March 17, 2019

GUEST ROOM | President Pollack’s Lackluster Response

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Eighty-five words.

After the gruesome attacks that led to the death of at least 49 people and another 20 injured in New Zealand, President Martha Pollack sent a statement to the Cornell community consisting of only 85 terse words. On Oct. 29, President Pollack also sent out a statement to the Cornell community after the murder of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The 345-word message back then, however, was much more elaborate and reassuring.

In her October email, Pollack wrote that the Pittsburgh attacks were a “heartbreaking reminder of how interconnected we all are,” and that “we need to support one another and, within our Cornell community, act with kindness and extra care.” She went on to inform that there are support services and activities on campus, urged the community to reach out to each other and to use these moments to “speak out against white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and all forms of bigotry.”

This is the type of response that we should expect. It was a response that let those most affected by the xenophobic attacks know that they are valued, and that the Cornell community as a whole should and will be there to support these groups. It was a message of inclusion.

Following the attacks in New Zealand, however, President Pollack left these sentiments behind. Pollack stated that these acts “make us furious, sad, and confused.” But this time, she said that “we must continue, in our individual ways, to lead lives of kindness.” She didn’t urge the community to support one another. She didn’t identify the killers as ‘white supremacists’ or their anti-Muslim bigotry, as pointed out by the media. She didn’t advocate for the community to unite and fight bigotry together. Rather, she said to fight “in our individual ways.”

During times of crisis, we look towards those in leadership positions to provide a strong, supportive message to steer the community in the right direction. On college campuses, we should expect that type of leadership from our administrations. President Pollack’s message following the New Zealand attacks were disappointing, to say the least. The message came off as a formality. It seemed as though she sent it because she had to address the situation to some capacity. However, the email didn’t offer the same message of inclusion, and it didn’t entice nearly the same level of emotional response. President Pollack handled two similar attacks in two vastly different ways, inherently treating the affected groups unequally.

But this type of response is unacceptable. As the president of a diverse institution that “stands . . . for respect, dignity, inclusion, and love,” President Pollack should unequivocally make that message clear to all groups, especially during the times of tragedy. President Pollack should have let the Muslim community, one that is not new to xenophobic attacks, know that we, too, are valued on this campus and that the Cornell community supports Muslim community just as much as it supported the Jewish community.

Jamil Rahman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jar534@cornell.edu.