Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

President Martha E. Pollack created a task force to address the campus climate in 2017, after a series of racist incidents.

June 16, 2020

In 2017, Pres. Pollack Responded to Racist Incidents on Cornell’s Campus With a Task Force. Did It Change Campus Climate?

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A Black student assaulted in Collegetown. Anti-Semitic posters hung up around the Arts Quad. “Build a wall” allegedly chanted by a fraternity member outside of the Latino Living Center in the middle of the night.

Racist events riddled Cornell’s fall semester in 2017. In response, President Martha E. Pollack created a Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate in September 2017 with the goal of “examining and addressing persistent problems of bigotry and intolerance at Cornell.”

Almost two years after the task force made its recommendations, students are demanding that Cornell take further anti-racist action as protests against racial injustice and police brutality endure across the country.

While the task force led the administration to implement mandatory bias training for faculty and adopt a set of “more equitable and inclusive” core values, among other reforms, several of the recommendations are still in progress and changes have yet to be made.

The task force was split into three subcommittees — Campus Experience, Regulation of Speech and Harassment, and Campus Response — each charged with addressing different facets of hateful incidents at Cornell. Each of the committees worked separately, but also held combined monthly meetings throughout the spring semester of 2018.

Members of these task forces were nominated or applied directly, and included undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff members. Many former task force members felt a personal connection to their work.

Brandon Cohen ’18, who served as the president of Cornell Hillel during his senior year, said his primary role on the task force was to respond to the anti-Semitic incidents on campus.

“Signs put up on engineering buildings, on professors’ doors, swastikas around campus, was something that I heard my grandparents speak about, not something that I thought I would see on a supposedly open-minded campus,” Cohen said.

The subcommittees made recommendations to improve different institutions at Cornell, several of which, including the creation of offices to support minorities and increased initiatives by diversity and inclusion councils of each college, have been enacted and are tracked on a University website.

Regulation of Speech and Response subcommittee member Weston Barker ’21 recalled that one of the primary focuses of the committee’s discussion was revising the Campus Code of Conduct to make it specific to students and easier to understand.

According to the University’s website, many recommendations made for the Code of Conduct — such as simplifying the language and enhancing penalties for harassment motivated by bias — are still being reviewed.

On the Campus Response subcommittee, former member Jenna Kyle J.D. ’19 said the committee weighed how administrators should address the Cornell community when an incident happens. They discussed several questions like, “Should there be a formal email from the president? Who should be the one that should say something? Should we say something all the time? What if it’s an off-campus incident?”

During her final year at Cornell, Kyle said the biggest change she observed was the University’s more consistent responses to discriminatory incidents, saying that President Pollack was “much more vocal” about these incidents when they occurred. In February 2019, President Pollack released a statement about racist fraternity captions in a 1980 Cornell yearbook, and in April 2019, she addressed a swastika found on an Arts Quad building.

While they acknowledged positives of the task force, several members also recounted some flaws in the structure of the subcommittees and the recommendations the University has implemented so far.

The Campus Experience subcommittee discussed the climate of inclusivity at Cornell and how the University could better provide resources for diversity and inclusion. However, Cohen said the task force could have benefitted from more undergraduate student voices.

“The goal of the University is to teach students and to bring students together,” Cohen said. “I sometimes felt like we were focusing on a lot of things not student-oriented, but if you look at a lot of incidents that were responded to, they were student to student.”

Many members of the task force recalled the University implementing mandatory three-hour Intergroup Dialogue Project sessions during freshmen orientation as one of the major outcomes of the task force. Several members of the task force, however, weren’t satisfied with the program.

Reem Abdalla ’20, a member of the Campus Experience subcommittee who worked as an IDP facilitator for two years afterward, said she felt that the burden of discussing race often fell on facilitators who were people of color.

Reflecting on the recommendations of the task force that have been carried out so far, Abdalla said she was frustrated that IDP was seemingly adapted to become the University’s solution to racism.

“Dialogue is not going to help me put together an event for my community to feel like they matter here. We’re not going to sit and dialogue about that,” Abdalla said. “We need money.”

Shivani Parikh ’19, who served on the Campus Response subcommittee, echoed Abdalla’s concerns, having taken IDP’s primary class, EDUC 2610: Intergroup Dialogue, and participating in the section on race.

“I felt very alarmed that they were packing what is a 16-week course into a three hour discussion and doing race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status and ability/disability for freshmen who might have never encountered these conversations before,” Parikh said.

Abdalla also said the committee was trying to create a map to track where the most bias reports are made on campus, but the committee never completed the project and this work didn’t continue after the task force submitted its final reports in June 2018.

Prof. Lee Adler, industrial and labor relations, also noted the shortcomings of the Campus Response subcommittee. He said he was “deeply troubled” that he couldn’t understand the administration’s procedure for dealing with racism.

“I posed a zillion questions. None were answered,” Adler said. “If we were to be helpful, we had to understand how the president’s office worked about these highly charged issues.”

Adler also said the IDP orientation program has had a limited impact, and that “it is not an antidote to the kind of hate that has harmed so many of our students and the campus community.”

Prof. Jamila Michener, government, who served on the Campus Response subcommittee, said she hasn’t observed any concrete differences in campus climate over the past two years, but added that she didn’t expect things to change so quickly.

“The deepest recesses of these problems cannot be changed [quickly], or else we wouldn’t be going on for hundreds, literally, of years in this country with racism and white supremacy continuing to strongly affect, and be a pervasive force, in American life,” Michener said.

Still, Michener called for students to continue advocating for racial justice, even though changes unfold slowly.

“We can be demanding transformative change, we can even radically be demanding transformative change, but still be savvy about how institutions operate,” Michener said. “And the benefit of that savviness is that we can calibrate our expectations accordingly and we can plan for this to be a long game.”