April 10, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Where is the Cornell community?

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To the Editor:

Over the past several months, we have been inundated with emails from Cornell’s administration in the wake of racist incidents, always addressed to the “Ithaca Campus Community.” These messages always condemn bigotry, and claim that the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate is working to make Cornell a more inclusive community. But as these attacks continue, we struggle to define exactly what this “Cornell community” is. We all have our own communities on campus that make us feel safe, empowered and challenged, but is there a greater sense of community that makes us feel responsible for the safety of others?

When violent bigoted incidents occur on campus, not everyone is equally affected. The majority of people who condemn the attacks and mobilize against a weak administrative response are directly impacted by the incidents. After fraternity brothers chanted “Build a Wall” around the Latino Living Center, residents of the LLC and Latinx community at-large responded most strongly. When a black student was assaulted on Eddy Street, Black Students United led the push for change. But it’s not just the responsibility of those communities to fight for their rights; it’s everyone’s responsibility, as Cornell students and as human beings, to stand with them. So where is the rest of the Cornell community? Why is there so much silence?

When a member of a community commits an act of reprehensible violence, there need to be repercussions not only for the perpetrator, but for the entire community as well. For example, if a kitchen in a residence hall is repeatedly left dirty, then that kitchen is closed off, and everyone suffers the consequences. If someone vandalizes a common room, the entire building is charged for repairs. These scenarios follow the basic principle that if you live in a community, you are all accountable. But our understanding and acceptance of community repercussions should not stop at residence hall vandalism, which pales in comparison to the severity of pervasive bigotry. There could be campus-wide responses to force the entire community to feel the impacts of bigoted actions. For example, a campus wide-curfew might reduce the amount of late-night, racist attacks or sexual assaults; if the idea of a curfew makes you feel unjustly attacked, imagine the threat that people feel after these attacks. If we can’t all engage on a moral basis, then perhaps punitive measures will force change.

So far, there haven’t been any community-wide repercussions or even discussions of them because we’ve been waiting for the Presidential Task Force’s report. The Task Force was designed to be “inclusive” and “transparent.” The Scheinman Institute’s initial plan, shared in October, suggested “an in-person meeting approximately once a week” with members needing “to devote substantial amount of time to the Task Force” and “an online platform for two-way communications for issues and information germane to the Task Force’s work.”

But no one knows what the Task Force has been doing, if anything. The general student body has received only three emails about it: the call for nominees, the announcement of its members and the Campus Climate Survey. To put this into perspective, there have been at least two violent and racially-motivated assaults, ongoing bias acts and anti-Semitic action just since September.

The only public information being gathered by the Task Force are the results of the Campus Climate Survey, which is open until April 13. If the May 1 deadline is honored, the committee will have two weeks to review responses. If it took five months to release the survey, two weeks is insufficient to adequately analyze it. This short turnaroud suggests there won’t be a public comment period for the “actionable recommendations” to be published on May 1. “Inclusive” and “transparent” policy should not be designed this way. According to the Scheinman Institute’s initial recommendations, there should be an online platform for continued communication and feedback; this either does not exist or is so well hidden that it doesn’t matter. For a supposedly transparent organization, there has been no publication of meeting dates, attendance, or agendas.

Because the Task Force is designed to have representatives from different parts of campus, it is comprised of faculty, staff, and students. However, this means that most of the members have primary jobs being faculty, staff and students. Protecting the safety of students cannot be an extra-curricular or part-time job. Community involvement is obviously critical, but so are full-time professionals who are able to prioritize this work. As an incredibly resourceful community, we cannot let this issue die in committee.

So what is there to do? We don’t yet have a way to establish community repercussions like a curfew. We have the lethargic and opaque Presidential Task Force. We are in the midst of a moral and ethical crisis, but our responses do not reflect this. From the administration, we need more than cheap press releases. From students, we need more than passivity and complicity. Ask your friends if they’ve heard about what happened, or what they think. Talk about it on Facebook, or share someone else’s post to get the word out. Just get the conversation started. We can engage in bystander intervention. As evidenced by the most recent assault in Collegetown, intervening in the form of physical intervention is critical. Other forms of intervention include filming attacks, calling the police and giving witness testimony, or just offering to walk someone home. We all have an imperative for prompt, clear and persistent action to hold ourselves and each other engaged and accountable.


    Zoe Maisel ’18

    Jacob Kuhn ’18

    Sarah Aiken ’18

    Samantha McIlwrick ’18