January 20, 2019

PRESIDENT’S VIEWPOINT | Dr. King’s Dream Today

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Each year, as the nation honors the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I re-read his “I Have a Dream” speech, and every time I am struck by the emphasis he places on hope. Dr. King understood that meaningful change would be possible only through intentional, persistent and sometimes difficult action. Yet he also understood the essential nature of hope: that just as hope drives us to take difficult action, action itself can spur hope for change.

More than half a century later, Dr. King’s dream of a fully just, inclusive and equitable nation remains elusive. We see this on our own campus, where, shortly before the Thanksgiving break, Nazi swastikas — odious symbols of anti-Semitism and racial hatred — were drawn on whiteboards in residence halls and stamped into the snow. We see it in our state, where vendors at county fairs and outdoor markets choose to sell items displaying the Confederate flag, which has a history deeply rooted in white supremacy. We see it across our nation, in the vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration of people of color. We see it in the horrific crimes that are committed against people because of their religion or the color of their skin, and we see it in the multitude of subtle structural issues that perpetuate economic inequality. Indeed, as we stay alert to these challenges — as we become increasingly “woke” — it can seem difficult to maintain hope in Dr. King’s dream.

But Dr. King was right to link hope with positive action. As I look around this campus, I am heartened by the commitment and the actions taken by so many members of our community to engage in work that furthers Dr. King’s vision and that of Ezra Cornell, who more than 150 years ago aspired to build a university in which “all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome.”

At the start of the fall semester, I announced a broad set of initiatives that we were undertaking to enhance our campus climate. Many were based on the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate and the Provost’s Task Force to Enhance Faculty Diversity. I promised that we would keep the community up to date on these initiatives, and we continue to do that through diversity.cornell.edu/institutional-initiatives.

Progress has been made on many fronts, and, in fact, at least half of the recommendations outlined this fall, many enabling campus community members to engage in meaningful dialogue, have been implemented: from the successful offering of an Intergroup Dialogue Project experience to all incoming students, which has led to a significant increase in interest in the full IDP program (EDUC 2610); to creating new housing for LGBTQ students, which is already filled for the 2019-20 academic year; to strengthening Colleague Network Groups through formalized partnerships with members of the university leadership; to the release of a new online course, “Teaching & Learning in the Diverse Classroom.” I have completed that course myself, and was impressed both by the moving firsthand stories of our students and faculty and by the specific recommendations, grounded in research, for enhancing the classroom experience. I urge our faculty to take this course during the coming semester, as it provides excellent tools for becoming better teachers.

In addition, the Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity are in the process of creating a framework for a more dynamic and active program to connect initiatives across our colleges and schools.

What is most encouraging to me about all this activity is that it has involved so many members of our community — faculty, staff, and students — and is driven by hope for meaningful change. There is much more work to be done. Realizing Dr. King’s dream is not, unfortunately, something that is likely to be accomplished in months or even years. But change can and does happen, through persistent action that is both nourished by and productive of hope. At Cornell, we will not abandon our hope and aspiration for the world that both Martin Luther King and Ezra Cornell envisioned. Instead, we will continue to work for it, joyously and together, as a community.

Martha E. Pollack is the president of Cornell University. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Special appearance of President’s Viewpoint.