A month after student activists launched two broad petitions demanding immediate anti-racist actions, President Martha E. Pollack has responded with the promise of change, acting on many of the student proposals.
After nationwide protests against the latest acts of anti-Black racism, Pollack first responded with two emails condemning police brutality, promising to address racism and a campus-wide book club. But students criticized the University for not going far enough — spurring action themselves.
As a result, Pollack’s third email goes far beyond the other two, offering sweeping change across academics, staffing and the Cornell University Police Department through initiatives directly inspired by the student efforts.
“I want to publicly acknowledge the advocacy and efforts of so many of our students who continue to champion a more just future for Cornell and for our society,” Pollack wrote in her Thursday email. “Specifically, #DoBetterCornell has exerted great effort and mobilized broad interest in many important initiatives. Some of the appeals by that movement will be reflected in my announcement today.”
Do Better Cornell’s petitions received over 3,000 signatures each since the launch. On June 26, the student leaders presented their demands to Pollack and the Board of Trustees; on July 8, Pollack responded, promising an announcement soon.
Among the academic initiatives, Pollack asked the Faculty Senate to implement a for-credit class requirement on racism, bias and equity for all students. The requirement will accompany a review of the entire University curriculum and the development of new programs focused on the history of race, racism and colonialism in the U.S.
While the email did not give further details about the nature of the requirement, it is a direct reflection of Do Better Cornell’s Petition for Fall 2020 Action request for “universal equity, diversity and inclusion learning” to go beyond the current curriculum requirement of the Intergroup Dialogue Project’s incoming student orientation sessions.
The efforts of the university to teach the incoming freshmen about social issues via the Intergroup Dialogue Project are not enough. The current program is not only insufficient, but also places an undue burden on individuals from marginalized groups. We demand that Cornell develop a mandatory ‘Universal Learning’ program for students, faculty, and staff. A model for this learning can be found here from our peer school, Wellesley College. Cornell is behind our peer institutions and must catch up. — Petition for Fall 2020 Action, Do Better Cornell
Pollack further detailed the creation of an Anti-Racism Center to capitalize on the existing work of various academic units and ensure Cornell’s leadership in the field. The center — first proposed by Do Better Cornell’s Petition for Radical Institutional Change to centralize campus efforts — will support research and education on racism and inequality, as well as propose policies to counteract it.
The petition envisioned the center as a space to support this research, provide resources and training, amplify Black voices and histories. The activists also hoped it could be the home for change across Cornell and house the Presidential Task Force.
We demand the creation of an Anti-Racism Institute where Cornell can centralize its efforts to educate the campus and community about the horrors of white supremacy and political education. Cornell has a variety of decentralized efforts to address racial bias on campus. Programs such as the Intergroup Dialogue [Project], Engaged Cornell, the Skills for Success program[, the Center for the Study of Inequality] and other[s] are important, but if Cornell is going to commit to a changing campus climate they must create a centralized department or program that has the explicit purpose of fighting racism. — Petition for Radical Institutional Change, Do Better Cornell
The task force — Pollack’s response to numerous racist incidents on campus in 2017 — proposed 60 initiatives, which have drawn numerous criticisms for its scope. The University has achieved 77 percent of the proposed initiatives, including expanding Intergroup Dialogue Project, mandating diversity and inclusion annual reports and developing a core values statement for the University, nearly two years after the initial recommendations, according to Pollack.
“I am proud of this progress and effort but recognize that the work must continue with the additional initiatives announced today,” Pollack wrote in her email, explaining that these new initiatives will build on the work starting in 2017 and continuing across colleges and schools.
Pollack’s initiatives also include several steps related to staff, enabling Cornell to “deliver on our educational, research and engagement mission.”
The first includes the promotion of Prof. Avery August Ph.D. ’94, microbiology, to permanently serve on Pollack’s senior leadership team. Pollack explained that August’s participation on the team will be to ensure that they “keep anti-racism front of mind” in the future of the University.
August — who has served as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs since 2017 — is the only vice provost and the only Black member of the team. His promotion comes after Do Better Cornell launched a social media campaign of education and resource sharing, supported by activist accounts Cornell Students for Black Lives and Black at Cornell, which included posts about the senior leadership. August was added to the team’s webpage as of June 30.
Other staff changes entail a new professional development program focusing on staff of color, a required equity and cultural competency series for all staff and diversity and inclusion as a part of the performance dialogue process. Juneteenth will also become a permanent University holiday, after Cornell recognized it as a paid holiday for the first time this year.
Lastly, Pollack announced two more initiatives related to Cornell University Police, following her June 3 announcement where she first proposed to ramp up Cornell’s Public Safety Advisory Committee and have CUPD attend a conference with four of the police agencies who operate in and around Ithaca.
CPSAC — which provides policy, procedure and training recommendations to CUPD — will report directly to Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Joanne DeStefano MBA ’97 to strengthen accountability.
Further, a new community response team will support residential life staff, act as first responders to reports of noncriminal offenses and nonviolence incidents and monitor campus events. The team will promote safety and well-being, while CUPD shifts its focus to unlawful activity.
This initiative on discipline mirrors the petition’s original proposal of an Alternative Justice Board to allow students to have a more direct role in determining punishments.
We demand that there be a creation of a Student Honor Board or Alternative Justice Board as an alternate method for Cornell’s dispute resolution process. Currently, only faculty have the power to discipline students at Cornell. In order to increase student power, we are demanding the creation of a Student Honor Board who will oversee various judicial cases. Shared governance is necessary for all bodies within any academic institution to feel seen and heard; Cornell is no different. — Petition for Radical Institutional Change, Do Better Cornell
Ultimately, Pollack’s email marks a new stage in Cornell’s efforts toward a more just and equitable campus, building on the work started in 2017 and the efforts of many student activists.
“This will be a continuous journey, and I implore every member of the Cornell community to look deep within yourself and take active, regular and courageous steps to help create new systems and structures that move us toward a more just and equitable Cornell — and that will become part of our contribution to a different, more just and more equitable world.”