, which encourages faculty to try new approaches in their teaching methods and adopt evidence based teaching practices.

Ulysses Smith, Employee Assembly chair and LGBTQ+ representative at-large, asked Pollack to engage in a brief discussion about two topics, free speech and a consensual relations policy, that were brought up at the last University Assembly meeting.

In particular, he felt that current conversations about free speech have not included how academic freedom is related to free speech in the workplace for employees.

“What we forget oftentimes is that the political views of the employees seem to differ quite a bit from [those of] the students,” Smith said. “Regardless of what I believe, I don’t want anybody to feel like they can’t take part in that discourse, but they walk that thin line of ‘When does taking part in discourse or expressing a contrary opinion create a hostile work environment for somebody else?’”

Pollack acknowledged that free speech issues are tricky and that people’s free speech rights as employees are slightly different than than their rights as citizens of the United States.

For example, she said that academic freedom does not give astronomy faculty the right to teach astrology in their classes. Additionally, the University would be within their rights to prevent faculty from doing so.

“It isn’t like there is a hard answer to the issue of what free speech is for an employee,” said Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources. “It’s a conversation that we have and I think you’re right to raise it. In the employment setting, it is a different thing. While we are a university, we are employees at the University and that is our primary goal here.”

Pollack also emphasized the pressing need of the University to create a comprehensive consensual relations policy. She said that while many other universities have a policy defining consensual romantic and sexual relationships between students and faculty, Cornell technically has no official code but rather an informal policy dating back to the 1990s.

“We have to have such a policy. We need it to protect our faculty and staff, we need it to protect our students, we need it to the reputation of the University,” she said.

Charlie Van Loan, dean of faculty, and Anna Waymack, grad, have been appointed to lead a committee tasked with developing such a policy by the end of the year, Pollack said.

Pollack also stated that the University is “just about ready” to announce the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate. Although she said she had hoped that it would have already been up and running, the creation of the task force was delayed due to concerns about the process by which people were named to it.

“We are still going to ask for the work to be done by the end of the spring semester, people will just have to work more quickly,” Pollack said.

The Employee Assembly also unanimously passed two resolutions at their meeting. The first resolution called upon Transportation Services to develop a Comprehensive Transportation Planning Study starting in spring 2019 to address transportation and parking concerns on campus.

The other resolution recommended specific administrative initiatives that would ensure LGBTQ inclusion and protection in the workplace.